What are the Four Questions ?
The 4 Questions are one of the central themes of the Seder meal that is the highlight of and opens up the Passover festival or Pesach festival. The 4 Questions serve as an educational tool whose purpose is to convey the uniqueness of the Passover festival time or Pesach festival time from all other times of the year to future generations, that is, the children at the Seder table. Each question in The Four Questions are structured in a way so as to arouse curiosity in the children so that they would inquire about the answers to each question and as a result, learn about the principle symbols of the festival and their association with the uniqueness of the time of Passover or Pesach. Although the 4 Questions are the principle questions that are asked at the Seder table, Judaism encourages question-asking followed by answer-giving in general so that a person can constantly enhance their learning. In fact, in the Talmud, which was completed in 500 C.E., a typical chapter begins with a small paragraph of the Mishnah, or written text of the Oral Torah or Oral Law (Jewish Oral Traditions), followed by analytic rabbinic commentaries of the Mishnah text collectively known in Hebrew as the Gemara. The first Sugya ("Topic" in Hebrew) of the Gemara that follows the Mishnah text analyzes the language of the Mishnah text in a question-and-answer format, and the subsequent discussion also takes the form of a question-and-answer format. So the Four Questions are actually rooted in and based on a long history of using a question-and-answer format to enhance one's knowledge in short order.
The Four Questions are collectively known as "Mah Nishtana" (alternate spellings into English from transliterated Hebrew: Mah Nishtanah, Ma Nishtanah, or Ma Nishtana). While The Four Questions are known as Mah Nishtana in Hebrew, Mah Nishtana literally means either "Why Is It Different", "What Is Different" or "How Is It Different" in Hebrew, in reference to how and why the evening when Passover begins is different from all other evenings of the year.
Note: Regarding all dates on The Four Questions - The 4 Questions web page, see the footnote near the bottom of this web page.
Who Recites The Four Questions At The Passover Seder Table?
Traditionally given to the youngest person at the Seder table (usually the youngest son) to read aloud, the Four Questions are actually one question plus four clauses each of which are a short but complete overview of the story of Passover as told in the Passover Haggadah, or Book of Passover, which is given to each person at the table. The four clauses or answers illustrate the uniqueness of the Passover festival as compared to other times of the year. A variation of this structure (one question, four answers) involved creating a question for each clause in addition to the main question, hence the main question plus the Four Questions.
Where does the formula for the Four Questions come from? (Drum roll, please! I hope you have a good imagination.) The answer is: the Mishna of the Talmud (Pesachim 10:4) gives a formula of four questions which are asked by the child to the father. The father then replies to the child "according to the child's intelligence". This is where the story of the Four Sons comes into play (see our web page about the Four Sons). The Four Sons is a story that describes four different types of Sons according to their personality. The father chooses the appropriate type of personality from among the four types of personalities that fits his son's personality and then replies to each of the four questions posed by the child according to the chosen personality that fits his child's personality. During the Middle Ages, rabbis developed a formal structure of replies to each of the four questions adapted from rabbinical sources that included additional material such as jingles and table hymns in order to maintain the interest of the children at the Passover Seder table. And guess where this additional material is found? OK, I've waited long enough. The added Passover hymns and jingles are found in the "instruction manual" for conducting the Passover Seder meal, called the Passover Haggadah.
What is the main question? The famous question that is recited prior to reciting the Four Questions is: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" In Hebrew, this is translated as: "Ma Nishtana ha-lahylah ha-zeh mi-kol ha-layloht?" (Ma Nishtana = What is different; ha-lahylah ha-zeh = this night; mi-kol ha-layloht = from all other nights). An alternate spelling of "Ma Nishtana" is "Mah Nishtanah".
Since the goal of the Passover Haggadah is to encourage future generations of Jews to inquire about their history, the four clauses are then recited by the youngest person at the Passover Seder table. They include:
The answer for each question describes specific events in the Passover story and the symbolic meaning of each of these events in relation to the Passover festival. The first two questions and their answers both symbolize and remind us of the burdens of slavery, and the second two questions and their answers both symbolize and remind us of the glory of freedom.
What are the answers to each of the four questions?
I thought you might have wanted to ask that question, so here they are:
Interestingly, the wording of the 4th Question was not the original wording of the question. The original wording of the 4th Question was: "On all other nights we eat meat which has been roasted, stewed, or boiled, but on this night we eat only roasted meat." This "meat" was in reference to the traditional sacrificing of a lamb for Pesach/Passover in the Temple in Jerusalem in biblical times. However, when the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., the sacrificial system was abandoned, and the 4th Question was replaced by a new 4th Question about reclining at Passover. Why was a question about reclining substituted? Simply because reclining at that time was done by those who had the time to recline, namely those who were wealthy and/or had political power, such as a king. As a result, reclining also came to symbolize freedom, as in the freedom to recline because one had wealth and/or political power.
