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Pesach’s Many Questions: Threatening a Sense of Order

Since the time of the Torah a Jew has been judged by his or her ability to ask questions and to find contradictions in our sacred sources
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

I once heard teachers in elementary school who were exasperated with pupils who asked a lot of questions. To put an end to the queries, they retorted, “What are you asking so many questions for? This isn’t the seder!”

The teachers apparently wanted to get on with the lesson as they had planned it, and to get their “messages” across without any “interference” on the way. But by doing so, they are combating a deeply rooted Jewish learning tradition.

The old joke has it that a Jew answers a question with another question. And indeed, since the time of the Torah, and especially in the culture of the Rabbis, a Jew has been judged by his or her ability to ask questions and to find contradictions in our sacred sources.

On the first nights of the Festival of Freedom, this cultural characteristic is embodied in the Four Questions. A teaching method that uses questions not only contributes motivation to learning, by providing an external stimulus to curiosity, but also reflects the concept of freedom that is the essence of Passover.

Questions for the children: Power of surprise

In the Talmudic debate concerning the Seder night, the role of the Four Questions is perceived primarily as a sophisticated educational tool to pass on the tradition from one generation to another. With the clear insight that young people are not always thrilled to listen to autobiographical stories from their parents (“When I was young . . .”), the Rabbis looked for a way to kindle their interest artificially, to focus their attention on the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

The ritual changes on Seder night are intended to awaken the children’s curiosity by manipulating the subject closest to their world – eating. By removing the bread and placing a pillow and bitter herbs at the table, the Rabbis were certain to arouse the questions – Where is the bread? Why do we have to eat the bitter herbs? Why do we recline on cushions to the left side?

Maimonides expanded further the types of changes that should be introduced on Seder night, so that children already used to the usual special Pesach customs would still take notice and ask:

One should make some change in procedure on this night of the fifteenth of Nisan, in order that one’s children should notice it and ask, “What makes this night different from other nights?” to which one would reply, “this and this is what happened, and this and this is what took place” [in the story of the Exodus].

In what way might the procedure be changed? By distributing parched grain or nuts to the children [distributing desert at the beginning of the meal], by having the table removed before the meal begins [clearing the table before anyone has eaten], by each trying to snatch away the other’s unleavened bread [playing games with the food like the stealing of the afikoman] and so on. (Maimonides, Laws of Chametz and Matza, Chapter 7:3)

The examples Maimonides brings from the Talmud fundamentally threaten the sense of order of the meal as the child knows and is familiar with it. When s/he sits down to eat: The table is “stolen” right out from under him or her before s/he has a chance to eat! The matzot s/he planned to eat are grabbed right out of his or her hand! This idea later developed into the game of hiding the afikoman, which is still a central element in generating Seder memories. Still each year parents must invent new tricks of this type to grab the children’s attention anew.

Let us compare the original ritual differences of the Four Questions with Maimonides’ new techniques. The didactic device suggested by Maimonides seems to move away from the central goal – imparting the story of the Exodus from Egypt, while in the Four Questions the changes relate to the halakhic symbols which, though odd, are also intended to direct attention to the historic referent.

The grabbing of the matzah has no historic or conceptual significance, but the eating of the bitter herbs reminds us of the fact that the Egyptians embittered our lives. Beyond the surprising deviation from routine that arouses the curiosity of those present, the Four Questions (or at least three of them) focus on the symbol whose form leads the questioner to its content.

Only the symbol of the dipping, which is also the subject of one of the Four Questions, is not directly related to a historic event, and that is why later generations added historic interpretations, which correspond to the interpretations given in the text to the matzah, bitter herbs and Paschal lamb.*

The salt water was explained as a symbol for the tears of the Children of Israel or for the Red Sea, and the karpas – the greens – as a symbol for the month of spring when the Children of Israel left Egypt . . . .

The symbols of Passover, the matzah, bitter herbs and even salt water and haroset generate a direct link to the world of the child – after all, he or she eats the symbol and tastes the experience that is symbolized. In the case of the bitter herbs, s/he tastes the bitterness, and in the case of the haroset, s/he also prepares it in the manner the mortar was prepared in Egypt. The cinnamon sticks that it contains remind us of the straw to reinforce the mud brick. The grinding and pressing of the ingredients parallel the hard labor involved in the preparation of the bricks from straw and earth.

Maimonides (Chapter 7:11) explains:

The use of haroset . . . is meant to serve as a reminder of the mortar with which the Israelites worked in Egypt. How is haroset made? Dates, dried figs, raisins, or the like, are taken and pounded, vinegar is added, and the mixture is seasoned with condiments in the same way as mortar is seasoned with straw; it is then brought to the table on Passover night.

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