A short history of how the Mah Nishtana changed: From three to four to five questions
Prof. Joseph Tabory
For many, asking the Four Questions, or Mah Nishtana, is their earliest memory of the Passover Seder. The standard version of the Mah Nishtana, now recited by children early in the Seder, reads:
The Ma Nishtana
מַה נִּשְּׁתַּנָה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין חָמֵץ וּמַצָּה, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלּוֹ מַצָּה.
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין שְׁאָר יְרָקוֹת הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מָרוֹר.
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אֵין אָנוּ מַטְבִּילִין אֲפִילוּ פַּעַם אֶחָת, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִי.
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בֵּין יוֹשְׁבִין וּבֵין מְסֻבִּין, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלָּנוּ מְסֻבִּין.
Why is this night different from all other nights of the year?
On all other nights we eat leavened bread and unleavened bread, on this night [we eat] only unleavened bread.
On all other nights we eat various vegetables, on this night [we eat] bitter herbs.
On all other nights we do not dip even once, on this night we dip twice.
On all other nights we eat either sitting or leaning, on this night we all [eat] leaning.
Modern Versus Ancient Versions of the Questions
Yet, medieval manuscripts of the Mishnah and Haggadah demonstrate that originally, there were only three questions, not four. What were the original three questions, and how did they expand into four, and in some versions, even five questions?
The eleventh century Parma manuscript1 of the Mishnah reads:
|משנה, פסחים פ”י||m. Pesahim 10|
מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות:
שבכל הלילות אנו מטבלים פעם אחת הלילה הזה שתי פעמים.
שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים חמץ ומצה הלילה הזה כולו מצה.
שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים בשר צלי שלוק ומבושל, הלילה הזה כולו צלי.
|Why2 is this night different from all other nights of the year:
On all other nights we dip once, on this night [we dip] twice.
On all other nights we eat leavened bread and unleavened bread, on this night [we eat] only unleavened bread.
On all other nights we eat meat roasted, broiled and cooked, on this night [we eat] only roast.
This version varies in the following respects:
Missing Two questions: (1) Bitter herbs (“שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין שְׁאָר יְרָקוֹת, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מָרוֹר”; “on all other nights we eat all sorts of vegetables, on this night [we eat] bitter herbs”); and (2) leaning (“שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בֵּין יוֹשְׁבִין וּבֵין מְסֻבִּין, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלָּנוּ מְסֻבִּין.”; “On all other nights we eat either sitting or leaning, on this night we all [eat] leaning”).
Extra Question: Why only roasted meat at the seder (“שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים בשר צלי שלוק ומבושל, הלילה הזה כולו צלי.”; “On all other nights we eat meat roasted, broiled and cooked, on this night [we eat] only roast.”)
A Different Version of the Dipping Question: The Mishnah has “on all other nights we dip once,” while the modern version states that “on all other nights we do not dip even once.”3
The Subject of the Three Original Questions
Is the Maror Question Missing?
The last two questions presented in the Mishnah concern two of the three unique foods of the seder – the mitzvah of eating matzah and the consumption of roasted meat. But why is there no question about the third required food, the bitter herbs? Furthermore, why was a marginally important question about “double dipping” posed in its stead?
These issues can be resolved by first looking at the early custom of “dipping” as prescribed in the Mishnah. According to m. Pesaḥim 10.3, both dippings should be done with חזרת (lettuce),4 which was the preferred vegetable to be used to fulfill the obligation of eating “bitter herbs” at the seder (m. Pesaḥim 2.6). In this way, the thrust of the concluding part of the question, “we dip twice,” may be understood as asking why lettuce, namely bitter herbs, was dipped twice. This question thus refers to eating bitter herbs at the seder, just as the query about how the meat should be prepared refers to the obligation to eat roasted meat at the Seder.5
The original three questions in the Mishnah refer to the three foods that were obligatory on the Seder evening: roast meat (either that of the paschal lamb or roast meat served in memory of the paschal lamb),6 unleavened bread, and bitter herbs.7
The Evolving Practice of Dipping
The Mah Nishtana began to change once the question about double dipping was no longer understood as referring to the bitter herbs. Indeed, already the Jerusalem Talmud reports that Rav, one of the early amoraim, ate תורדין (beet leaves)8 instead of lettuce at the first dipping.
