What are the Four Questions or Passover Questions of the Seder dinner ?

The Four Questions are a series of questions that are found in the Haggadah, the "instruction manual" for conducting the Seder, and are spoken at a specific point in the festive meal that highlights Passover or Pesach, known as the Seder.

The Four Questions are, in fact, one main question and four clauses, although each of the four clauses can be grammatically rearranged in such a way so as to pose a question. The main question is as follows: "Why is it (this night) different from all other nights?" The four clauses that follow are based on the Ashkenazi-Jewish arrangement or order of the Four Questions (and in this case are rearranged to form a question; Ashkenazi Jews are Jews who are descended from either Central, Northwestern, and/or Eastern European Jews; "Ashkenazi" means "German" in Hebrew): (Question 1) On all other nights we eat leavened bread or unleavened bread (matzo), why on this night do we only eat matzo? (Question 2) On all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs, why on this night do we eat bitter herbs? (Question 3) On all other nights we do not dip our vegetables even once, why on this night do we dip our vegetables twice? and (Question 4) On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining, why on this night do we only eat reclining? As four clauses, the aforementioned are as follows: (1) On all other nights we eat leavened bread or unleavened bread (matzo), but on this night we only eat matzo; (2) On all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs, but on this night we eat bitter herbs; (3) On all other nights we do not dip our vegetables even once, but on this night we dip our vegetables twice, and (4) On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining, but on this night we only eat reclining. (specifically, we sit and recline to the left because reclining to the left was a symbol of a free person when the Greeks and then the Romans controlled Judea/Israel. In addition, we also recline to the left for health and safety reasons, for the Sages stated that reclining to the right may cause food to enter the windpipe or trachea).

Sephardi and Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidic Jewish Arrangement or Order of the 4 Questions

Sephardi Jews - Jews who are descended from either Spanish andor Portuguese Jews - and the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Chassidic Judaism, which in turn is a stream of Orthodox Judaism, follow a different arrangement or order for the 4 Questions: They are as follows: (1) "On all other nights, we do not dip even once, but on this night, we dip twice. Why?"; (2) "On all other nights we eat bread or matzah, but on this night we eat only matzah. Why?"; (3) "On all other nights, we eat all kinds of herbs, but on this night we eat only maror. Why?", and (4) "On all other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night, we eat reclining. Why?". In addition, Sephardi-Jewish custom is to have all participants at the Passover/Pesach Seder table chanting "The 4 Questions" in unison and to direct the chanting of the 4 Questions to the Seder leader. The Seder leader then either answers each of the questions or tells the participants to look at a particular participant at the Seder table who then physically re-enacts the part of the Exodus story that will answer the question that is directed to him or her by the Seder leader. This type of custom is done not only by Sephardi Jews, but by many other Jewish families, both Ashkenazi-Jewish families and Mizrahi-Jewish families (Mizrahi means "Eastern" in Hebrew, referring to Jews descended from Jews living in the Middle East, as well as Jews descended from the original North African-Jewish communities before the arrival of the Sephardi Jews after 1492 and 1497, respectively, and Jews descended from Central Asian Jewish communities).

Why do Sephardi Jews and Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidic Jews follow a different order of the 4 Questions? Actually, their particular order of the 4 Questions follows the same order of 4 Questions that is found in many ancient Haggadot or Haggadahs such in the Haggadah of the Egyptian-Jewish Rabbi Sa'adiah ben Yosef Gaon (882 or 892942), the Spanish-Jewish Rabbi Moses Maimonides or Rambam or Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204), the Haggadah found in the Jewish code of law known as the "Tur" or "Arba'ah Turim" of the Spanish-Jewish Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (1270 - circa 1340), and the Haggadah of the Spanish-Jewish Rabbi David ben Josef ben David Abudraham (who lived from the late 13th century to at least 1340 in the 14th century). In addition, the oldest confirmed printed Haggadah, the Soncino Haggadah of 1485 or 1486, published by the Italian-Jewish Soncino family of Soncino, Italy, also has the identical order of the 4 Questions as the Sephardi Jews and Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidic Jews, but what is interesting is that this Haggadah follows the Ashkenazi-Jewish, or German-Jewish, prayer rite, rather than the Sephardi-Jewish, or Spanish-Jewish, prayer rite. The reason given for following this particular order of the 4 Questions is that this order follows the order of the rituals performed during the Seder. Note: Though one reclines when drinking the wine for the Kiddush ritual which occurs before one partakes in the dipping rituals, the question of reclining - the 4th Question - was only added into the 4 Questions in the Middle Ages, long after the ritual of reclining while eating had ceased to be in style. Since the purpose of performing the rituals stated in the 4 Questions was to arouse the curiosity of the children, the ritual of reclining while eating was not considered to be an "odd behavior" that would achieve this objective until the time that the ritual of reclining while eating was again considered to be in style in the Middle Ages.

