The Spirit of Enquiry – The Mah Nishtanah (Liberal Judaism Thought for Pesach)

My piece for Liberal Judaism‘s Thought for the Week is for Pesach this week, but since the link will change I’ve reproduced it here:

The Spirit of Enquiry

How the Mah Nishtanah inspires us to ask questions this Pesach

I was recently asked what to do with the Mah Nishtanah for families who no longer have a ‘youngest’ child to sing. The Mah Nishtanah is the song that makes four statements about the seder night experience:

How different is this night from all other nights!
On all other nights we eat hametz (leavened bread) and matzah (unleavened bread). On this night only matzah.
On all other nights we eat all types of vegetables. On this night bitter herbs.
On all other nights we do not dip, even once. On this night we dip twice.
On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining. On this night we all recline.

On thinking about this question I turned back to what is probably the oldest extant version of this song, found in the Mishnah (a legal document compiled in around 200CE). This version is a little bit different from the one we sing today:

…the son asks his father. And if the son lacks the intelligence to ask, his father instructs him:
How different this night is from all other nights!
On all other nights we dip only once, on this night we dip twice.
On all other nights we eat hametz or matzah, on this night only matzah.
On all other nights we eat roasted, stewed or boiled meat, on this night only roasted.
According to the intelligence of the son, the father instructs him….
(Mishnah Pesachim 10:4)

It will be immediately obvious that, instead of the expected motif of four statements, there are only three and they are not questions they are statements. In fact, later versions of the Mishnah were amended to include a fourth question, but the most reliable manuscripts all contain ONLY these three statements. Moreover, only one statement, about the matzah, is the same as the one found in our Mah Nishtanah today. For more information about these differences you can look, via Google books, at ‘My People’s Passover Haggadah, Vol. 1’ page 154.

From my point of view, for Pesach this year, what is interesting is that the roles are reversed in the Mishnah. It is not the youngest child asking, but rather the father instructing his son about Pesach who reads the Mah Nishtanah; had the son been able to ask a question, the recitation of Mah Nishtanah may have been unnecessary. In the Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 115b) we read that:

Abbaye was sitting in front of Rabbah. Abbaye saw that they were taking the table away and he said to them: “We still haven’t eaten, why are they taking the table away?” Rabbah said to him, “You have exempted us from reciting Mah Nishtanah.”

This text emphasises our point, that the Mah Nishtanah was a way of ensuring that questions were asked at the seder table and that it was not necessary to recite it if a different question was asked. In other words, it may be included today as part of a standard element in our seder night, but ideally we should ask our own questions instead of simply routinely reciting it. Not that it should be excluded; both Maimonides in the 12th century and Saadya Gaon in the 9th century reflect the evolution of the liturgical use of the Mah Nishtanah that we have today in which the child at the table recites it. However, I am suggesting that to ask something else, something additional, something relevant at this point of your seder is to embrace the spirit of the Haggadah (the guide book for the seder night).

Two historical examples of this might inspire you this year. The first is taken from the Haggadah of Kevutzat Hadera in 1929. They had their own sense of liberation and freedom that was experienced through working the soil in the land of Israel as a collective group:

How is this year different from all other years.
On all other years we do not even dip one finger into work; this year, ten fingers.
On all other years we eat all types of food; this year, the food of the kevutzah.
On all other years we eat the toil of strangers; this year, the fruit of our labours.
On all other years everyone sat alone; this year we sit together.

In 1999, The Dancing with Miriam Haggadah was published that contained an alternative rendering that expressed a desire for women’s contribution to Jewish life, both at the seder and in history, to be acknowledged:

At all other seders, we hear the stories of our forefathers,
But the voices of our mothers are silent.
Tonight they will be heard.
At all other seders, the heroic deeds of our sisters Miriam, Yocheved, Shifra and Puah are kept hidden.
Tonight we will celebrate their courage.
At all other seders, we denounce Pharaoh of the past.
Tonight we will also examine the pharaohs of our own day.
At all other seders we rejoice only in our liberation as a people.
Tonight we also celebrate our empowerment as Jewish women.

Yehudah Amichai in an extract from an exquisite, subversive poem from his final collection of poems ‘Open Closed Open’ writes the following:

Seder night reflections: “What is the difference?” we asked,
“What makes this night different from all other nights?”
And most of us grew up and don’t ask anymore, while others
Continue to ask their whole lives just like they ask
“How are you?” or “What time is it?” while continuing to walk on
Without hearing the answer.

Our task at seder night is not to ask questions in a routine, monotonous and unthinking way. Our task is for the seder to kindle a sense of enquiry. We should ask questions about our collective memory and history as a people. We should ask questions about what brings people to celebrate the festival this year. We should ask questions about our own spiritual journeys to freedom. We should ask questions about the world around us that is so full of inequality, oppression, slavery and absence of freedom. Then, when we have exempted ourselves from reciting the Mah Nishtanah, we should sing it, whether children or adults. Chag Same’ach!


Texts and ideas used in this Thought for the Week were developed from:

“My People’s Passover Haggadah, Volume 1: Traditional Texts, Modern commentaries” edited by Lawrence Hoffman and David Arnow (Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008).

“The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary” translation and commentary by Joshua Kulp (Jerusalem: The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, 2009).

“Open Closed Open” by Yehuda Amichai, translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (Harcourt Inc., 2000).

The Kibbutz Institute for Holidays and Jewish Culture – http://www.chagim.org.il

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