The Mah Nishtanah

The Many Lessons It Teaches Us About the Seder

1. Starting the Seder with a Question

משנה פסחים י:ג

מזגו לו כוס שני, וכאן הבן שואל אביו. ואם אין דעת בבן אביו מלמדו מה נשתנה…ולפי דעתו של בן, אביו מלמדו. מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח, ודורש מארמי אובד אבי עד שיגמור כל הפרשה כולה.

Mishnah Pesachim 10:3

They pour him a second cup, and here the son asks the father.  And if the son has no intelligence the father teaches him:  How is this night different from all other nights?…According to the son’s intellect the father teaches him.  He begins (his story) with disgrace and ends with praise, and he expounds “my father was a wandering Aramean” until he finishes the portion.

Read this mishnah very carefully.

What is the function of the Mah Nishtanah?

Who recites it? Is it a mandated text?

Why do you think the rabbis mandated that the Seder should begin with a question?

Below are the three texts in the Torah in which a child is portrayed as asking a question related to Pesah and the Exodus from Egypt. The texts should be familiar from the “Four Sons/Children” midrash. How do these texts relate to the Mishnah? What is their “simple” meaning and how did the rabbis reinterpret them?

שמות פרק יב

(כו) וְהָיָה כִּי יֹאמְרוּ אֲלֵיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת לָכֶם: (כז) וַאֲמַרְתֶּם זֶבַח פֶּסַח הוּא לַיקֹוָק אֲשֶׁר פָּסַח עַל בָּתֵּי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּנָגְפּוֹ אֶת מִצְרַיִם וְאֶת בָּתֵּינוּ הִצִּיל וַיִּקֹּד הָעָם וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ:

שמות פרק יג

שמות פרק יג (יד) וְהָיָה כִּי יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר מַה זֹּאת וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ יְקֹוָק מִמִּצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים:

דברים פרק ו

(כ) כִּי יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר מָה הָעֵדֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם: (כא) וְאָמַרְתָּ לְבִנְךָ עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ יְקֹוָק מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה: (כב) וַיִּתֵּן יְקֹוָק אוֹתֹת וּמֹפְתִים גְּדֹלִים וְרָעִים בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּפַרְעֹה וּבְכָל בֵּיתוֹ לְעֵינֵינוּ: (כג) וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם לְמַעַן הָבִיא אֹתָנוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ:

Exodus 12:  26-27

26And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this rite?  27You shall say, it is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but save our houses.

Exodus 13: 14-15

14And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, “What does this mean? You shall say to him, “It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.

Deuteronomy 6: 20-23

20When, in time to come, your children ask you, “What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?”  21You shall say to your children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.  22The Lord wrought before before our eyes marvelous and destructive signs and portents in Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household.  23And us He freed from there, that He might take us and give us the land that He had promised as an oath to our fathers.

Below is a quote from the first century Greek philosopher, Plutarch, who composed a whole book on what types of discussion are proper at a formal meal. Indeed, a rich Greco-Roman literature coalesced around this subject. Just Google Greco-Roman symposium and you’ll get an idea.

How does the discussion proscribed by the rabbis fit into the cultural context in which they lives?

In what ways does it differ and in what ways is it the same?

Plutarch: Quaestiones Conviviales 614

Questions should be easy, the problems known, the interrogations plain and familiar, not intricate and dark, so that they may neither vex the unlearned nor frighten them from the disquisition.

[Questions found in Greco-Roman sources include: “Are different sorts of food or one single dish eaten at one meal more easily digestible?” “Does the sea or land provide better food?” Why is hunger allayed by drinking but thirst increased by eating?”

2. Who asks the questions?

תלמוד בבלי מסכת פסחים דף קטו עמוד ב

אביי הוה יתיב קמיה דרבה, חזא דקא מדלי תכא מקמיה. אמר להו: עדיין לא קא אכלינן, אתו קא מעקרי תכא מיקמן? אמר ליה רבה: פטרתן מלומר מה נשתנה.

BT Pesachim 115b

Abaye was sitting in front of Raba.  He saw that they took the table away from him.  He (Abaye) said to them:  We still haven’t eaten and you are taking away the table!?  Raba said to him, “You have exempted us from saying mah nishtanah”.

This story takes place in Babylonia in the middle of the Talmudic period, perhaps around 350 C.E. What can we learn from this story about how these rabbis understood the function of the Mah Nishtanah?

