Noah Leavitt

A child at the seder

The Maxwell House Haggadah, first published in 1932, has both influenced and reflected the practices of most American Jews at the seder. So, it is no surprise that when the Maxwell House Haggadah describes the moment when the Mah Nishtanta – the four questions – are recited that it prescribes a child asks the questions and that the adult seder leader responds by reading Avadim Hayinu. A child asks and an adult answers. However, this is not the practice that is described by the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah. There, the Rambam writes that a child asks questions and the seder leader responds not with an answer but with more questions. Specifically, by reciting the four questions! In this scene, both the child and adult ask before an answer appears and, at least momentarily, the Seder leader too sees the Seder with the bewilderment of a child. What is the origin and meaning of the Rambam’s strange custom of answering questions with questions?

The dominant current practice is rooted in the Babylonian Talmud’s description of questions at the seder. The Gemara describes two scenes which imply that the four questions are not a fundamental part of the seder. In one, a child aged Rabba asks why the table is being removed from before them and in the other Rav Nachman’s slave, Daru, describe how a slave would respond to gaining his freedom. In both cases the Gemara concludes that the four questions can be skipped. The questions appear to be purely instrumental; they are there to ensure children are engaged in the Seder, but they are not essential to the experience of the Seder itself. If the children can be engaged in some other way, like by hearing the experiences of a real-life slave there is no need to recite the four questions. This view is codified in the Shulchan Aruch which states that if one’s child or wife asks the four questions there is no need for the Seder leader to repeat them and reflects the notion the Seder is primarily about transmitting information to one’s children.

The most extreme formulation of this view can be found in the Haggadah of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe. In contrast to other commentaries that connect the obligations of the Seder to the verse, “And when, in time to come, a child of yours asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean…’” (Exodus 13:14), the Satmar Rebbe relates it to the Torah’s injunction, “and that you may recount in the hearing of your child and of your child’s child how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am God” (Exodus 10:2). He writes, “It is significant that it says that you may know that I am Hashem this is why one must tell their son. The intention of any man who fears God is to educate their sons in the way of Torah so that they will love and fear God. This is why one teaches them about the awe of God and their faith will be strengthened for the purpose of man is to instill in future generations faith in God and his Torah…” A child’s questions are not essential in the view of the Satmar Rebbe, what is essential is that the story of God’s miracles is passed on to the next generation. Regardless of what a child does or asks, this information must be communicated at the Seder.

In contrast, the Rambam appears to view the four questions not just as a means to engage a child in the story but also as an end in and of themselves. This may be rooted in an understanding of the role of questions found in rabbinic sources from the Land of Israel. While the Babylonian Talmud saw questions as an educational tool, sources from the Land of Israel, the Mishnah and Jerusalem Talmud, saw cultivating questions as an educational goal. The Mishna states, “And if the son does not have the intelligence his father teaches him: Why is this night different from all other nights?” The father appears to teach his son how to ask questions before he tries to teach him anything about the story of the Exodus. This is similar to the Jerusalem Talmud’s description of the father’s reaction to the son who does not know how to ask. According to the version found in most Haggadahs the father responds with the verse “You shall tell your son on that day ‘It is because of what God did for me when I left Egypt ”’ (Exodus 13:8). However, in the Jerusalem Talmud the father simply prompts this son to ask a question. But why would cultivating questions be a goal in and of itself?

The writer Warren Berger noted that childhood question asking peaks around the age of four or five and declines dramatically as children make their way through school and quickly realize answers are more valued than questions. Berger notes there is a price to be paid for asking few questions: it leads to a narrowing of what we imagine is possible.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik also noted the possibilities that only a child appears able to grasp. Writing, “The child at age three, four, or five is restless. He is always on the move, exploring, and searching for something. Because the child at this age does not distinguish between reality and fantasy, he is not satisfied with his environment, which is dull and unattractive. He looks for a colorful world and expects to find it either in the woods or in the attic. His imagination is in pursuit of something better and fairer, of something he himself cannot name… In a word, a child’s restlessness represents the spontaneous drive to God that every human being experiences, and which in adults also expresses itself in restlessness. The difference between a child and adult consists in the fact that the grown-up experiences the same sense of frustration as Kohelet, his restlessness accompanied by a sense of futility, while the child does not feel at all frustrated. If he is disappointed, he will try again.”

A child is naturally always searching, wondering, and asking because they have not yet become jaded by their experiences. Their world is full of possibilities. In contrast, a slave views the world from the polar opposite perspective. No one is more jaded or experiences life as being more futile than the slave whose oppressors are constantly diminishing his horizon and who is not allowed to ask any questions. The act of question asking then, as Rabbi Soloveitchik describes elsewhere, is an act of spiritual liberation. To see the world through the eyes of a child, to ask questions, is to experience freedom.

The act of asking questions does not only help us reenact the experience of being free, it opens us up to new perspectives. Nehama Leibowitz writes, “The problem is not that people misunderstand what is written, but rather that students think they understand, when actually they don’t… The student does not realize the innovation, or what the verse is telling us, or what idea the verse is opposing. The student does not realize that there are questions embedded here.” Recognizing the questions that lie behind statements allows us to see that there are multiple perspectives and viewpoints that can exist.

This year, when we recite the four questions, may the questions we ask at the seder enable us to see the world through a child’s eyes with endless possibilities and to appreciate the multiplicity of perspectives that surround us.

About the Author
Noah Leavitt has an MA in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University. He received smicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
Related Topics
Related Posts