Now for a 5th question (not part of the Four Questions!): in the Four Questions, why is there a mixture of recalling slavery and recalling freedom at the Passover Seder? The answer according to the Spanish biblical commentator Isaac Abravanel (also: Abarbanel, lived from 1437-1508) is that the Four Questions should actually be viewed as a single unit, and that this mixture or "confusion" was meant to arouse curiosity in the children. Abravanel also said that this "confusion" was a result of the suddenness of the Exodus from Egypt. He says that this "confusion" derives from the Hebrews suddenly experiencing both slavery and freedom in a close proximity of time. In other words, in the evening on the first Passover Seder night the Hebrews were still slaves but in the morning, they were a free nation. Abravanel also mentions that the miracle of Passover is a result of this sudden transformation from slavery to freedom. He says this proves that G-d can suddenly change any situation in an instant, without prior knowledge on our part.
Why are there two instances of recalling slavery and two instances of recalling freedom in the Four Questions? The answer to this question derives from two Talmudic scholars during the period when the writings of the Talmud were being established in the first few centuries in the Common Era (C.E. or A.D.). In Pesachim 116a of the Mishna Talmud, the Talmudic scholars Rav and Shmuel debate the journey of the Hebrews from G'nut ("degradation/oppression" in Hebrew) to Shevach, ("praiseworthiness/redemption" in Hebrew). The debates centers around what constitutes G'nut and what is Shevach I.E. the redemptive process. Shmuel claims that G'nut was a purely physical one: the Israelities were "slaves in Egypt; they worked very hard and then G-d gave them their freedom". This is known in Hebrew as "Avadim Hayinu" meaning "we were slaves" (in Egypt) or "once we were slaves" (in Egypt). Rav contrasts this view with G'nut being a spiritual process. He says that the Israelites worshipped idols in Egypt and G-d took them out of Egypt, not so much to free them from slavery but to reveal Himself to the Israelites and to give them the Torah. Therefore, Pesach or Passover is not a celebration of freedom from slavery but of freedom to worship G-d. This is known in Hebrew as "Matchila Ovdei Avodah G'lilim (in the Passover Haggadah it reads "Avodah Zara") Hayu Avoteinu" meaning "at the beginning our ancestors worshipped idols". Why do we say all this? Because it is the presentation of these two differing views that prompt the child to ask the "Mah Nishtanah" I.E. "What is going on here?" or "What is being symbolized here?". On the one hand, we are eating matzah and bitter herbs like slaves, and on the other hand, we are dipping and reclining like free people. Are we slaves or free people? And why are the symbolisms repeated twice? The answer is that the Passover Seder recreates both G'nut and Shevach, and since there are two opinions for both G'nut and Shevach - (1) Rav's opinion that G'nut and Shevach are both spiritual processes and (2) Shmuel's opinion that G'nut and Shevach are both physical processes - then both opinions are represented in Passover Seder rituals such as the Four Questions, the Four Sons, the Four Cups, and several other "Fours" hidden throughout the Passover Haggadah text. This is akin to fashioning the text in a "Where's Waldo" style. For instance, the Four Questions recall slavery twice and freedom twice, totalling four. Therefore, the movement from physical oppression to freedom and spiritual oppression to redemption means that the exodus from Egypt is the foundation for all future redemptions. Based on the teachings of Rav and Shmuel, our redemption must be seen as both a spiritual and a physical process.
As you can see from the above-mentioned rituals and customs, Passover is full of symbolic representations and meaning, some that symbolize slavery, and some that symbolize freedom, and still others that describe the passage from slavery to freedom. My personal interpretations of these rituals and customs are that freedom in and of itself has little meaning unless it is contrasted with a situation in which one is not free. It is the passage from slavery to freedom which gives meaning and feeling to what the essence of freedom really is, be it being a slave under a harsh regime, or a slave to a problem one has in one's daily life. The main point here is to be aware, acknowledge, and feel grateful for whatever freedom one has in life, as opposed to what one might have otherwise been "enslaved" in, and to use that freedom to enhance oneself, and in turn, both you and the world around you will also be enhanced in the process. From this awareness, acknowledgement, and gratitude for what one has comes the next step one can practice: meditating on feeling faith that one will receive answers that will help contribute to managing or solving one's personal challenges that can "enslave" oneself. By feeling faith that beneficial and constructive answers for oneself will come when the time is right, one frees oneself from their preoccupation or "enslavement" by being aware that they have chosen to be in control of their own destiny in the face of their personal challenges - be they vis-à-vis objects, situations, other individuals, or groups - rather than choosing to remain "enslaved" by obstacles in their path. This is what I mean when I refer to how the ancient message of Passover helps individuals to help themselves enhance their "freedom in faith": freedom in the knowledge that one will either manage or overcome challenges by having faith that the answers to those challenges will appear in one's mind in due time. In the Jewish religion, it is believed that all human beings are created in the image of G-d and that G-d loves, cares for, and will help his creation. From this knowledge, a Jewish person merely has to look inward to discover the unique answers for oneself that G-d gives when it comes to managing or solving a challenge, just as the Hebrews called for help from G-d to obtain their freedom from slavery in biblical times as told in the Passover story.
Footnote regarding the dates on The Four Questions - The 4 Questions web page: all dates discussed on this website are based on the modern Gregorian calendar, however, these dates are but one secular scholarly deduction; there are many other secular scholarly deductions as well as traditional Jewish chronological dates in addition to modern Hebrew/Jewish calendar dates regarding the timeline of events in Jewish history. To see a table of some important events in Jewish history discussed on this website and their various dates deduced from traditional Jewish sources, the modern Hebrew/Jewish calendar, and secular historical timelines, check out our Jewish History Timeline web page.