Similarly, the Haggadot that follow the rite of the land of Israel suggest that people ate many other foods at the first dipping; this dipping became a first course at which people would enjoy fruits, nuts, eggs and even sugared rice.9 Some amoraim in Babylon even thought that the lettuce used for bitter herbs must not be eaten at the first dipping due to a question about when the blessing for bitter herbs should be said.10 Simply put, if lettuce was not eaten at all during the first dipping, or if it was eaten then alongside other vegetables, the Mishnah’s question of dipping twice would not have been understood as referring to the bitter herbs.
Reinterpreting the Dipping Question and Adding the Maror Question
Once this question was no longer understood to refer to t the commandment of consuming bitter herbs, it was easily reinterpreted as simply asking why, regardless of the vegetable used,11 there were two dipping.12 This motivated the addition of a question that related specifically to the obligatory consumption of bitter herbs:13
שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים שאר ירקות, הלילה הזה מרורים14
|On all other nights we eat various vegetables, on this night [we eat]15 bitter herbs.”|
Thus, the three questions had become four.
Eating Roast Meat at the Seder
The next change entailed the disappearance of the question about eating only roast meat. In the early custom of the Land of Israel, roast meat was eaten at the seder in commemoration of the paschal sacrifice, which had to be consumed roasted. Haggadot found in the Cairo Geniza contain a blessing mentioning an obligation to eat roast meat.16 However, many Babylonian authorities considered it improper to eat roast meat at the seder, since this might be thought of as eating the paschal sacrifice after the destruction of the Temple.
Eliminating the Meat Question and Adding a New Question about Leaning
As a result of this change in the menu, the question about roast meat conflicted with the common practice.17 The dominant solution was to eliminate this question altogether.18
We cannot precisely date when the custom of eating roast meat ceased, nor when asking a question about it was eliminated from the Haggadah. However, it is notable that almost all of the Haggadot which lack the question about roast meat include the question about leaning. In other words, the elimination of the question about roast meat from the Haggadah was apparently connected with the inclusion of this new question:
שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים בין יושבין ובין מסובין, הלילה הזה כולנו מסובין
|On all other nights we eat either sitting or leaning, on this night we all [eat] leaning.|
It is possible that the question about leaning was added to replace the question about roast meat at a time when it was assumed that there must be four questions.19
The Five(!) Questions
Everyone familiar with the dynamics of liturgy know that texts meant as replacements don’t always dislodge the texts they were meant to replace. Thus, we have some texts that have five questions: the four contained in the modern text and the question about roast meat. For example, Maimonides presents all five questions in his halachic text (Yad hachazaka, Chamez umatzah, 8, 2).20 However, he subsequently declares that
בזמן הזה אינו אומר והלילה הזה כולו צלי שאין לנו קרבן (חמץ ומצה ח, ג)
|“nowadays, he does not say ‘on this night [we eat] only roasted meat’ since we do not have a sacrifice” (8,3).|
However, two Haggadot from the Geniza retain five questions. One of them, held today in New York (ENA 2018 1v), has the five questions in the same order as Maimonides; another Geniza Haggadah that is in Cambridge (TS H2.152) agrees. Note how the question about roast meat appears in the following version:
שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים בין בשר צלי שלוק ומבושל והלילה הזה היינו אוכלים בבית המקדש כולו צלי
|On all other nights we eat meat whether roasted, broiled or cooked, on this night we used to eat in the Temple only roast meat.|
The addition of the clause “we used to eat in the Temple” shows the scribe’s awareness that this question is no longer relevant and he should have skipped it. Nevertheless, the scribe did not want to abandon this earlier version and he chose to revise it rather than erase it. One might note that this version connexts this question wtth the words of R. Gamliel, as formulated in later Haggadot, “the paschal sacrifice which our ancestors used to eat when the Temple existed”. However, the scribe felt a closer attachment to the subject. He does not refer to what our ancestors ate but to what “we used to eat”.
