9 Nisan: Asking
March 20, 2013
The oldest editions of the Mishnah record 3 questions asked at the Passover seder:
Look, how different this night is from all other nights!
On all other nights, we dip once, this night twice.
On all other nights, we eat chametz or matzah, this night – only matzah.
On all other nights, we eat meat roasted, fried or cooked, this night only roasted.
(Okay, the semanticists among you may argue that this really doesn't involve any questions at all -- it's an exclamation and three statements -- but roll with me here.) The Mishnah is the essential source text for rabbinic Judaism. It was originally oral tradition; it was written down around 200 C.E. (Learn more: Mishnah - My Jewish Learning.) The oldest Mishnah manuscripts are handwritten. Once the questions entered print, though, they changed a little bit:
They fill a second cup for him. At this stage the son questions his father.
If the son is unintelligent, his father instructs him to ask, 'Why is this night different from all other nights?'
On all [other] nights, we eat chametz or matzah, [but] on this night, [we eat] only matzah.
On all [other] nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, [but] on this night, [we eat only] bitter herbs.
On all [other] nights, we eat meat roasted, stewed or boiled, [but] on this night, [we eat] only roasted [meat].
On all [other] nights, we dip [vegetables] once, [but] on this night, we dip [vegetables] twice.
And according to the son's intelligence, his father instructs him.
The Gemara -- the commentary which, along with the Mishna, makes up the Talmud (learn more: Gemara - My Jewish Learning) -- expands on this idea. It tells us that if the son has the wisdom to ask, he asks. If not, then the wife (of the person leading the seder) asks. (Their assumptions that the seder-leader was inevitably male and married were reasonable at that moment in time.) And if not, the Gemara tells us, the seder-leader asks himself.
I absolutely love that. Asking questions in order to more deeply understand the seder, and in order to have the emotional and spiritual of asking, is so central to the seder that one can even ask oneself the questions if one has to.
Of course, neither of those sets of questions is exactly like the ones we know now. In the Geonic period (6th to 11th centuries), the questions were changed once again, to the version we still sing today.
מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת?
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין חָמֵץ וּמַצָּה. הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלּוֹ מַצָּה:
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין שְׁאָר יְרָקוֹת הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מָרוֹר:
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אֵין אָנוּ מַטְבִּילִין אֲפִילוּ פַּעַם אֶחָת.
הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים:
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בֵּין יוֹשְׁבִין וּבֵין מְסֻבִּין. הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלָּנוּ מְסֻבִּין:
Why is this night different from all other nights?
On all other nights we may eat either hametz or matzah; tonight, only matzah.
On all other nights we may eat a variety of green vegetables; tonight, we eat maror.
On all other nights we don't dip our foods even once; tonight, we dip twice.
On all other nights we may eat either seated or reclining; tonight, we recline.
The Four Questions are one of the most familiar and iconic elements of today's seder, and they've had this shape for a long time, but this wasn't their original shape. This is at least the fourth iteration. I love being able to trace their evolution, to see when the bitter herbs entered the picture, and when the roasted meat left the page.
The roasted-meat question arose out of the tradition of bringing a lamb to the Temple for sacrifice. Intriguingly, it didn't leave the liturgy as soon as the Temple fell. When the Mishnah first appeared in print, the Temple had been gone for more than 100 years, but the questions recorded then still preserved the memory of that practice. By the Geonic period, enough time had elapsed that it didn't make sense to feature a question about that roasted sacrificial meat. But -- perhaps to preserve the structure of four questions -- those sages added a question about reclining, instead.
Questions matter. The act of questioning is central to the experience of seder, and central to being a Jew. Some of us today ask ourselves a fifth question: from what do you hope to be liberated in the year to come?
I've come to think that a lot of the time, the questions are more important than their answers. Or: maybe what's important is the experience of questioning. Of caring enough to ask: how did this start? Why do we do it this way? What does it mean to say that our ancestors were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Holy Blessed One led us out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm? I don't necessarily need answers. (And I know that my answers change from year to year, as I grow and change.) I just need to always be able to ask.
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