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    What is the question?

    Mah Nishtanah, from the Sarajevo Haggadah, 1350

    Abraham Joshua Heschel said that our generation knows the answers but has forgotten the questions.

    With regard to Pesach we know that our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, God redeemed them and took them out across the Red Sea to become a free nation, and we celebrate these events by observing Seder night and reading the Haggadah.

    That’s the answer, but what is the question?

    The question seems to be Mah Nishtanah. But there are at least two problems with this phrase.

    Problem 1:

    What do we mean by mah? Is it “What?” – i.e. “What is different about this night?” – a question. Or is it “How!” – i.e. “How different this night is!” – an exclamation.

    If it’s a question, the four statements that follow are answers and not questions. In other words, “What is different…? The fact that we eat matzah, etc.” That means that there aren’t four questions but only one.

    On the other hand, if mah is an exclamation, the four statements in Mah Nishtanah are illustrative explanations, and therefore there are no questions at all and nobody is asking anything.

    Problem 2:

    What do we mean by nishtanah?

    Most translators render it in the present tense, “Why is this night different?” or “How different this night is!”

    But nishtanah is actually not present but past tense from the root shin-nun-heh, to change or differ. The translation therefore ought to be, “In what way did this night become different?” or “How different this night became!”

    In that case the topic of discussion is not what we thought it was, the Seder procedure.

    What we are called upon to do is not to talk about the content of the Seder but the history of the Haggadah.

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