This week's portion: only connect
A tele-davenen poem

The centrality of questioning

In my online Talmud class this week we're studying a text from Pesachim 116a about the Four Questions: who asks them, and what do they mean? It's been incredibly fun, in part because these questions are among the most familiar texts in my own personal lexicon. I've been reciting these words since before I knew how to read Hebrew; my mother typed a transliteration on an index card and paperclipped it to my haggadah when I was, oh, maybe four? So for once I don't have to struggle with the Aramaic,  but can just dive in to the meaning and the implications of the text.

We began by looking at a piece of the Kaufmann Codex, one of the earliest mansucripts of the mishna:

The thing is, the questions in the mishna are not exactly the ones I know. There are only three, not four; one of the questions I'm used to isn't there, and one of the questions that's there isn't what I'm used to! The mishna tells us that right after the second cup of wine is filled, the son asks his father. (The question is unspecified, but it seems safe to presume it's something like "what's going on here?") If the son isn't smart enough to ask, then the father teaches him, beginning with the question "how is this night different from all other nights?" And then the father offers three answers, each of which is in turn expounded-upon. But the question comes first. It's the act of questioning that's foundational. (That said...want to know what the answers are and why they're interesting to me?)

This mishna offers three statements, responses to the "how is this night different" meta-question. The first is, "On most nights we need not dip [our foods] even once, but tonight we do so twice." The second, "On most nights we eat either chametz (leaven) or matzah (unleavened bread), but tonight only matzah." And the third, "On most nights we eat meat roasted, stewed, or boiled; tonight, only roasted." That third question isn't in the haggadah as we know it, and hasn't been for centuries.

Why not? Because it's a reference to the korban Pesach, the paschal sacrifice which was once made at the Temple and then eaten as the Pesach supper. Korban means drawing-near, and today we draw near to God in other ways; we don't make sacrifices anymore. So it's no longer in our haggadah text. (Why it remains in the mishna, which was compiled after the Temple had fallen, is a question I can't answer.) What is in the modern haggadah, though not in the original mishna text, are questions about greenery ("On most nights we eat various sorts of vegetables, but tonight we eat maror/bitter herbs") and about posture ("On most nights we eat upright or reclining, but tonight we recline.") That last one reflects the post-Talmudic custom of reclining for formal meals, and clearly the bitter herbs are a later addition too.

I love being able to see different variations on the questions I know and love, and tracing their changes over time. But in addition to liturgical insights, this text offers some bigger/deeper teachings too.

So far we've looked at what the mishna has to say. Unsurprisingly, the gemara expands these ideas further. It tells us that if the son has the smarts to ask, he asks. If not, then the wife (of the person leading the seder -- presumed to be male, naturally, given the context of the time) asks. And if not (if there is no son? if there is no wife? if he's alone? if our hypothetical Jew is at a table filled with people who aren't naturally curious?) he asks himself. I love that: that the act of questioning, the act of inhabiting the story in the way that the seder invites us to do, is so important that each of us can do it, in a pinch, for ourselves. It's not the practical Q-and-A that really matters; it's the internal act of questioning.

Then there's a peculiar little story, in which Reb Nachman asks his slave Daru "when a master liberates his slave and gives him gold and silver, what should he say to him?" Daru answers, "He should thank and praise him." Reb Nachman replies, "You've just exempted us from needing to recite 'Why is this night different,'" and begins (the seder proper) by reciting "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Mitzrayim..."

What is the Talmud (cryptically) saying here? Maybe that in really hearing Daru's perspective -- that the response to being freed from slavery is necessarily thanks and praise -- Reb Nachman and his compatriots are entering deeply into the story and its meaning. The critical existential leap is putting ourselves in the shoes of someone who was enslaved and is now free. If we can do that, then we've transcended the need to recite the halakhot of Pesach. The formulaic questions are there to prompt us to the deeper questioning: not just "why is this meal unlike what we normally do at dinnertime," but "what are we really doing here; with what deep truths am I meant to engage?" The written texts are signposts, pointing us in the direction of the existential questions: what does it mean to be enslaved, and what does it mean to be redeemed? Asking those questions: that's what the seder's really all about.

Many thanks to my two hevruta partners, and to Reb Harry and the rest of the ALEPH gang who are wrangling these texts together; these insights owe a great deal to them.

On a related note, I've been working on a revision of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach. I'm adding a bunch of material (new and old), and redoing the whole text in Davka/Mellel (bilingual word processor for the win!) I've gotten a few emails recently from people asking when the new version is coming out; I'm working on it, I promise! My intention is to make it available by Purim at the latest -- one month before Pesach -- so you'll have plenty of time to read it and figure out whether it suits your needs and how you want to navigate it as you create your own observance of Pesach.

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