The majority of Ashkenazi-Jewish Haggadot or Haggadahs follow the so-called "standard" or "classical" or "conventional" order of the 4 Questions as outlined in the first paragraph, and this order is based on the order of importance of the rituals being performed from a religious point-of-view and, by extension, on the most fundamental necessities of conducting a Seder if one happened to not have all the requirements for conducting a Seder. Since the order of importance of performing Jewish rituals is as follows - commandments stated in the Torah are the most important, followed by commandments stated by the rabbinical sages of the Talmud, followed by rituals derived from customs - the first question concerning chametz ("leaven" in Hebrew) and eating matzo, which is a question pertaining to a mitzvah or commandment in the Torah to eat matzo starting on this night (and for seven consecutive nights in all) is the most important aspect of the Seder, and so it should be the first question asked. The second question concerns the eating of bitter herbs or maror or marror, and this was an injunction that was commanded to be done by the Talmudic rabbis and is not found in the Torah, so therefore, this is the next most important question to be asked. The third question and fourth question, concerning dipping twice and reclining respectively, are customs that were done by the Greeks and Romans during the times that Judea/Israel was controlled by the Greeks and then the Romans (4th century B.C.E. - 7th century C.E.) and so the custom of dipping, in style during those times, was placed as the third question, while the question concerning the custom of reclining was added only at a later date in the Middle Ages as the fourth question.

There are also those who claim that the 4 Questions are not questions at all but rather, 4 examples based on an exclamation of the night in lieu of the main question: "How different this night is from all other nights!"

Ma Nishtana

The Four Questions in Hebrew are colloquially known as "Ma Nishtanah" (alternate transliterated spellings from Hebrew are: Mah Nishtanah, Ma Nishtanah, or Mah Nishtana), which is primarily translated into English as "How Is It (This Night) Different?" or "Why Is It (This Night) Different?". "Nishtana" is a verb in Hebrew which is usually translated into the present tense in English, but in Hebrew, "Nishtana" is in the past tense, and so Ma Nishtana is therefore translated as: "How Did It (This Night) Become Different?" or "What Happened To Make It (This Night) Different?".

The words "Ma Nishtana" are actually the first two words in the main question that immediately precedes the Four Questions. So how do you say the Four Questions in Hebrew? Literally-speaking, the words "Four Questions" in Hebrew are "Arba Kushiyot" or "Arba Kushiot".

How do you say the Four Questions in Yiddish? Literally-speaking, the words "Four Questions" in Yiddish are "Fier Kashes". Literally-speaking, "The Four Questions" in Yiddish is "Die Fier Kashes" or "Die Fier Kashas" or "Die Fier Koshes".

Here's how to say the main question that immediately precedes the Four Questions in many languages. The languages are listed alphabetically by name:

Afrikaans: Hoe verskil di nag van alle ander nagte?

Arabic: Maza yameez hazihi al-lailah min aye lailah akhree?

Cambodian: Heet avei yup nih camlaak pii yup krup tean awh?

Chinese: Wei Shenmer Zher gar Yewan yu: chi: ta yewan bu: tong?

English: Why is this night different from all other nights?

Dutch: Wat is het vershchil tussen deze avond en alle andere avonden?

Farsi: Cherah een shab baah shab hayeh deegar fargh dareht?

French: Pourquoi cette nuit se distingue-t-elle de toutes les autres nuits?

German: Was macht diese Nacht anders als alle anderen Nchte?

Hindi: Ye shaam dusre shaamo se kyon aalag hai?

Hungarian: Miert ish oyan mash ez az ayel minden mash ayelnel?

Italian: Che differenza c fra questa e tutte le altre notti?

Japanese: Kon y wa hokano toru to ciou chigaimasuka?

Korean: Oh neul bahm eun da reun bahm deul gwa da reum ni da?

Ladino: Kuanto fue demudada la noe la esta, mas ke todas las noes?

Portuguese: Porque esta noite e differente de todas as outras noites?

