Why Do Jews Answer a Question With A Question? Do We?

Haggadah #6

Mah Nishtanah: The Four Questions


You’ve learned the most important lesson of your life! What do you do now?

You want to share your experience with those you love. They should know what you know. You need to tell the story! Stories capture and transmit experience!

To preserve the lesson of our liberation from slavery, our children must know what they did not experience themselves. How do we share our discovery to preserve our knowledge of God’s presence in history?

In 4 statements, the Torah teaches us to tell the story of the exodus to our children!


  • Exodus 12:26-27

  • And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this rite?” You 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 saved our houses.”


  • Exodus 13:8

  • You shall explain to your son on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went from Egypt.”


  • Exodus 13:14

  • 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 of Egypt, the house of bondage.”


  • Deuteronomy 6:20

  • When in time to come, your children ask you, “what mean the decrees, laws and rules that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?” You shall say to your children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.”


Four times! If we fail to convey the story, the lesson of our liberation and God’s caring expire with the former slaves.


Consider your family’s stories. Are there accounts that are precious that you did not experience yourself, but were told to you by someone you loved and who loved you? What motivates you to remember and pass along those stories?


The Exodus story has shaped Jewish lives for over 3,000 years! Why? Because we not only retold it, we dramatized it to preserve the living experience to and through our children for a hundred generations! Improbably, we Jews still describe ourselves as having been slaves in Egypt, after 3 millennia! The seder successfully conveys our most essential lesson: the encounter with the God who liberates.


That Deliverance from Egypt went on to animate and undergird the African-American story in the U.S., in lore and such songs as Wade in the Water and Go Down Moses. Jews preserved the quintessential freedom experience, and blacks expanded upon it in their own terms, metaphors and stories.


Our sages encourage that the entire seder, all 15 steps, focus on amusing and teaching the children. From removing their plates before they eat, to serving favorite foods after kiddush for snacks, to bribing to “buy back” the afikomen, to these Four Questions: the seder is a pedagogical tool to steal the attention of the children and inculcate the central, critical Jewish story. Our children must hear, learn, absorb and repeat the core ritual of our lives, because it teaches the core human experience: the pursuit of liberation and the God of freedom.


The youngest child with the ability asks the Four Questions. But we’ve structured the entire corpus of the seder to encourage the children to ASK! Why IS this night different from ALL other nights? Whatever the language: English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, whatever: encourage children to ask, to discover, to uncover, to recover the root experience of the Jewish tree on which they are the budding leaves. These four questions originated with the changes in the seder meal in comparison with normative weekday meals nearly 2,000 years ago. But customs have changed since then. So why preserve only these questions that were current then? Adults should ask one another questions: Why is there a Cup of Elijah if we have a Jewish State of Israel? Why did we do this every year at my grandparents home? How large is ONE cup of wine? Can we add our own stories? And what really is gefilte fish, and why only on Passover? ASK ASK ASK your own questions. Make this night different, because this preserves the night we came out of Egypt, the most essential experience of the Jewish people.

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© 2016 by Rabbi Mark H. Levin.