Why would someone be exempt from saying the Mah Nishtanah?

3. The Original Version of the Mah Nishtanah

מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות?

(1)  שבכל הלילות אנו מטבלין פעם אחת והלילה הזה שתי פעמים.

(2)  שבכל הלילות  אנו אוכלין חמץ ומצה והלילה הזה כולו מצה.

(3)  שבכל הלילות  אנו אולכין בשר צלי שלוק ומבושל, והלילה הזה כולו צלי.

(1)  On all other nights we dip once and on this night we dip twice.

(2)  On all other nights we eat chametz and matzah and on this night only matzah.

(3)  On all other nights we eat meat roasted, boiled and cooked, on this night only roasted.

The above text is found in most of the major manuscripts of the Mishnah and in many ancient Eretz Yisraeli Haggadot as well, haggadot that were found in the Cairo Geniza.

Note both the text and the order of the questions. Why such an order? Why are there three “questions?” What are they about? How are they different from the questions familiar to us today?

We shall now proceed by looking at what happened to each of these questions, and how they changed/developed over the centuries. Note that the question about matzah has not changed, so it is not discussed.

Question #1

משנה מסכת פסחים פרק י משנה ג

הביאו לפניו מטבל בחזרת עד שמגיע לפרפרת הפת.

Mishnah Pesahim 10:3

They bring in front of him, he dips with lettuce until he gets to the appetizer that precedes the bread.

We will discuss this text more fully in the second shiur. For now, we should note that this text means that the first dipping (what we call karpas) was done with lettuce. This means that there were two dippings done with lettuce.

Question #2

Both Talmudim offer various alternatives to the version found in the Mishnah.

תלמוד הירושלמי:

שבכל הלילות אנו מטבילין אותו עם הפת וכאן אנו מטבילין אותו בפני עצמו.

תלמוד הבבלי:

שבכל הלילות אין אנו מטבילין אפילו פעם אחת הלילה הזה שתי פעמים.

Yerushalmi

On all other nights we dip it with bread and tonight we dip it by itself.

Bavli

On all other nights we don’t even dip once, tonight twice.

What can we learn from the fact that the Talmud changes the version of the Mah Nishtanah found in the Mishnah?

What customs are reflected in these specific texts?

Question #3

רי”ף פסחים כה ע”ב 

והשתא לא לימא בשר צלי דלית לן פיסחא.

Rif Pesachim 25b

Nowadays one is not to say (the question) about roasted meat since we don’t have a Pesach.

R. Yitzchak Alfasi was a great halakhic authority who lived in N. Africa in the tenth century. He writes that we don’t say this question anymore because we no longer eat the pesah sacrifice. About this he was certainly correct.

However, there is ample evidence that Jews continued to eat the pesach sacrifice, or at least something like it, even after the destruction of the Temple. The following is some evidence of the persistence of this practice after the destruction of the Temple.

משנה ביצה ב:ז

אף הוא [רבן גמליאל] אמר שלשה דברים להקל: .. ועושין גדי מקולס בלילי פסחים. וחכמים אוסרין.

משנה פסחים ז:ב

אמר רבי צדוק: מעשה ברבן גמליאל שאמר לטבי עבדו צא וצלה לנו את הפסח על האסכלה.

משנה פסחים ד:ד

מקום שנהגו לאכול צלי בלילי פסחים אוכלין, מקום שנהגו שלא לאכול אין אוכלין.

תוספתא מסכת ביצה פרק ב הלכה טו

אמ’ ר’ יוסה תודוס איש רומי הנהיג את בני רומי ליקח טלאים בלילי פסחים ועושין אותן מקולסין אמרו לו אף הוא קרוב להאכיל קדשים בחוץ מפני שקורין אותן פסחין.

ברכה שנאמרה אחרי ברכת המוציא (מהגדה מן הגניזה בקהיר)

ב’ א’ ה’ אלקינו מלך העולם אשר צוה את אבותינו לאכל מצות מרורים בשר צלי אש להזכיר את גבורותיו.  ב’ א’ ה’ זוכר הברית

Mishnah Beitzah 2:7

He [Rabban Gamliel] said three leniencies:…and you can make a roasted kid on the night of Pesah.  But the Sages forbid.