Russian: Chem otleechayetsa ehta noch ot vsyechh ostalneechhh nochey? or, in the Cyrillic alphabet: Чєм отяичаєтся ета ночь от всєх остальных ночй?

Spanish: Por qu esta noche es diferente de todas las otras noches? or Por qu esta noche es diferente a todas las dems noches?

Tibetian: Gongomo di shendhang mi dawa gang la yin?

Turkish: Bu gece neden obur gecelerden bu kadar farkli?

Urdu: Yeh raat baaqi raaton se mukhtalif kyun hai?

Yiddish: Vee azoi iz di nacht fun Pesach anders fun alle necht fun a gantz yor? or Farvoss iz di nacht fun Pesach anderish fun alle nacht fun a gantz yahr?

The first complete phrase that opens the 4 Questions - which is the main question prior to the 4 Questions - is as follows: "Ma Nishtana Halayla Haze Mikol Haleilot? (Talmud, Mishnah, Pesachim 116a). Translated into English using the proper Hebrew past tense for the verb Nishtana, we have the following: "How Did It (This Night) Become Different From All Other Nights?" or "What Happened To Make It (This Night) Different From All Other Nights?". As stated, "Nishtana" will usually be translated into English in the present tense, and so in the present tense, we have the following: "How Is It (This Night) Different From All Other Nights?" or "Why Is It (This Night) Different From All Other Nights?"

Who asks the 4 Questions and who answers them?

Traditionally, since the primary focus of the Seder is on the children to whom the story and messages of Passover/Pesach will be carried on to succeeding generations, it is the youngest person who asks the 4 Questions, that is, the youngest person who is able to do so. The Seder leader, or another participant or participants, depending on one's custom, will provide the answers to the questions based on the multitude of answers provided by the Haggadah, answers that range from the understanding of a toddler to the understanding of a learned person in Judaism. This can be taken one step further by creating additional questions and answers related to the Passover/Pesach story. Judaism places great value in asking questions since this demonstrates a sincere interest in learning answers. In fact, question-asking and answering, particularly in the form of a question-answer format, is strongly encouraged by all participants in order to particularly stimulate the curiosity of the children (and adults) who are present so that they will be encouraged to learn more about the Passover/Pesach story and its timeless messages. The answers given should be based on authoritative Jewish sources, for instance, the Tanakh or Tanach (Hebrew Bible) and/or the Talmud, or secondary sources, such as commentaries or other written sources, or be based on something the person had heard, or thought of on their own. In Jewish law and in the Haggadah, it states that "the more one tells about the Exodus, the more he/she is praiseworthy".

Although it is a Jewish tradition for the youngest person who is capable of asking to ask the 4 Questions, any participant at the Seder table can ask the 4 Questions or ask other related questions at any point in the Seder. By Jewish law as stated in Tractate Pesachim of the Mishnah of the Talmud, if only adults are present at the Seder, then one adult must ask the other adult, and if there is only one person present, meaning there is no other participant present besides oneself, then one must ask the 4 questions to oneself, as in, "Self, why is this night different from all other nights?".

Purpose of the 4 Questions

The purpose of the 4 Questions is to serve as an educational tool for the children by providing an inquisitive introduction just prior to the reading of the Exodus story for the purpose of piquing the curiosity of the children at the Seder table. This is done so that when the Exodus story is subsequently read, each child's mind will be focussed on listening to and absorbing the Exodus story.

Since the 4 Questions mention different rituals that are only performed at the Seder, why was the asking of the 4 Questions placed before the eating of the Seder meal by the Talmudic Sages? Originally, the 4 Questions were placed after the eating of the Seder meal which was logical, since the one asking the questions could then mention the rituals and symbolic foods which all participants had just seen and tasted. However, since the purpose of the Seder was to transmit the Exodus story and its rituals to the children so that they could pass it on to successive generations, there had to be a tool that would focus the attention of the children just prior to reading the Exodus story so that they would begin from a point-of-view of being highly interested in learning about the Exodus story. So the Talmudic Sages switched the position of the 4 Questions in the Seder rituals to a position just prior to the reading of the Exodus story. This change to an earlier position in the Seder rituals also assured that the children would be awake to hear the asking of the 4 Questions.

