1."Tell Your Child"
There is a positive mitzva to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan. The more one embellishes the telling, elucidates the great kindness God showed us by saving us from the Egyptians and avenging us upon them, interprets the signs and wonders that God performed at that time and place for our sake, delves into the laws of Pesaĥ, and gives expansive gratitude to God – the more commendable it is. The essence of the mitzva is to tell the children, as it is stated: "Tell your child on that day: ‘It is because of this that God did for me when I left Egypt’" (Shemot 13:8). Even one who is childless is commanded by the Torah to recall the Exodus on Pesaĥ night, as it states: "Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, of the house of bondage; how, with a mighty hand, God took you out of there" (ibid. 3).
Note that two mitzvot require us to educate our children: the first is to teach them the written and oral Torah, so they understand the world properly and may live their lives according to divine guidance. Part of this mitzva is to habituate and familiarize children with the observance of mitzvot; it is impossible to teach about Shabbat or kashrut without training for their observance. The second mitzva is to tell our children about the Exodus from Egypt on the Seder night.
At first glance, this is puzzling. Is narrating the Exodus not part of the general mitzva of teaching Torah? In that case, what is different about the Seder night? The purpose of the stories told to the children on Seder night is to convey the fundamentals of faith that logically precede Torah study: they must know how the nation of Israel was formed, that God chose Israel to be His special nation, and that He gave them a special duty to receive the Torah and rectify the world. Parents, of course, do not live forever. The next generation will have to bear the torch of tradition, the great and awesome task that God intended for Israel, until the world has been fully repaired. This is the lesson of the Seder night. All of its mitzvot lead to that end.
Note that the obligation to study Torah is derived from the verse: "Teach them to your children, to speak of them" (Devarim 11:19). The Sages explain that one who must teach his son Torah must himself study Torah (Kiddushin 29b). The fundamental goal of the Torah is to positively influence others and add life to the world, not just to elevate the individual Jew. Therefore, the Torah emphasizes in this commandment the obligation to teach the children, for the essential goal of the Torah is to influence the entire people of Israel in every generation. Clearly, then, every individual is likewise commanded to study Torah as much as he is able. What is more, when one studies in order to teach others, his study is more thorough and profound. Similarly, the primary emphasis of the mitzva to tell the story of the Exodus is to pass the tradition on to the children, but it follows that the parents should also attempt to understand it more profoundly, so that they are worthy of Israel’s great destiny. 2.The Mitzva to Tell the Exodus Story on Pesaĥ Night
The Torah commands us to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt on the very night we left Egypt for freedom. Actually, we are commanded to remember the Exodus every day of the year, as it states: "So that you remember the day you left Egypt every day of your life" (Devarim 16:3). Ben Zoma infers from an apparent superfluity in this verse ("kol yemei" instead of "yemei") that we must invoke the Exodus not only every day, but also even every night (Berakhot 12b). To fulfill the obligation to invoke the Exodus every day and night, we recite the third paragraph of Shema each morning and evening, as this paragraph states: "I am the Lord your God Who has taken you out of Egypt to be your God: I am the Lord your God" (Bamidbar 15:41).
Yet there are several differences between the daily mitzva and the mitzva on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan. Firstly, in order to fulfill the daily mitzva, it is sufficient to mention the Exodus, whereas the mitzva on Pesaĥ night is to narrate broadly the events of the Exodus from Egypt. In addition, the mitzva on Pesaĥ night is to relate the story while the matza and maror are set out in front of us. Another difference is that on Pesaĥ night we tell the story by way of questions and answers. Women are exempt from the daily mitzva to commemorate the Exodus, but are obligated to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan. 1
The Exodus from Egypt is the basis of Jewish faith, for it was the first time that God’s providence was revealed in the world to an entire nation with great signs and wonders. With the Exodus, it became clear that God had chosen Israel to be His nation and to reveal His word in the world. For this reason, every Shabbat and Yom Tov commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, especially in prayers and kiddush. By virtue of the unique mitzva to tell the story of the Exodus in depth on the Seder night, our faith becomes more firmly established, and added meaning is given to all the brief remembrances of the Exodus throughout the year. 3.The Mitzva to Begin the Seder with a Question
There is a mitzva to tell the story of the Exodus by way of question and answer, as it is stated: "When in the future your child asks you… say to your child, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…’" (Devarim 6:20-22). It is likewise stated: "When your children ask you, ‘What is this service to you?’ say, ‘It is a Paschal sacrifice to God’" (Shemot 12:26-27). And: "When in the future your child asks: ‘What is this?’ Say to him, ‘With a mighty hand God took us out of Egypt’" (ibid. 13:14).
