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Seder Night Companion
Seder night is a highlight of the Jewish calendar for parents and children alike. It is the night that revolves around children, and parents are reminded of the importance of their role as educators.
Rabbi Sacks zt”l explains that on the eve of the original Pesach, at the very moment when a new chapter in the life of the Jewish people began, we found out what it means to be a Jew: “About to gain their freedom, the Israelites were told that they had to become a nation of educators” (Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 32). Being a Jew means being both a student and an educator, and Seder night is our opportunity to focus on both these roles.
Ma Nishtanah is the second section found in our Seder Night Guide, aimed at giving you some ideas and thoughts on several of the core pages from the Haggadah and how Rabbi Sacks understands them. We have created a PDF of the full Seder Night Guide, as well as separate PDFs, so that you can pick and choose which sections to download, print, and discuss at your Seder Table.
You will notice many extracts from Rabbi Sacks’ writings, all sourced from The Jonathan Sacks Haggadah, published by Koren. This guide is designed to be used in conjunction with a Haggadah; it is not a replacement for one.
Table of Contents
- Ma Nishtanah
- In a Nutshell
- Deep Dive
- Further Thoughts
- Questions to Think About (and Ask) at your Seder
- Experiencing the Seder
- Educational Companion
IN A NUTSHELL
There are four places in the Torah where it speaks of children asking questions about Pesach – and each of these four verses are the sources for the Four Children’s questions. This inspired a tradition that the story of the Exodus from Egypt must be told, wherever possible, in response to the questions asked by children, and this is where the idea for the four questions in Ma Nishtanah comes from. The origin of the text is the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:4) although the words have changed slightly over time to reflect our changing practices (for instance, since the destruction of the Temple, we can no longer bring the Korban, so the fifth question (on serving roast meat) is no longer included in Ma Nishtanah).
The Torah has two words for inheritance, yerushah and nachalah, and they represent the two different ways in which a heritage is passed on across the generations. The word nachalah comes from the root nachal, which also means ‘river’. It represents an inheritance that is merely handed down, without any work on the part of the recipient, as water flows in a river. Yerushah, by contrast, means active inheritance. R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch pointed out that lareshet, the verbal form of yerushah, sometimes means ‘to conquer’ or ‘to capture’. It means actively taking hold of what one has been promised. An inheritance for which one has worked is always more secure than one for which one has not. That is why Judaism encourages children to ask questions. When a child asks, they have already begun the work of preparing to receive. Torah is a yerushah, not a nachalah. It needs work on behalf of the child if it is to be passed on across the generations.
Commentary on Ma Nishtanah,
The Jonathan Sacks Haggadah
How does Ma Nishtanah and the role of children asking questions affect your experience of the Seder?
Religious faith has often been seen as naive, blind, accepting. That is not the Jewish way. Judaism is not the suspension of critical intelligence. To the contrary: asking a question is itself a profound expression of faith in the intelligibility of the universe and the meaningfulness of human life. To ask is to believe that somewhere there is an answer. The fact that throughout history people have devoted their lives to extending the frontiers of knowledge is a compelling testimony to the restlessness of the human spirit and its constant desire to go further, higher, deeper. Far from faith excluding questions, questions testify to faith – that history is not random, that the universe is not impervious to our understanding, that what happens to us is not blind chance. We ask not because we doubt, but because we believe.
The Art of Asking Questions,
The Jonathan Sacks Haggadah
How is asking questions “an expression of faith”? Doesn’t it show a lack of faith?
Questions to Think About (and Ask) at your Seder
- Why do you think we encourage children to ask questions on Seder night?
- Are there any bad questions?
- Do all questions have answers? What do we do when no one we know has the answer to a question?
A STORY FOR THE NIGHT OF STORIES
Isidor Rabi won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1944. When he was asked why he became a scientist, he replied:
“My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other mother would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. ‘Isi,’ she would say, ‘Did you ask a good question today?’ Asking good questions made me a scientist.”
Rabbi Sacks often used this example to illustrate the importance of learning by asking questions. Whereas other religions teach children to have unwavering, unquestioning faith, Judaism teaches us from a very young age to ask questions, and it all begins with parents teaching their children “Mah Nishtanah”.
Do you get more invested in learning when you are encouraged to ask questions?
- Learning through questions makes the educational process engaging and empowering for the learner.
- Any question asked from a desire for knowledge without secondary agenda is a good question. There are no bad questions in this case.
- Not all questions have answers, or at least answers that we as finite humans can find or understand. Some questions only the infinite God can answer. But we don’t stop asking the questions. The questions are more important than the answers.