Questions on the Night of the Seder

  • Rav Shimon Klein


"At this stage the son questions his father"


The night of the Seder is largely focused on a dialogue between parents and children. This idea is clearly manifested in the term "Haggada," which embodies the directive "And you shall tell (ve-higadeta) your son."[1] What is the proper manner of saying something to future generations? In this study we shall examine sources from the Mishna, the Talmud, and the Haggada, and consider Chazal's attitude toward the posing of questions. We shall seek out their meaning and purpose, and try to understand their role on the night of the Seder and in the learning process in general.


The Mishna in Pesachim states:


They filled a second cup for him. At this stage the son questions his father; if the son is unintelligent, his father instructs him [to ask]: "Why is this night different from all [other] nights. For on all [other] nights we eat leavened and unleavened bread, bread, whereas on this night [we eat] only unleavened bread; on all other night we eat all kinds of herbs, on this night only bitter herbs; on all other nights we eat meat roast, stewed or boiled, on this night, roast only. On all other nights we dip once, but on this night we dip twice."

And according to the son's intelligence his father instructs him.

He commences with shame and concludes with praise; and he expounds from "A wandering Aramaean was my father" (Devarim 26:5), until he completes the entire section.


The first cup is the cup of Kiddush, and over the second cup we recite the Haggada. This Mishna deals with the pouring of the second cup, and the Haggada that is recited over that cup. "They filled a second cup for him. At this stage the son questions his father" - the first step taken in the Haggada is neither a story, nor a statement, nor a novel insight of the person conducting the Seder. The on-switch for these are the son's questions. Needless to say, they are not formulated in advance, for he asks in accordance with his heart's desire.[2] "If the son is unintelligent, his father instructs him [to ask]" – if the son lacks the intelligence to ask on his own, the father must teach him how to ask. How can one teach one's child to ask questions? What questions should he ask? Teaching a person to ask involves drawing his attention, arousing his curiosity, and driving an internal process that will result in questions. The father must direct himself to the child's world, to the questions that the child would likely find meaningful. In fact, the Mishna brings four questions, through which we can understand what sort of questions Chazal are referring to: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" What is embedded in the special mitzvot and customs performed on this night – the matza, maror, Paschal offering, and dipping. A question raised regarding these practices is an invitation to clarify their nature, their meaning, and the values that they reflect. "And according to the son's intelligence his father instructs him" – to ask. This note is a continuation of the previous note. The Mishna first teaches that the father teaches his son how to ask, and now it emphasizes that the questions must correlate with the child's world and intelligence.


The directive: "He commences with shame and concludes with praise" closes the Mishna dealing with the questions, and adds another layer to it. "Commencing with shame" means dealing with slavery and its difficulties at the beginning of the evening, and undergoing a process that includes a transition to words of praise. This transition parallels the transition from questions which reflect a non-reconciled psychological position, to answers that represent a position of reconciliation. This internal structure also finds expression in the Torah section of "A wandering Aramaean was my father," which is expounded on the night of the Seder. "And he expounds from 'A wandering Aramaean was my father,' until he completes the entire section" – the verses recited by one who brings his first-fruits to the Temple open with the story of Yaakov's going down to Egypt, the slavery in Egypt, and end with Israel's entry into the Promised Land and the bringing of first-fruits. This story is sort of the skeleton of the Pesach Haggada. It tells of the internal pulse in which lies the movement from a position of questions to one of answers.


            Let us summarize the educational principles thus far reflected in the Mishna: The first step in the Haggada is that of the son who asks his father as his heart desires; if the son lacks intelligence, his father instructs him how to ask; four questions are mentioned in the Mishna and they serve as a model for possible questions about the meaning of the laws and customs; the story told on the night of the Seder should not begin before questions are asked. In the wake of these questions, we shift to the stage of telling the story of the exodus from Egypt.


Nothing is taken for granted


Another encounter with the concept of "questioning" is found in the following Talmudic statement:


Why do we remove the table? They said in the school of Rabbi Yannai: So that the children will notice and raise questions… (Pesachim 115b)


The son is sitting at the table, and suddenly the table is being removed from before him.[3] The expected question is: Why? As opposed to the four questions in the Mishna, which relate to this particular detail or another, this question relates to the very standing of the meal. Why is the table being removed even before the meal has begun? asks the son. The answer lies in the following distinction:  Indeed, this is not an ordinary meal. We removed the table, and now we turn to the Haggada – to the questions, to the answers, and to all the special things that will happen this night.[4]


"A person asks himself"


Here is another source, a Baraita, which sheds light on the importance of questioning on this night from another perspective:


Our Rabbis taught: If his son is intelligent he asks him, while if he is not intelligent his wife asks him; but if not, he asks himself. And even two scholars who know the laws of Passover ask one another. (Pesachim 116a)


Here the Talmud goes one step further in relation to the Mishna with which this study opened. Now, the child's question is not the subject, for were this the case, the father would be obligated to teach his child to ask, as the law is taught in the Mishna. Here the issue is the very existence of questions in the learning process. The wise man will not say anything before a question is asked, and therefore, the child asks. If the child cannot satisfy this need in fitting fashion, the wife asks. And if she too is not intelligent, the wise man asks himself or his fellow sage. This is because significant learning passes through a question, even when the learner must pose the question to himself.


