Ma Nishtana

We all sing the ma nishtana at our Seder.  The youngest one in the crowd stands (in our home he stands on a chair!) and sings what they have been practicing for weeks! The 4 questions are part of the magid section of the haggadah is the 4 questions (in Hebrew it does not actually say “question” but more accurate–difficulty), but you will be surprised to find out that in actuality, there is only one question and 4 answers to that question, namely how is this night different from all other nights? What you may not know is that originally there were three questions that expend to either four or five answers! When I first learned of it, I was so surprised ! I am copied below the words from Professor Joseph Tabory! And feel free to press the buttom to hear my son and I sing it! Yaniv was 6 years old at the time—super cute!

For many, asking the Four Questions, or Mah Nishtana, is their earliest memory of the Passover Seder. The standard version of the Mah Nishtana, now recited by children early in the Seder, reads:

The Ma Nishtana

מַה נִּשְּׁתַּנָה 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 פְעָמִי.

שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בֵּין יוֹשְׁבִין וּבֵין מְסֻבִּין, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלָּנוּ מְסֻבִּין.

המה נשתנה

Why is this night different from all other nights of the year?

On all other nights we eat leavened bread and unleavened bread, on this night [we eat] only unleavened bread.

On all other nights we eat various vegetables, on this night [we eat] bitter herbs.

On all other nights we do not dip even once, on this night we dip twice.

On all other nights we eat either sitting or leaning, on this night we all [eat] leaning.

Modern Versus Ancient Versions of the Questions
Yet, medieval manuscripts of the Mishnah and Haggadah demonstrate that originally, there were only three questions, not four. What were the original three questions, and how did they expand into four, and in some versions, even five questions?

The eleventh century Parma manuscript1 of the Mishnah reads:

משנה, פסחים פ”י

m. Pesahim 10

מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות:

שבכל הלילות אנו מטבלים פעם אחת הלילה הזה שתי פעמים.

שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים חמץ ומצה הלילה הזה כולו מצה.

שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים בשר צלי שלוק ומבושל, הלילה הזה כולו צלי.

Why2 is this night different from all other nights of the year:

On all other nights we dip once, on this night [we dip] twice.

On all other nights we eat leavened bread and unleavened bread, on this night [we eat] only unleavened bread.

On all other nights we eat meat roasted, broiled and cooked, on this night [we eat] only roast.

This version varies in the following respects:

Missing Two questions: (1) Bitter herbs (“שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין שְׁאָר יְרָקוֹת, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מָרוֹר”; “on all other nights we eat all sorts of vegetables, on this night [we eat] bitter herbs”); and (2) leaning (“שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בֵּין יוֹשְׁבִין וּבֵין מְסֻבִּין, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלָּנוּ מְסֻבִּין.”; “On all other nights we eat either sitting or leaning, on this night we all [eat] leaning”).

Extra Question: Why only roasted meat at the Seder (“שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים בשר צלי שלוק ומבושל, הלילה הזה כולו צלי.”; “On all other nights we eat meat roasted, broiled and cooked, on this night [we eat] only roast.”)

A Different Version of the Dipping Question: The Mishnah has “on all other nights we dip once,” while the modern version states that “on all other nights we do not dip even once.”3

Is the Maror Question Missing?
The last two questions presented in the Mishnah concern two of the three unique foods of the Seder – the mitzvah of eating matzah and the consumption of roasted meat. But why is there no question about the third required food, the bitter herbs? Furthermore, why was a marginally important question about “double dipping” posed in its stead?

These issues can be resolved by first looking at the early custom of “dipping” as prescribed in the Mishnah. According to m. Pesaḥim 10.3, both dippings should be done with חזרת (lettuce),4 which was the preferred vegetable to be used to fulfill the obligation of eating “bitter herbs” at the Seder (m. Pesaḥim 2.6). In this way, the thrust of the concluding part of the question, “we dip twice,” may be understood as asking why lettuce, namely bitter herbs, was dipped twice.  This question thus refers to eating bitter herbs at the seder, just as the query about how the meat should be prepared refers to the obligation to eat roasted meat at the Seder.5

The original three questions in the Mishnah refer to the three foods that were obligatory on the Seder evening: roast meat (either that of the paschal lamb or roast meat served in memory of the paschal lamb),6 unleavened bread, and bitter herbs.7

The Evolving Practice of Dipping

The Mah Nishtana began to change once the question about double dipping was no longer understood as referring to the bitter herbs. Indeed, already the Jerusalem Talmud reports that Rav, one of the early amoraim, ate תורדין (beet leaves)8 instead of lettuce at the first dipping.