Questions open the heart and mind to accept answers. The message we need to convey on the Seder night is so important and fundamental that we are commanded to do it in the most effective way – by way of question and answer.
This is the main reason for the unique mitzvot of the Seder night: eating matza, the Paschal sacrifice, and maror. They cause the children to ask "Ma nishtana?" "Why is this night different?" and helps them understand that this is a special night whose essence must be understood. As a result, the Sages instituted several unusual practices in order to inspire children to wonder and enquire further. We begin by giving the children nuts and roasted grain, through which they realize that this is a special, festive night. The Sages instituted washing hands and eating karpas dipped in a liquid after kiddush, something we never do throughout the year. Furthermore, instead of starting the meal at this point, we pour the second cup of wine and remove the Seder plate and the matzot from the table, all to cause the children to realize that this is a very special night. They will thus truly be interested in its meaning, and they will sincerely ask: "Why is this night different?"
It can be said that this question, "Ma nishtana?" embodies a bigger and deeper question about the Jewish people: Why are we different from all other nations – in our faith, in our mitzvot, in our suffering, in our spiritual achievements, in our exile, and in our redemption? There is no complete answer to this question. Only by contemplating the Exodus from Egypt and the election of Israel can we understand that this is a divine matter; we are capable of understanding part of it, but we will never understand it all. This same question spurs us on, toward infinitely deeper and more sublime understanding. Perhaps this is why the Torah instructs us to tell the story of the Exodus and of Israel’s singularity using questions and answers: the ideological basis of Jewish peoplehood lies in a question that opens us to an endless profusion of ideas. If we do not impart the Torah and the story of the Exodus to the children, no new questions would be asked and we would be unable to continue rising higher. 4.The Text of "Ma Nishtana"
In order to give this seminal question a structured framework, the Sages formulated the "Ma nishtana" text, through which the children express their surprise at how different this night is, paving the way for the telling of the Exodus story. The text contains questions about all of the Seder night mitzvot related to eating: matza, maror, the Paschal sacrifice, and the two dippings. After the destruction of the Temple, we no longer ask about the Paschal sacrifice and instead ask about reclining at the Seder.
If there are no children present to ask "Ma nishtana?" the youngest participant asks. Even if all the participants are Torah scholars well versed in the story of the Exodus, one of them must ask "Ma nishtana?" Even an individual performing the Seder alone must begin with "Ma nishtana?" This is how the Seder is arranged; we begin with a question because it makes the explanation more complete. Once a child or someone else has asked "Ma nishtana?" the other participants need not repeat the question and may proceed immediately to "Avadim Hayinu" (SA and Rema 473:7). 2 5.The Torah Speaks of Four Children
On four occasions the Torah states that one must tell his child about the Exodus from Egypt, and each time it uses a different formulation. This teaches us that one must tailor his storytelling to the abilities and personality of each child.
In one place it states: "When in the future your child asks you, ‘What are these testimonies, laws, and principles that the Lord our God commanded you?’" (Devarim 6:20). The fact that he asks in a detailed manner – "What are these testimonies, laws, and principles" – implies that we are dealing with a wise child, and the verses that follow teach us that the answer we give must be detailed. We must clarify at length the whole matter of the Exodus from Egypt, the mitzvot of Pesaĥ, and the destiny of the Jewish people. Therefore, the answer for the wise child is the longest and most detailed (as shown in the next section).
Elsewhere it states: "When your children ask you, ‘What is this service to you?,’ say, ‘It is a Paschal sacrifice to God, Who passed over (‘pasaĥ’) the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when He smote Egypt and spared our homes’ " (Shemot 12:26-27). Since the child calls the mitzvot "service" ("avoda"), which connotes "work," and since he excludes himself from the mitzvot, saying, "What is this service to you
?," it is clear that he does not feel like a participant in the mitzvot. Nevertheless, the Torah commands us to address him and explain to him Israel’s uniqueness, as expressed in the Paschal sacrifice.
It also states: "When in the future your child asks: ‘What is this?,’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand God took us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. When Pharaoh refused to free us, God killed every firstborn in Egypt, human and beast alike’" (Shemot 13:14-15). The question "What is this?" indicates that the asker is simple and does not know how to sharpen his question. The Torah commands us to explain to him, according to his abilities, the impressive events that took place during the Exodus from Egypt, the mighty plagues that struck the Egyptians, and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, which was finally softened by the Plague of the Firstborn. These are things the simple child absorbs and finds most impressive.