Internal process


Now we can ask: What is embedded in the choice to open the Haggada with questions? Or: What is the significance of questions being so strongly associated with the night of the Seder? An intriguing question. When a person lacks something, he wishes to complete it and shifts to a position of "absorption." When nothing is difficult for him, additional knowledge rests upon him as a burden, and his heart will not open its gates to let it in.


On a deeper level, we can identify two phases in the absorption process: At the first stage, a person absorbs information, holds on to part of it, and defines it. At the second stage, he understands and internalizes, and an adjustment is made in the information that is stored inside of him. Oftentimes a person absorbs information at the level of initial absorption, but does not move on to the next level. There can be many reasons for this: the absence of preliminary information, the lack of an appropriate conceptual foundation, or some other cognitive fixation that does not allow for the new knowledge to be internalized. In such situations, a question highlights the gap between the place of the person and his consciousness, on the one hand, and the new information which wishes to enter into his world. Without a fitting answer, the person will not be able to move on to the stage of internal absorption and internalization.


In other words, when a person asks a question, two things happen inside him at the same time. The first event is clear and manifest - a substantive question is raised about an issue at hand. The second event is hidden and concealed – involving the fundamental assumptions within which he is working, and what is happening in his inner world. For example, two people hear a story that describes some moral injustice. The first one has many questions; the second one has none. More than anything else, the gap between them attests to different sets of values, to the moral sensitivity of the first one, and to its absence in the world of the second. How common it is that a group of people are exposed to a particular occurrence, and each one has a different question. One has an educational question, the other a religious one, the third will ask from the world of the spirit, while the fourth will question from the perspective of morality. In such a situation, the questions serve as a window looking into the inner world of those who pose them.


To conclude this section, let us formulate certain ethical principles: The conception and birth of a question are based on the questioner's faith in his internal world, in his ideas and feelings about reality standing at his gate;[5] the greater the person's faith in his world, the stronger the question, and in corresponding manner, the greater his power to go out in search of a meaningful answer; the question serves as a faithful representative of the questioner's set of values, and of the spiritual world that he carries about inside of him.


"Enlarge the place of your tent"


Another aspect of the significance of the question emerges from the following story: One day an apple fell on Newton's head. He asked: Why? This question opened a pursuit that ended in the discovery of gravity. Newton was not the first person who had an apple fall on his head, but he was the first person who asked a serious question: Why? Scientific research is based on the assumption that nothing should be taken for granted. Everything has a cause, a logic or law that leads to it. In this context a question establishes a path of research, a horizon, boundaries, and in the end it will lead to meaning and significance.


And from here - to Torah study: What questions preoccupy someone studying biblical verses? What questions preoccupy a person who is studying Midrash or a Talmudic passage? The questions posed by a person engaged in study define the limits of that study – its contents, its values, and its depths. A person who approaches the passage and presents the text with conceptual questions locates his study in the conceptual field. Someone who approaches it with philological questions directs his study and his insights arising from it to this field. Someone who asks a question from the realm of the spirit or from the realm of morality lays out the passage in accordance with criteria taken from those realms.


Even with respect to Torah study, nothing need be taken for granted. Not because of lack of trust, but just the opposite. "I do not share really good questions with another person, when I am concerned about embarrassing him. I ask when I have confidence in him and in his Torah." Under this heading, honest questions constitute a deep invitation to expand the boundaries, to conduct a deep dialogue with the various parts of reality, and thus to bring the Torah to its natural place – as a living Torah that is relevant to this world.


"Ask my son and I will tell you"


Another source that deals with questioning is found in a Midrash relating to the four sons:


The Torah speaks of four children: One is wise, one is wicked, one is simple and one does not know how to ask.

The wise one, what does he say? "What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which the Lord, our God, has commanded you?" (Devarim 6:20). You, in turn, shall instruct him in the laws of Passover, [up to]: One is not to eat any dessert after the Pascal offering.

The wicked one, what does he say? "What is this service to you?!" (Shemot 12:26). "To you," but not to him! By thus excluding himself from the community he has denied that which is fundamental [God]. You, therefore, blunt his teeth and say to him: "It is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt" (Shemot 13:8); "For me" - but not for him! If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed!

