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On the Origin of Passover’s Four Questions and the Renewal of Miracles

The Talmud is not a literary text, yet its role in maintaining the continuity of Jewish history is undeniable

Adam Kirsch
October 22, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Bryan Frank/Flickr)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Bryan Frank/Flickr)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

The Talmud is not a literary text; yet finishing a tractate, as Daf Yomi readers did with Tractate Pesachim this week, can’t help but feel a little like getting to the end of a book. I look back on what I’ve read over the last few months and find that I have gone through a whole range of different responses—feelings of familiarity, tenderness, curiosity, estrangement, and resistance, depending on the Talmudic subject matter. The shape of Pesachim is like a circle: It began with a homely subject, the cleansing of chametz, and now at the end it returns to the home, with a discussion of Seder practices like the Four Questions and the afikoman. Along the way, however, this circular path traveled through some very exotic regions: not just the long-obsolete protocols for making sacrifices at the Temple, but speculations on the nature of the cosmos and the habits of demons and witches.

The last pages of Pesachim, I find, are suffused with a kind of celebratory, homecoming feeling, as the rabbis finally bring the discussion around to the Passover Seder—something that, after 1,500 years, is still familiar to every practicing Jew. In fact, it is thanks to the Haggadah that most Jews know at least a little bit of the Mishnah, though they may not recognize it as such. Not until I started reading Daf Yomi did I realize that the Haggadah passages that begin “Rabban Gamliel used to say,” or similar phrases, are actually quotations from the Mishnah, following the standard pattern for attributing opinions to a sage.

Remember, for instance, the passage in the Seder in which Rabban Gamliel says, “Anyone who did not explain these three matters on Passover has not fulfilled his obligation: Pesach, matza, and maror”? This is followed by holding up and explaining each of these items: The Passover sacrifice commemorates the way God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt; the matzo reminds us of the hastily baked bread of the fleeing Israelites; and the bitter herbs recall the way “the Egyptians embittered our forefathers’ lives.” All of this, I discovered this week, comes verbatim from Pesachim 116b, where we read about Rabban Gamliel’s instructions in the Mishnah.

This passage is characteristic of the Mishnah: It consists of straightforward instructions, making clear what Jews are supposed to do and why. The ensuing discussion in the Gemara is equally characteristic, but in a different way: It shows how the Amoraim took the discussion of the laws in directions that often seem strange and arbitrary and that are impossible to predict. Take, for instance, Rav Acha bar Yaakov’s comments on Rabban Gamliel’s words. In Acha’s view, we can derive from the Mishnah the conclusion that “a blind person is exempt from reciting the Haggadah.”

How does this follow? Rabban Gamliel cites a passage from Exodus to explain why we are obligated to retell the Passover story: “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: It is because of this which the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt.” I always find this a particularly moving moment in the Seder, since it does in one sentence what the whole Seder—in some sense, all of Judaism—is trying to do: It collapses the distance between us, who cannot see God, and the generation of the Exodus, who did see Him.

Rav Acha seizes on the word “this” in the quotation from scripture. “This,” he assumes, is a signal to point to the items just discussed, the Pesach offering, matzo, and maror. We are obligated to display each of these items as they are discussed, but a blind person would not be able to see them to point them out; therefore, it must be that a blind person is exempt from reading the Haggadah. To enforce the point, Acha draws a scriptural analogy. In Deuteronomy, Moses lays down a procedure whereby the parents of a rebellious son can turn him over to the community to be executed. This involves saying, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he does not listen to our voice.” In interpreting that verse, the Talmud says that the words “this son of ours” imply that the parents are pointing at the son, which a blind person can’t do, and so they cannot be used by a blind parent. Doesn’t the same logic apply here, on Passover?

But Acha is immediately challenged by the most potent evidence of all: the actual practice of the sages. We hear about two great scholars, Rav Yosef and Rav Sheshet, both of whom were blind, and both of whom recited the Haggadah. Clearly, then, Acha has misinterpreted Rabban Gamliel’s words. When we say “it is because of this,” the word “this” does not have to be accompanied by pointing; rather, it “comes because of the matzo and bitter herbs,” that is, it merely refers to those items. Therefore a blind person is free to recite the Haggadah after all. But the ingenious, oblique way Acha deduced a new rule from an old rule is highly typical of the Gemara, even though in this case he was shot down by his fellow sages.

The most familiar part of the Haggadah, of course, is the Four Questions, and these too have their origin in the Mishnah. On Pesachim 116a, we read that the son must ask the father questions about Passover, “and if his son does not have the intelligence to ask questions on his own, his father teaches him the questions.” The questions are then given, and the first, second, and fourth are almost exactly the ones we still recite today, each pointing out a different unusual feature of the Passover meal. But the third question, as given in the Talmud, reads: “On all other nights we eat roasted, stewed, or cooked meat, but on this night only roasted.” The one we ask today, however, is “On all other nights, we either sit or recline; why on this night do we only recline?” The reason for the change is not explained in the Koren Edition of the Talmud, but I found an answer thanks to that great contemporary sage, Rav Wikipedia. Because, after the fall of the Temple, we no longer eat roasted meat for the Pesach sacrifice, Maimonides substituted the question about reclining, which was more relevant to contemporary practice.

Today we don’t really recline, either, and I wonder if anyone would dare to come up with a new third question. The whole way we recite the Four Questions, in fact, often feels at odds with the intention of the rabbis when they instituted the practice. As with many other Jewish rituals in America today, children learn the Hebrew questions verbatim, with little understanding of their meaning; we don’t ask the Four Questions, we sing them. And the text of the Haggadah doesn’t make it sufficiently clear, I think, that the whole rest of the Seder is meant to answer those questions—to explain why we do things differently on this night, by explaining the miracle of the Exodus. What was once a conversation-starter has become a habit, and I wonder if there might be a way to make the Four Questions fresh again.

At the same time, however, the Gemara makes clear that the Four Questions are a crucial part of the Seder and can’t be omitted. Even if you don’t have a child who needs the Seder explained, you have to ask them: “If his son is wise and knows how to inquire, his son asks him. And if he is not wise, his wife asks him. And if not, he asks himself. And even if two Torah scholars who know the laws of Passover are sitting together, they ask each other.” Even if we think we already know the reason for Passover, we are obligated to tell it to ourselves from the beginning—in order, perhaps, to make the miracle of the Exodus new in our minds, so that we don’t just take it for granted. Whether or not you believe that God really parted the Red Sea, reading Tractate Pesachim, and seeing how the words and actions of the Seder have remained constant over 2,000 years, suggests that the sheer continuity of Jewish history is a kind of miracle in itself.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.