Even if the child is not moved to ask at all, one must tell him about the Exodus, as it states: "Matzot are to be eaten… Tell your child on that day: ‘It is because of this that God did for me when I left Egypt’" (Shemot 13:7-8). Since he does not ask any questions, his interest must be aroused with tangible objects. We therefore say to him, "It is because of this" – by virtue of the matzot, maror, and Paschal sacrifice God performed miracles for us and took us out of Egypt. Thus, we put the Seder plate on the table so that each food on it can illustrate one of the ideas that find expression at the Seder. 3
. SA 472:14. The poskim disagree whether women are obligated in the mitzva of telling the story on a Torah level or a rabbinic level. Sefer Ha-ĥinukh §21 infers from the fact that women are obligated in matza and the Paschal offering on the Torah level that they are obligated by the Torah to tell the Exodus story, which is linked to the matza, maror, and Paschal offering, as well. Other poskim maintain that since the mitzva of telling the story is a time-bound positive mitzva, women are exempt according to the Torah, but the Sages obligated them in the mitzvot of the Seder night, since women also experienced the miracles of the Exodus. This is the view implied by Tosafot on Pesaĥim 108b.
. According to several Rishonim, including Rokei’aĥ and Maharil, if a child asks any question about the Seder, the obligation to ask questions has been fulfilled, and there is no need to recite the "Ma nishtana" formula specifically. However, according to most Rishonim, including Tosafot and Rambam, even if a child autonomously asks a question relating to the Seder, the entire "Ma nishtana" formula must be recited. The halakha follows this opinion. See Birur Halakha on Pesaĥim 115b (p. 134) for a summary of opinions. This ruling notwithstanding, one should encourage his children to ask their own questions, to fulfill the verse "when your child asks…"
One authority writes that the mitzva de-Oraita to tell the Exodus story only applies when a child actually asks a question, but if the child does not inquire, the biblical mitzva is only to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt, though one is still rabbinically required to tell the story. This is the implication of Responsa Rosh 24:2, but the majority of poskim maintain that anyone who has a child is obligated by the Torah to tell him the story, as the Torah states regarding the son who does not know how to ask, "Tell your child on this day: ‘It is because of this that God did for me when I left Egypt’" (Shemot 13:8). So states SAH 473:42. (R. Yeruĥam Fishel Perla, in his commentary on R. Saadia Gaon’s Sefer Ha-mitzvot §32, states that according to Ramban and other Rishonim, one who does not have matza is exempt from the mitzva of telling the story of the Exodus, based on the phrase "because of this" ["ba-avur zeh" – the Hebrew uses the demonstrative pronoun "zeh" instead of the expected indefinite relative pronoun, indicating that it refers to an object that is present, i.e., the matza]. Additionally, see Sidur Pesaĥ Ke-hilkhato ch. 6 n. 2 which mentions a distinction between a child who asks his father a question, which obligates his father to tell the story in detail, and a child who does not ask, which only obligates the father to tell the story briefly. We can explain that if the son asks, the father must embellish his response based on the question, but if the child does not ask, the father need only tell the story briefly. Embellishment depends on the child’s desire to listen and obtain answers.) In any event, it is clear that at least on the rabbinic level one must recite the entire Hagada as formulated. Even if he is alone, he asks himself the questions (Pesaĥim 116a) and thus extends to himself the obligation to answer.
. It is interesting to note that the answer given to the wicked child is taken from Shemot 12, in the context of the mitzva of the Pesaĥ sacrifice both in Egypt and for future generations. Sacrificing an animal and sprinkling its blood raise the biggest questions for him. Nevertheless, the answer to his question is not evasive. It addresses the uniqueness of the Jewish people, a topic whose roots are beyond human comprehension and whose branches appear throughout the course of history. The response to the child who does not know how to ask comes from Shemot 13:8 following the commandment to eat the Pesaĥ sacrifice. While partaking in actual eating of the matza, one can try to connect him to the memory of the Exodus until he develops greater understanding (the child who does not know how to ask is not stupid, merely uninterested). The response to the simple son is written in the context of the sanctity of firstborns. Because he is not very intelligent, his father must teach him fear of heaven and respect for sanctity. This is accomplished by contemplating God’s power and the Plague of the Firstborn. As a result, this child will accept the mitzvot, whose goal is to sanctify us and distinguish us from all other nations. The question of the wise son is not mentioned specifically in the context of Pesaĥ; rather, it is mentioned in Devarim 6 regarding the foundations of belief and the destiny of the Jewish people. Since everything stems from the Exodus, the Sages understood that the wise child’s question is related to the mitzvot of Pesaĥ. Through that we explain to the wise son all the basic principles of faith.