Mishnah Pesachim 7:2

Rabbi Zadok said:  It happened that Rabban Gamliel said to Tabi his slave, go out and roast for us the Pesach on a grate.

Mishnah Pesachim 4:4

In a place where it is customary to eat roasted (meat) on the Pesach night, we eat.  In a place where it is not customary to eat, we don’t eat.

Tosefta Beitzah 2:15

Rabbi Yose said:  Todos of Rome taught the people of Rome to take lambs on the eve of Pesach and to roast them.  They (the sages) said to him, “This is too close to eating sacrifices outside (of the Temp
le) since they call them “Pesachim”.

Blessing said after Hamotzi (found in a Cairo Geniza Haggadah)

Blessed are you Adonai, our God, King of the Universe, who has commanded our fathers to eat matzot, bitter herbs and roasted meat to remember His greatness. Blessed are you, the one who remembers the covenant.

4. Post-Talmudic Additions

שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלין בין יושבין ובין מסובין, והלילה הזה כולנו מסובין.

On all other nights we eat sitting and reclining, tonight we all recline.

The above question about reclining entered into the Haggadah in post-talmudic times. It is found in European Haggadot, but not in the Eretz Yisraeli type of Haggadah that were found in the Cairo Geniza.

Reclining was an important social signifier in the Greco-Roman world of a proper meal. This can be seen throughout rabbinic literature—when people gather for a meal they are usually described as “reclining.” I have cited just two sources below that talk about proper behavior at a meal.

תוספתא מסכת ברכות פרק ד הלכה ח

כיצד סדר סעודה?
אורחין נכנסין ויושבין על ספסלים ועל גבי קתדראות עד שיתכנסו. נתכנסו כולן נתנו להם לידים כל אחד ואחד נוטל ידו אחת.
מזגו להם את הכוס כל אחד ואחד מברך לעצמו
הביאו לפניהם פרפראות כל אחד ואחד מברך לעצמו.
עלו והסבו ונתנו להם לידים אע”פ שנטל ידו אחת נוטל שתי ידיו
מזגו להם את הכוס אע”פ שברך על הראשון מברך על השיני
הביאו לפניהם פרפראות אע”פ שברך על הראשונה מברך על השניה ואחד מברך לכולן
הבא אחר שלש פרפראות אין לו רשות ליכנס.

Tosefta Berachot 4:8

What is the order (seder) of a meal?
The guests enter and sit on benches and on chairs until all have entered.
When all have entered they put out their hands and everyone washes one hand.
They pour them a cup [of wine], and everyone blesses for himself.
They bring in front of them appetizers, and everyone blesses for himself.
When they enter and recline they put out their hands.  Even though they washed one hand, they now wash two hands.
They pour them a cup [of wine].  Even though they blessed over the first, they bless over the second.
They bring in front of them appetizers.  Even though they blessed over the first, they bless over the second.
And one blesses on behalf of every one.
Anyone who comes after three appetizers does not have the right to enter.

תוספתא ברכות ה:ה

כיצד סדר הסב?
בזמן שהן שתי מטות גדול מסב בראשה של ראשונה, שני לו למטה ממנו.
בזמן שהן שלש מטות גדול מסב בראשה של אמצעית שני לו למעלה ממנו שלישי לו למטה ממנו.
כך היו מסדירין והולכין.

Tosefta Berachot 5:5

What is the arrangement of reclining? When there are two cushions, the most important person reclines at the head of the first, the second to him is below him.When there are three cushions, the most important person reclines at the head of the middle [cushion], the second to him is above him, and the third is below him. Thus they would proceed to organize [the cushions.]

The last question to be added was the question concerning marror. Medieval commentators noted that this question was a little weird, as we can see below.

שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלין שאר ירקות, הלילה הזה מרור.

On all other nights we eat all vegetables, tonight maror.

Abudraham on this question

And if you ask, On other nights is it impossible to go without eating other vegetables? Rather, what this question means is: on all other nights we seek out vegetables that are tastier and sweeter than marror.

Perush Kadmon

But on other nights we also eat lettuce which is bitter? And on this night we also eat other vegetables! But this is the meaning: On other nights when we eat lettuce it is not bitter, for we do not eat it because it is bitter. But on this night it is all bitter to remind us of the bitterness of the enslavement in Egypt.

The Pesah Sacrifice after the Destruction of the Temple

Go to Next Class – Starving at the Seder

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