One of the most favorite parts of the Haggaddah, and, indeed, the entire night of the Leil haSeder is when the littlest bundle of joy at the table gets his or her chance to shine in the spotlight as they recite the “Mah Nishtana”. Such joy! Such real yiddishe nachas!
But guess what? It misses the point entirely!
How can I say that, you ask?
Don’t you know that it’s minhag Yisroel?
Yes. Of course I do. However not all minhagim, say our sages, are reliable ones.
The issue that we really need to address in is a very basic question concerning the mah nishtana. The question is “Why”? Why, indeed, do we have the mah nishtana in the first place? What is it’s purpose in life?
I’m so glad that you asked me that question! It’s a real seder conundrum!
Our sages, ob”m, teach us in the haggadah that the Torah addresses four sons: the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son and the son who doesn’t know how to ask a question. Which one of the aforementioned sons was the mah nishtana written for?
Well let’s consider:
It couldn’t be for the child who doesn’t know how to ask, because it wouldn’t help him to ask as he lacks the capacity for questioning. Maybe next year will be better.
It can’t be for the wicked child because he doesn’t even ask a question! If we pay close attention to the wording of the verse which mentions the wicked child there is a blatant difference between him and the wise child. This is a very simple answer to the famous question “How is the wicked child’s question different than that of the wise child? The wicked child asks ‘What is this work for you (lachem)?’ whereas the wise child asks ‘What are these … which HaShem… commanded you (eschem)?’”
The answer is because the wise child asks a question whereas the wicked child does not!
As the verse says by the wise son1 “And it shall be when your son shall ask of you ‘What are these edot and chukkim… that HaShem, our G-d, has commanded you?’”, whereas by the wicked son it says2 “And it shall be when your sons shall say unto you ‘what is this work to you’…”
Back to our issue:
It can’t be for the child who is simple. This is because the answer is far to complex.
Indeed it can’t even be for the wise child, because it addresses issues which he hasn’t even experienced in the seder yet!
Let’s take a moment to blow up another misnomer. There aren’t even four questions in the “four questions”! There’s just one question “How is this night different than all other nights”!
If we take a good look at all of the above it becomes clear that there is only one reason that we need the mah nishtana: if we failed to get our child to ask the right question.
The gemara teaches us clearly that there is only one reason for the mah nishtana if no one asked “What’s going on here”? The gemara in Tractate Pessachim (117b) relates the story of how Abaye, when he was a young lad growing up in the home of his foster father, the great sage Rabbah, was sitting waiting for the seder to start when the table was removed from in front of him. “What?” asked Abaye, “We haven’t yet begun to eat, why are they removing the table from in front of us?” he asked. (The custom in those days was to eat reclining Roman style and each participant had his own little table from which they would eat. This table was removed at the end of the meal). “You have negated our need to say the mah nishtana!” said Rabbah.
Although there is some discussion among the poskim whether or not we can rely on this gemara to actually skip the mah nishtanah the simple understanding of the Ramah (Rabbi Moshe Isserless) and, in my humble opinion, most of the rishonim and poskim, is that if we actually succeeded in getting the children to ask a question there is no more need or purpose to the mah nishtanah. This is also the simple understanding of the mishna (ibid 118a) that states “They pour for him the second cup and here the son asks”. The mishna then goes on to state the questions of the mah nishtanah, (henceforth M”N), however it is not saying that these are the questions that the son asks. Just the opposite is true. All of the great rishonim explain that since the customs of the time were so rigid in their structure any son would take note that pouring a second cup of wine before we get to hamotzi is so strange it wasn’t even a question that the son would ask, “Abba! What’s going on here?” That is all that is needed in order to skip the M”N. Indeed the second cup is not the only thing that we do differently before the point of the M”N. We also have the karpas, which the gemara states is entirely so that the children ask. So, too, is the urchatz (washing hands before the karpas). In memory of the story of Abaye above we also remove the seder plate from in front of the person saying the haggadah. All of this is done so that we can skip the M”N.
So really M”N is a failsafe for us if we didn’t succeed in getting our children to ask us a question whose essence is “How is this night different?”, or, in the words of the simple son “What’s this?”
The reason for the M”N is because in two out of the four sons the Torah clearly tells us that the best way to do the seder is in response to a question asked, either by the simple son, but preferably by a wise one. We are no worse than a wise son. Therefore the gemara (ibid 118a) tells us that “If his son is wise – he asks him (the person/father who is leading the seder), if he isn’t wise – his wife should ask him”, until the gemara states that even if there are only great talmidei chachamim sitting at the table they ask each other or that the person asks himself the M”N. All of this is brought le’halacha in S”A (OC ???).
After my wedding I traveled with my wife to her family’s house for Pesach, as is the custom to go to your in-laws for the first Pesach after your wedding. Sitting at the table were both of my brother’s in-law, one of whom is irreligious. So we sat down to the seder and began the simanim and kiddush and then my brother-in-law turns to me and says “Shlomo! Why are we doing all of these things”? To which I immediately answered “Patartan milomar mah nishtanah (you have requited us from reciting the M”N. It’s the language of the gemara there).
I wish my kids were that easy
It’s really hard to try and get your kids to ask a question. There was one year that I was sure that I had it figured out! After kiddush I decided that I was going to move everyone away from the table to the couches for the maggid section of the haggadah. So after kiddush we all got up, left the table, went to the couches and… nothing! They didn’t ask a question at all! It was so frustrating.
This year I’m trying a banana as karpas.
One more thing.
If your child isn’t really asking a question, he’s just singing the song that he learned in kindergarten – then repeat the M”N as you haven’t fulfilled it’s purpose yet.
So remember: if you didn’t succeed in getting your kid to ask a question and you do have to say the M”N – don’t worry! You’re in good company! But if you do succeed then know that you have accomplished a great feat – lead your child into the understanding that HaShem runs the world and that He is with us forever and ever, from the day of our leaving Egypt until the end of time.
Pesach Kasher ve’ sameach!
1Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:20
2Shemos (Exodus) 12:26