This quick survey has shown how liturgical texts can change over time, and more specifically how the original text of three question was modified, both by addition and subtraction, to reflect the changing realities of the paschal meal. The history of these modifications exemplifies the way Jewish custom struggles to adapt tradition to reality and reality to tradition. It also shows how certain liturgical forms that we feel are fundamental and ancient—such as the four Seder questions—are not as ancient as we might think, and are themselves the result of complex historical developments.
- The Parma manuscript is considered the second best manuscript of the Mishna. The Kaufmann manuscript is considered the best manuscript but there is a serious scribal error in the version of the question about dipping in this manuscript. As a result, we have preferred citing the Parma manuscript. Other medieval Mishnah manuscripts offer minor variations of the text. For a fuller description of the manuscripts see H. L. Strack and G. Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), pp. 138-139. ↩
- A better translation might be “In what ways is this night different… See Richard C. Steiner, “On the Original Structure and Meaning of ‘Mah Nishtannah’ and the History of its Reinterpretation,” JSIJ 7 (2008): 163–204. ↩
- The change of “we dip once” to “we do not even dip once” clearly reflects different everyday culinary practices. Further discussion of this change will be left for another occasion. ↩
- Although there is a consensus that lettuce is prescribed in the Mishnah for both dippings, there is a historical disagreement about whether this was in fact the earliest practice. Henshke maintains that other vegetables were originally used for the first dipping and it was only later that lettuce became mandatory for this dipping. See D. Henshke, Mah Nishtanah: The Passover Night in the Sages’ Discourse (Hebrew; Jerusalem: Magnes, 2016), p. 288–289. For the theory that this was the original practice, see J. Tabory, The Passover Ritual Throughout the Generations (Hebrew; Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz hameuchad, 1996), p. 251. ↩
- Notably, neither question refers to the name of the halachic obligation, rather the way the food is eaten. Perhaps this was seen as a more suitable way for a child to ask. However, there may be a more significant reason for this: The seder in the Mishnah represents the seder as conducted after the destruction of the Temple. Although people ate roast meat after the destruction, in commemoration of the Paschal sacrifice, it would have been inappropriate to refer to the roast meat as “Pesaḥ” as that might make people think of it as an actual sacrifice rather than as a substitute. Indeed, this is the reason that Ashkenazim do not eat roast meat at the seder and Sefardim limit the types of roast meat that may be eaten (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim, 476:1; cf. Shemtov Gaguine, Keter Shem Tov (London, 1948), 3, p. 165). ↩
- It is very likely that the custom of eating only roasted meat at the seder was practiced for many generations after the paschal lamb was no longer offered. See below. ↩
- Already Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman (1843-1921) suggested that there were only three questions and that they referred to the obligatory foods. Furthemore, he demonstrated that the answers to these questions are found later in the Haggadah, in the statement of R. Gamliel explaining the significance of these foods. However, the manuscripts of the Mishnah were not available to him, and he thought that the question of bitter herbs was original, rather than the one about dipping. For a fuller discussion of Hoffman’s theories, see Michael Chernick, “The Pesach Seder of the “First Mishna.” ↩
- In late antiquity, beets were cultivated for their leaves, and their root was considered insignificant. See L. Löw, Die Flora der Juden (Wien and Leipzig, 1928), I, p. 347; J. Feliks, Plants and Animals of the Mishnah (Hebrew; Jerusalem 1983), p. 173. The botanical name is Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla. The leaves are now commonly known as chard or mangold (סלק עלים). I am grateful to Prof. Zohar Amar for his help on this. The leaves of chard today are commonly described as having a bitter taste and thus may have been thought of as something appropriate for bitter herbs. However, Theophrastus describes this vegetable as having a sweet taste. The Yerushalmi suggests that these beets were not considered bitter herbs. ↩
- See Ezra Fleischer, “Fragments from Eretx Israel prayerbooks found in the Geniza” (Hebrew), Kovetz al yad, 13 (1980, p. 124. ↩
