"And You Shall Ask": The Power of Questioning

Source: The Steinsaltz Haggada (Hebrew-English), with expanded commentary and notes by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz. 2016, Koren Publishers Jerusalem. Page 58-61.

The four questions, which are traditionally posted before beginning the "answer" portion of Maggid, are exceedingly ancient in origin. Although the wording has undergone slight changes over the generations, the central aspects of this liturgy remain unaltered since the days of the Second Temple. The format of its central theme has likewise remained as it was in the very beginning, reflecting its identity as a children's query. Ideally, the children should ask questions about the customs of the seder on their own initiative, because the whole point of the seder is to expand upon the Torah's declaration, "And when your son asks you...you shall say to him:" (Exodus 13:14). Ultimately, in order to preserve the question-and-answer format, the earlier generations enacted that children should be taught to ask these four standardized questions.


There was a custom in some communities for the child to preface his remarks with the statement, in his own words, "Father, if you please, I will now ask you four questions." Some even had the custom to ask leave of a father who was no longer living before asking the four questions. They explained that this is because these questions also contain a hidden aspect of meaning, an allusion to our Father in heaven. Thus on a deeper level, we pose other questions to God, imploring Him: Why have we not yet merited the complete redemption? Why do we have cause to celebrate such a festive meal as this only once a year?

What Makes This Night Unlike All Other Nights? All of the festive meals that are held for Shabbat and festivals are regularly conducted at night. Besides, in the time of the Talmud the main meal would always take place at night, even on ordinary days. Bread or matza : This means that on every other night, we eat either bread or matza ; it does not matter (and indeed one version of this question reflects this notion). Obviously, on any other night we may eat a mixture of bread and matza as well. Tonight we will eat bitter herbs: Although we do eat other vegetables tonight, it is only on the seder night that we are actually obligated to eat bitter herbs. We do not dip [our food] at all: Some versions featured the words "we are not required to dip at all"; people certainly dip their food occasionally during the course of any meal throughout the year. Our question relates to the outright obligation to dip tonight, and the unusual manner in which it is done.

Discussion Notes

The Four Questions: When the Holy Temple still existed, the format of these questions was somewhat different. In those days one of the questions was: "That every other night we eat roasted or cooked meat, but tonight we only eat roasted meat?" This question became irrelevant and was struck from the service during the generations that followed the Destruction of the Temple, since the Paschal offering was no longer eaten. Thus in order to preserve the formula of four distinct questions (as the Vilna Gaon points out, every aspect of the seder observance is based on elements of four), the additional question about reclining was later added. This practice was not difficult to understand in earlier times, and would not have merited a question, as people were accustomed to recline at every important meal.

Tonight We Will Dip It Twice: The commentators have pointed out that the children asking this question have only seen one act of dipping by the time their turn comes to ask. So how can they ask why we dip twice? Some have explained that since by this time they have observed that only the karpas was dipped, they can assume that the ḥazeret would be dipped later (Rashbatz and others). But in reality there is a simpler solution. It is understood that these are not necessarily the children's own questions. Indeed, if they were to ask questions based on their own initiative, they might ask about other changes and differences that they may notice during the course of the evening. The obligation of "And you shall tell your child" is equally fulfilled if one answers their questions about other things as well. But these questions were prepared and designed to capture the attention of all the seder participants, and to arouse their interest in the seder's significance and purpose. Therefore, the children now raise questions about things that will come up later, during the course of the evening.

Discussion Questions

  1. Each of the Four Questions compares everyday practice to something unusual about the seder; our awareness of difference prompts us to ask how and why that is. What about the Exodus makes you curious? In what ways does questioning help you to better understand the story of the Exodus? What questions might you ask in addition to The Four?
  2. Is there actually a fifth question in this text? Could “What makes this night different?” be a separate question that deserves its own answer?
  3. The words of the Four Questions themselves are ancient in origin. Rabbi Steinsaltz points out that these questions are almost exactly as they were asked in the time of the Second Temple. Why is that significant? Does asking questions that were asked thousands of years ago change how you think about these words?
  4. Why does this part of the telling of the story begin with asking pre-determined questions? If the questions are proscribed and the answers are known, how do the questions stay relevant? What happens when we hear a question repeated many times – are we really listening to it? How does having the youngest person at the Seder (e.g. a child) ask the questions make the whole process feel new?

For more texts about the power of questioning, visit theGlobalDay.org/Passover to download our FREE supplemental guide to enrich your seder - "And You Shall Ask": The Power of Questioning.

haggadah Section: -- Four Questions
Source: The Steinsaltz Haggada