The simple son, what does he say? "What is this?" Thus you shall say to him: "With a strong hand the Lord took us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves" (Shemot 13:14).

As for the one who does not know how to ask, you must initiate him, as it is said: "You shall tell your child on that day, It is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt" (Shemot 13:8).


This section of the Haggada is taken from a Midrash that is based on four biblical passages, which were interpreted by the Midrash and the Haggada as referring to four different sons. From where did the Midrash take these identifications? It seems as follows: Three biblical passages mention a question raised by a son along with his father's answer. Another passage describes the father's telling a story without a question having preceded it. Chazal identify in each question the spiritual world of the questioner. "What are the testimonies, the statues and the laws, which the Lord our God, has commanded you?" asks the son, who Chazal identify as the wise son. "What is this service to you" asks another son, who is identified as the wicked son. The one who asks "What is this?" is identified as the simple son. And the one who is silent is identified as one who does not know how to ask. Like the first three whose questions serve as a window looking into their worlds, the window looking into the world of the fourth son is also connected to the question, only that in its absence that son is identified as one who does not know how to ask.


Now let us ask about the structure in which the four sons are presented – the wise son first, the wicked son following him, then the simple son, and finally the son who does not know how to ask. This structure veers from the order in which these questions appear in the Torah, where the son identified as the wicked son is mentioned first, then the son who does not know how to ask, after which comes the simple son, and finally the wise son. This change constitutes an invitation to the world of the spirit. Four possible positions between children and their parents are described in this section: The wise one, what does he say? "What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which the Lord, our God, has commanded you?" The wise son sees himself as part of the story, he is involved, he asks about matters of substance, about details. The wicked one, what does he say? "What is this service to you?!" The wicked son takes a step backward in relation to the wise one. He stands outside the picture and does not take part in what is happening, but nevertheless he knows to say that there is service here, and he asks about it in wonder. The simple son, what does he say? "What is this?" The simple son takes another step backward. He already is unable to identify the service, and this question, "What is this"? speaks of interest from a distant position, as one who is not involved in the event. As for the one who does not know how to ask, you must initiate him – the fourth son is far off, his father's activity is not an issue for him, he neither asks nor is he interested in it. The process gradually diminishes, from the great involvement of the first son, to the son whose involvement does not exist at all. In the context of the idea of a question, which reflects the place, the inner position, of the questioner, the four sons represent four positions in which they stand in the face of the Torah given to them by their parents. The wise son sees himself as connected and involved; he asks questions and takes a stand. The second son stands behind him, alienated but not indifferent. The third son adopts a position of curiosity without involvement. The fourth son is the most distant of all. He has no questions and his father's activity does not touch his world.




Three and a half thousand years ago, at midnight, God passed over Egypt, sending out His strong hand, and from that moment we began our long, joint journey as a people. The mitzva of telling the story of the exodus from Egypt invites parents to the point of beginning, to the first steps, and casts upon them the obligation to tell the story, and to teach it to the next generation. At the same time, it takes nothing for granted. It invites the father to tell ("And you shall tell your son on that day, saying" [Shemot 13:8]), the son to ask ("And it shall be when your son will ask you" (Shemot 13:14), and between the two of them to conduct a deep dialogue, a type of meeting that can be created on the seam between the generations.


For further thought – What kind of questions do I ask? What role do these questions play in my life?


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] "And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did to me when I came out of Egypt" (Shemot 13:8).

[2] In the wake of the Mishna, it may be suggested that the person conducting the Seder should at this point turn to all those sitting around the table and invite them to ask questions. Over the course of the evening, discussions will develop around these questions – in connection with the Haggada and beyond it.

[3] This practice developed in the context of a reality in which a private table was set in front of each of the diners.

[4] This removal of the table appears to be a practice that post-dates the Mishna, and reflects the change that took place from the structure of the meal as it is presented in the Mishna to that which is presented in the Gemara. According to the Mishna in the tenth chapter of Pesachim, the meal preceded the recitation of the Haggada. The entire chapter is arranged in chronological order, and the third Mishna describes a meal which includes the Paschal offering. The second cup and the recitation of the Haggada appear only in the fourth Mishna of that chapter. This was the customary practice when the Paschal offering and the chagiga offering which was eaten before it were part of the meal. In such a reality, it stands to reason that the eating of the sacrificial meat should not be pushed off to later. After the sacrificial service ceased, Chazal pushed up the recitation of the Haggada and together with that the second cup, and pushed back the meal to a later stage.

Because of this enactment, large parts of the Haggada were recited before the meal, in a mental state of questioning, as opposed to the Haggada that is recited after the meal, in a state of resolution.

[5] As opposed to the position in which the learner accepts what he has learned as is, and nullifies his world before it. A question establishes a position in which the "I" exists, and from that position one can meet a new and different world. The result will be a significant meeting of two worlds.