Ma Nishtana - The Four Questions

April 06th 2017

By Shiffy Silverstone

The thematic number of the Seder is undoubtedly the number four. There are four cups of wine, four expressions of redemption, four questions, four sons, and four verses that we analyse in depth. Several sources suggest that in fact the pattern of four indicates thematic connections between each of these.3

I often wondered what connection there might be between the Four Questions – known as “Mah Nishtana” – and the Four Children discussed shortly afterwards in the Seder.

The Four Questions are:

1. Why do we eat Matzah?

2. Why do we eat Maror?

3. Why do we dip twice?

4. Why do we lean?

The Four Children are:

1.  The Chacham – the wise child.

2.  The Rasha – the wicked child.

3.  The Tam – the simple child.

4.  The She’eino Yodei’a Lish’ol – the apathetic child.

One thing an educator and a therapist have in common is the need to develop a sensitive ear. In order to uncover what is really troubling a client, it is crucial to listen deeply both to what they ask, but also to why they ask it. The same is true for a student who asks about a particular aspect or element of Judaism. To be effective educators, we need to sensitise ourselves to understand what it was that lead to their question. 

The four questions set up the scene. I believe that if we listen carefully to the four questions we hear the four different attitudes of the four children. 

The wise child corresponds to the question about Matzah, because they intuitively understand that Matzah stands at the centre of the Seder, the Pesach story and the lessons learned from this time of year. They look at the religious practices and want to understand the meaning and depth behind them. 

The wicked child is the one who asks about the bitter herbs. They ignore the deep life lessons and the inspiring experience of the Seder. Instead they focus exclusively on that which takes the most effort. In essence they focus on the pain as opposed to the pleasure.

The third child, the simple one, asks the third question - about the dipping. They identify one of the most peripheral rituals of the Seder and chose to make that the focus of his question. They miss the opportunity to ask a meaningful question, instead focusing on a smaller and less significant detail. But there is an opportunity to use the peripheral elements to engage them in deeper discussion. 

The fourth, apathetic, child asks the fourth question, about the relaxing posture of the evening. They seem quite pleased that some form of relaxation is involved in the Seder. They ignore, the good, the bad and ugly of the Seder and just want to chill out.

Each child can be educated. But first we must not simply try to answer their question. First we must try to ask not only ‘what were they asking?’ but ‘what lies behind that question?’ 

On a night of education, the Haggadah may be teaching us that before we can become effective educators, we have to learn to become great listeners.