- Tabory, pp. 255-258. Cf. Henshke, p. 283 who maintains that the Babylonian use of other vegetables for the first dipping started much earlier. In this view, the earliest custom was replaced by the mishnaic prescription of lettuce for the first dipping. Only later did they revert to the original custom. ↩
- It may be noted that a Yiddish translation of the questions elaborates on this point: “…the first time karpas in salt water; the second time maror in haroset”. See, for example, מאיר וייס, תמידים כסדרם, בני ברק תשס”ו, עמ’ תתקיד. See Henshke, pp. 271-276 and the literature cited in n. 417. ↩
- Once the Haggadah no longer preserved an answer to this question some explained that the double dipping was just an unusual custom with no meaning other than to impress the children and arouse their curiosity. ↩
- We do not know exactly when the question about bitter herbs was added. It is noteworthy that this question appears in several texts of the Mishna, although admittedly these texts are late ones. The question appears in the first printed edition of the Mishnah(Naples 1492) and in all subsequent editions. It also appears in the Mishnah of the first edition of the Babylonian Talmud (Venice, ca. 1523) and in all subsequent editions. There is indirect evidence of the appearance of this question in the Mishnahat an earlier period: The Tosafot (13th-14th century) comment on the text of this question in their commentary on the Talmud, implying that this question appeared in the mishnah included in their talmudic text. See Bavli, Pesachim 116a, הלילה הזה מרור; Cf. Rashbam, Pesachim 116a, אטו כל יומא ↩
- This is the original version of this new question. Merorim mentioned in the Torah as required on Passover was considered by the Rabbis as a generic term referring to any type of bitter herb, while the term maror is used in the Mishnah for a specific type of bitter herb. ↩
- The word “only” (כולו) does not appear in the earliest witnesses of this question. In some later texts it was added to increase the similarity between this question and the question of the matzah. See Tabory (above, n. 13), pp. 20—21 for documentation. In the Safrai edition of the Haggadah the word כולו was surrounded with parentheses but no explanation for this was given. ↩
- See Henshke, p. 22, n. 18 and the sources cited there. ↩
- For a short discussion of this see S. and Z. Safrai, Haggada of the Sages (Hebrew), Jerusalem, Carta, 1998, pp. 27—30. For the question of leaning see op. cit., pp. 114–115. ↩
- The elimination is quite noticeable in a Geniza manuscript which has only two questions: matzah and dipping. See Louis Ginzberg, Genizah Studies in Memory of Dr. Solomon Shechter, II, New York, 1928-1929, p. 259. That said, this omission here may be a scribal error. Notably, there are two other Haggadot which have only two questions, concerning dipping and roast meat; the missing question there about matzah must surely be considered a scribal error. One is the Dropsie Haggadah (MS CJS) in which the missing question has been added in another hand and the other is JTS MS 9560, published by Jay Rovner, “An early Passover Haggadah According to the Palestinian Rite,” Jewish Quarterly Review, 90 (2000): 337–396. For a discussion of the number of questions see ibid., 350-352. For a corrected version of note 59 in Rovner’s article see Rovner, “Corrigenda,” Jewish Quarterly Review 91 (2001): 429. ↩
- The Vilna Gaon was apparently the first to suggest this switching of questions but he thought that this was done immediately after the destruction of the Temple. See Yitzchak Melzan, Seder Haggadah shel Pesach… Elijah of Vilna (Hebrew; Jerusalem 1993), p. 50. Based on the Land of Israel Haggadot, the idea that this occurred immediately after the destruction of the Temple is untenable. Indeed, late Land of Israel Haggadot retain the question about roast meat and lack the question about leaning. However, the Babylonian Haggadot present a different picture. We have almost no Babylonian Haggadot that include the question about roast, or lack the question about leaning. Thus, the date of this version could be very early, perhaps, indeed, shortly after the destruction of the Temple. The question about leaning has not been found in any mishnaic or talmudic text, despite extensive talmudic discussion about the requirement of leaning, suggesting that it was added at a later period. ↩
- The order is: dipping, matzah, roast meat, bitter herbs, and leaning. This order follows the historical development of the text, as the question about bitter herbs follows the original three questions about the three special foods, and is followed by the question about leaning. ↩