Those of you that have attended a Passover Seder before will surely recall a guest standing up and singing (or what passes for singing in some families) the “Mah Nishta’nah” or known in English as “The Four Questions“. Literally translated “Mah Nishta’nah” means “What has changed” or “What is different“, and it is the opening line of four questions that are asked by the youngest (who is able to speak) attendee at the Seder. This tradition gets played out differently household to household, with sometimes the youngest member of each family unit attending asks (great if you have a lot of guests) or sometimes the “youngest” can be your 36 year old cousin in from Baltimore. It doesn’t matter if it is sung or spoken, or even what language the questions are asked in (we’ve had English, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Yiddish all at one sitting!) What does matter is that they are asked, and that they are answered.
So why are the four questions there anyway? Well of course, for every question there are a dozen answers, and in this case, we have four, so you do the math! But here are some highlights for you (yes, before you ask, of course I got them from Chabad.org!)
Why are the questions part of the Seder? A quick answer is to involve the children, make them curious, so they are part of the ceremony. But why have this part of the Passover Seder? Why not make children part of the ceremony of another holiday? What is special about Passover? Well, many things are special about Passover, but most of all, it celebrates our freedom from slavery. As a slave, you are not allowed to question anything. You have no opinion and no freewill. Especially a child slave, who would be even lower than an adult, lacking the maturity needed to articulate their own thoughts and beliefs. But here, on Passover, we are now free, the Jewish people, even the children were given the possibility to ask, to question. By asking, by learning, you grown beyond your current state and reach a higher level. The Jewish people, once freed, were able to do that, and asking the four questions symbolizes that quest.
I hope this answers some of your questions, but remember the essence here is to ask, to seek to learn. That is why, even if you’re having a Seder alone, you still ask the questions. On the bright side, if you’re alone, you’re also the one with all the answers!
* photo credit to Keren Keet. You can see more of her work at www.kerenkeet.co.uk.