Answers to the 4 Questions

Since the purpose of the Seder rituals is to pique the curiosity and interest of the children so that they will eventually transmit the Passover/Pesach story and the associated Seder rituals on to successive generations, following the recital of the main question and four clauses, the answers to the 4 Questions are taught to the one who recited the main question and four clauses - traditionally the youngest member of the family at the Seder table - by the father of the youngest member of the family at the Seder table according to what the youngest member can comprehend (see the Four Sons, which describe the four types of people in the world according to their understanding of things).

So what are the answers to the 4 Questions ?

Before we answer the Four Questions, we must answer the main question that precedes them: For "Why is this night different from all other nights?" there are actually two answers: (1) in Devarim, or Deuteronomy 6:21, the passage contains the words, "Avadim Ainu" or "Avadim Hayinu" ("We Were Slaves" or "Slaves We Were" in Hebrew), and, in full, is as follows: "Then thou shalt say unto thy son: 'We were Pharaoh's bondmen in Egypt; and the L-rd brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand." This answers why this night is different from all other nights, because had this not happened on this night, we would still be in Egypt as slaves to this day, so the story of the Exodus from Egypt applies to us here and now and in every year, past, present, and future. We therefore went from physical and political poverty under oppression to physical and political strength upon becoming free from slavery. Devarim or Deuteronomy 5:14 also recalls the Exodus event and how it applies to us today: "And thou shalt remember that thou was a servant in the land of Egypt, and the L-rd thy G-d brought thee out thence by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the L-rd thy G-d commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day." (2) in Yehoshua, or Joshua 24:2-4, our origins as idol-worshippers are stated: "And Joshua said unto all the people: 'Thus saith the L-rd, the G-d of Israel: Your fathers dwelt of old time beyond the River (Euphrates River, in what is now Iraq), even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor; and they served other g-ds. And I took your father Abraham from beyond the River, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his seed, and gave him Isaac. And I gave unto Isaac Jacob and Esau; and I gave unto Esau Mount Seir, to possess it; and Jacob and his children went down into Egypt." This passage chronicles the history of the Hebrews from Terah, the father of Abraham, until the time of the arrival of the Hebrews in Egypt. It is due to our origins as idol-worshippers that the Hebrews were in a state of spiritual poverty and needed to elevate themselves spiritually by turning to and serving the One, True, Omnipresent G-d. So, to answer the question, "Why is this night different from all other nights" had the Exodus from Egypt not happened, our state of spirituality would still have remained on a paganist, animalistic level to this day, and would not have elevated up to a monotheistic, intellectually humanistic level, and so in a spiritual sense, the Exodus story also applies to us, here and now and in every year, past, present, and future.

The answers to the Four Questions according to the order as stated in the first paragraph are also based on the same passages as just mentioned in the previous paragraph: Devarim or Deuteronomy 6:21 and 5:14, and Yehoshua or Joshua 24:2-4. In these passages, mention is made of the transition from slavery to freedom, and the rituals or practices that are mentioned in the Four Questions are based on this transition from slavery to freedom.

(1) (A) Matzo as a symbol of slavery: We eat matzo on this night because matzo was the bread of the poor and of slaves as it was inexpensive to produce as well as easy to make.

(1) (B) Matzo as a symbol of freedom: We eat matzo on this night because the Hebrews did not have time to bake leavened bread as they hastily prepared to leave Egypt on this night; instead, they only had time to bake unleavened bread, that is, matzo. We therefore commemorate the fact that the bread did not have time to leaven or rise as we hurried towards freedom.

(2) Bitter Herbs as a symbol of slavery: We eat bitter herbs on this night because the bitter herbs known as maror or marror in Hebrew symbolizes the bitterness of slavery that the Hebrews ensured while in Egypt.

(3) (i) Karpas dipping into salt water as a symbol of slavery: We dip the bitter vegetable known as karpas into salt water - or another type of bitter liquid based on one's custom - on this night because dipping the bitter vegetable into this type of liquid symbolizes the tears that were shed by the Hebrews while toiling as slaves in Egypt.

(3) (ii) Maror or Marror dipping into Charoset as a symbol of slavery: We dip the bitter herbs known as maror or marror into the fruit-nut-red wine-spice-honey mixture known as charoset on this night because this action symbolizes the mortar or cement that was created by the Hebrews as slaves for the purpose of building store-houses and supply-center cities for the Pharaoh (King) of ancient Egypt. In addition, dipping the bitter herbs into charoset symbolically connects the bitter feeling of slavery with the mortar or cement.