Similarly, the Haggadot that follow the rite of the land of Israel suggest that people ate many other foods at the first dipping; this dipping became a first course at which people would enjoy fruits, nuts, eggs and even sugared rice.9 Some amoraim in Babylon even thought that the lettuce used for bitter herbs must not be eaten at the first dipping due to a question about when the blessing for bitter herbs should be said.10 Simply put, if lettuce was not eaten at all during the first dipping, or if it was eaten then alongside other vegetables, the Mishnah’s question of dipping twice would not have been understood as referring to the bitter herbs.

Reinterpreting the Dipping Question and Adding the Maror Question
Once this question was no longer understood to refer to t the commandment of consuming bitter herbs, it was easily reinterpreted as simply asking why, regardless of the vegetable used,11 there were two dipping.12 This motivated the addition of a question that related specifically to the obligatory consumption of bitter herbs:13

שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים שאר ירקות, הלילה הזה מרורים14

On all other nights we eat various vegetables, on this night [we eat]15 bitter herbs.”

Thus, the three questions had become four.

Eating Roast Meat at the Seder

The next change entailed the disappearance of the question about eating only roast meat. In the early custom of the Land of Israel, roast meat was eaten at the seder in commemoration of the paschal sacrifice, which had to be consumed roasted. Haggadotfound in the Cairo Geniza contain a blessing mentioning an obligation to eat roast meat.16However, many Babylonian authorities considered it improper to eat roast meat at the seder, since this might be thought of as eating the paschal sacrifice after the destruction of the Temple.

Eliminating the Meat Question and Adding a New Question about Leaning
As a result of this change in the menu, the question about roast meat conflicted with the common practice.17 The dominant solution was to eliminate this question altogether.18

We cannot precisely date when the custom of eating roast meat ceased, nor when asking a question about it was eliminated from the Haggadah. However, it is notable that almost all of the Haggadot which lack the question about roast meat include the question about leaning. In other words, the elimination of the question about roast meat from the Haggadah was apparently connected with the inclusion of this new question:

שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים בין יושבין ובין מסובין, הלילה הזה כולנו מסובין

On all other nights we eat either sitting or leaning, on this night we all [eat] leaning.

It is possible that the question about leaning was added to replace the question about roast meat at a time when it was assumed that there must be four questions.19

The Five(!) Questions

Everyone familiar with the dynamics of liturgy know that texts meant as replacements don’t always dislodge the texts they were meant to replace. Thus, we have some texts that have five questions: the four contained in the modern text and the question about roast meat. For example, Maimonides presents all five questions in his halachic text (Yad hachazakaChamez umatzah, 8, 2).20 However, he subsequently declares that

בזמן הזה אינו אומר והלילה הזה כולו צלי שאין לנו קרבן  (חמץ ומצה ח, ג)

“nowadays, he does not say ‘on this night [we eat] only roasted meat’ since we do not have a sacrifice” (8,3).

However, two Haggadot from the Geniza retain five questions. One of them, held today in New York (ENA 2018 1v), has the five questions in the same order as Maimonides; another Geniza Haggadah that is in Cambridge (TS H2.152) agrees. Note how the question about roast meat appears in the following version:

שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים בין בשר צלי שלוק ומבושל והלילה הזה היינו אוכלים בבית המקדש כולו צלי

On all other nights we eat meat whether roasted, broiled or cooked, on this night we used to eat in the Temple only roast meat.

The addition of the clause “we used to eat in the Temple” shows the scribe’s awareness that this question is no longer relevant and he should have skipped it. Nevertheless, the scribe did not want to abandon this earlier version and he chose to revise it rather than erase it. One might note that this version connexts this question wtth the words of R. Gamliel, as formulated in later Haggadot, “the paschal sacrifice which our ancestors used to eat when the Temple existed”. However, the scribe felt a closer attachment to the subject. He does not refer to what our ancestors ate but to what “we used to eat”.

Conclusion

This quick survey has shown how liturgical texts can change over time, and more specifically how the original text of three question was modified, both by addition and subtraction, to reflect the changing realities of the paschal meal. The history of these modifications exemplifies the way Jewish custom struggles to adapt tradition to reality and reality to tradition. It also shows how certain liturgical forms that we feel are fundamental and ancient—such as the four Seder questions—are not as ancient as we might think, and are themselves the result of complex historical developments

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