Four Questions

By Kendell Pinkney

The Four Questions are a series of questions that form one of the central hallmarks of the Passover Haggadah (i.e. the ritual liturgy that accompanies the Passover Seder and meal). It is a custom that the youngest person in attendance at the Seder will recite the questions (and their answers) for the rest of the attendees. The text reads:

מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת? שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין חָמֵץ וּמַצָּה, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה – כֻּלּוֹ מַצָּה. שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין שְׁאָר יְרָקוֹת – הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה (כֻּלּוֹ) מָרוֹר. שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אֵין אָנוּ מַטְבִּילִין אֲפִילוּ פַּעַם אֶחָת – הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים. שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בֵּין יוֹשְׁבִין וּבֵין מְסֻבִּין – הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלָּנוּ מְסֻבִּין.

What differentiates this night from all [other] nights? On all [other] nights we eat chametz and matzah; this night, only matzah. On all [other] nights we eat other vegetables; tonight (only) marror. On all [other] nights, we don’t dip [our food], even one time; tonight [we dip it] twice. On [all] other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining; tonight we all recline.

The form of the questions and their annual repetition are so familiar for many that they often fail to realize that the title “Four Questions” is a misnomer; there are not four questions, rather there is one question with four responses. The Passover Seder, while one of the most beloved Jewish festival meals, draws much of its inspiration and structure from Greco-Roman symposia. In ancient Greece, patrons would hold lavish banquets where after a festive meal, a rhetorical question regarding the food would kick off a long evening of conversation. The Four Questions spring from a similar impulse to turn a meal into a teaching moment by placing the essential teaching in the mouth of the Seder’s youngest attendee.