(3) Dipping foods as a symbol of freedom: We also dip the karpas into the salt water or other bitter liquid and the bitter herbs into the charoset mixture on this night because in biblical times, dipping foods into liquids was considered a sign of a free person since it was an indulgence or luxury and not a necessity. This was contrasted with eating comparatively dry foods as well as foods that were not dipped, which was done by those who were either poor or enslaved. When Judea/Israel was under Greek and then Roman rule from the 4th century B.C.E. until the 7th century C.E., in Greek and Roman symposiums and banquets, dipping foods into liquids was a common practice among the participants.

(4) Reclining as a symbol of freedom: We recline on this night because, in biblical times, to recline symbolized the actions of royalty, as reclining was an action done only to enhance oneself and not an action that was done solely for others as was always the case when one was enslaved.

Since the Passover or Pesach festival and the Seder are commanded by G-d to be annual events, the purpose of asking and answering each of the Four Questions is to make the participants at the Seder table continuously aware of and hence psychologically reinforce the experience and feelings of the Exodus story in themselves, with a strong focus on the children, since they are the future and hence the link to transmitting these experiences, feelings, and messages to future generations, although all participants can approach the Seder like excited children who are eager to learn about and expand their knowledge of Passover/Pesach while embarking on the historic journey out of political, physical, and spiritual enslavement to freedom. By experiencing and feeling as if we ourselves had come out of Egypt, we establish a link between our ancestors, the Hebrews of the first Passover/Pesach, and all successive generations, and on into the future. So the Seder experience is not just an experience of learning, but also an experience that touches the heart and soul of the Jewish person. Therefore, in a nutshell, the Four Questions and their answers are what makes the festival of Passover or Pesach a special time for Jewish people by highlighting the differences between Passover time or Pesach time and the rest of the Jewish year. In order to continue the tradition to future generations, as mentioned, the youngest participant at the Seder table is asked to recite the questions so that he/she will be made more aware of these traditions and continue G-ds' biblical commandment to commemorate and celebrate Passover or Pesach in every generation.

History of the 4 Questions

The original version of the 4 Questions did not include the current 4th Question, which concerned reclining at the Seder table. Instead, the original 4th Question asked why the meat that we ate at the Seder table was roasted meat (Jerusalem Talmud or Talmud Yerushalmi, Pesachim, 60b). This question was based on the fact that in Temple times, the Passover/Pesach sacrifice or Korban Pesach in Hebrew was brought by each Hebrew family to the Temple in Jerusalem to be sacrificed and roasted. However, since the destruction of the Second Temple in 68 C.E. or 70 C.E. (depending on the scholarly opinion one follows) by the Romans, the practise of bringing the Passover/Pesach sacrifice to the Temple ended, and so the question of asking why the sacrificial meat was roasted became obsolete. So the Talmudic Sages replaced this question with the question of reclining at the Seder table, which was appropriate since at that time, the Romans controlled Judea and the Jews were living under oppression, and the sign of a free man/woman in those times was a person who could recline at any time, such as a king or queen, and the question of being free again was foremost on the minds of the Talmudic Sages, hence the reason for creating the question of reclining as the substitute for the question of roasting the sacrificial meat.

Three Questions Instead of Four

The Four Questions originated in the Babylonian-Jewish Seder rite, which became the authoritative version that is used by most Jewish people worldwide. However, the Jews living in Israel had their own version of the Seder, which consisted of only Three Questions, not Four Questions, and these Three Questions focused on the three main symbols of the Seder: Pesach (the lamb sacrifice), matzo (unleavened bread), and maror (bitter herbs). After the Romans took over the region of Judea/Israel in 63 B.C.E. and crushed a revolt by religious Jews in the Bar Kochba (or Bar Kokhba) revolt of 132 C.E. - 135 C.E., the harsh Roman measures against the Jews that followed resulted in many Jewish religious scholars moving to Babylonia where they established Jewish academies of learning in the cities of Sura and Pumbedita. The remaining Jewish scholars in the region of Judea/Israel continued to teach in the main centers of Jewish learning at the schools of Tiberias, Sepphoris, and Caesarea. Over the subsequent few centuries, the Babylonian-Jewish academies of learning became the authoritative sources of Jewish learning in the Jewish world, and so the Four Questions became the number of questions that were and are used at the Seder.

Passover questions in the Haggadah - whether one used 4 questions or 3 questions - were meant to stimulate the curiosity of the participants at the Seder meal, particularly the curiosity of the children for whom the goal was to transmit the story and messages of Passover or Pesach to successive generations.


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