Wednesday, April 1, 2015

How I learned to love Mah Nishtanah

I want to write many posts, but I have far too many responsibilities to indulge in writing them. I can justify spending time on this post, though, because it is a מצוה עוברת - it is relevant for our upcoming celebration of Pesach.

I cannot recall ever liking Mah Nishtanah. The contrived set of four questions, taught to children so that they would be able to ask them, just never appealed to me. And then, just last week, my perspective changed entirely.

I was presenting a shiur which was supposed to have a brief "Pesach Halachah: Questions and Answers" component, followed by a dvar torah, but then we began talking about what counts for karpas, and then for marror, and the Q/A expanded to take over the shiur.

My thoughts on karpas are a bit outside the mainstream, as I advocate for pineapple and banana. Ditto re: marror; I believe that horseradish root should not be used for marror.

At the same time, I am a strong believer in minhag (custom), as the glue that holds Jewish families together across time. Those actions we pioneer express our individuality and concretize our special relationship with Gd and with the Torah. Whether the song we sing first at a Shabbos table, or the order in which we bless our children, or the special garment we wear when davening, we stamp our Judaism with our own seal. When our descendants keep these for themselves, that overlay of family links them back to us, merging generations of Jewish identity.

This is not something to be trifled with.

So I don't want people to change their family minhag for karpas, even as I advocate these other species. (Changing marror is more complicated, as I seriously question - echoing the words of many great poskim - the eligibility of horseradish root.) And I tried to explain that at the class. And I hit upon the perfect example of why minhag is so wonderful: Mah Nishtanah.

The script for Mah Nishtanah goes back to the Beit haMikdash (Temple) itself; one of the questions was altered when we were no longer able to bring the korban pesach (Pesach offering), but the rest remained the same. Which means that for well more than 2,000 years - we don't know just how far back, only that this text was common in Temple times, which ended in the year 68 C.E. - Jews, every year, around the world, living in a broad range of conditions, have sat at a seder table and put forth these same questions.

I try to imagine my great-grandparents in Western Europe; their great-grandparents in Poland; their great-grandparents in Turkey; before that in Spain; before that in Germany; before that in England; before that in Morocco; and so on. All of them, reclining at the table and listening to the youngest children ask these questions.

These particular questions are not a halachic requirement for the Seder; they are custom - but how could anyone remove them?

In truth, Mah Nishtanah is not the only text we have kept reciting for millenia; Shma is far older, and it is said daily. But the image of the family gathering, and the communal recitation, grabs me.

I am not fully articulating what is in my heart here; I am rushing this post, because there is no time to write it properly. But I hope I have conveyed the main point: for me, the connection is what minhag is all about. And finally, I have come to appreciate Mah Nishtanah.


  1. Shalom RosenfeldApril 1, 2015 at 5:04 AM

    The problem with bananas and pineapple (like potatoes) is that guests can be hungry and they'll eat enough of those tasty things to bring *bracha achrona* questions into play -- never a problem I've seen with celery or parsley. Well, maybe if you cut them into tiny chunks with toothpicks ...

    1. Shalom RosenfeldApril 1, 2015 at 5:05 AM

      SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: Please do not cut your guests into tiny chunks, no matter how much karpas they eat.

    2. If they get a small enough portion of veggie for karpas, the bracha achrona problem doesn't arise.

    3. "Get" meaning "are given"

    4. Problems of shiur are unavoidable...

      1- It's very likely that karpas would end up too early before maror -- or any further eating -- for one berakhah to apply to both. The cutoff is 72 min, like the maximum break after eating to saying an after-berakhah no?

      I wondered about Sefaradim not making a second Borei Peri haGefen on the 2nd cup of wine for this reason. (And yes, Sepharadim say "hagefen", not "hagafen".)

      And if it is not too early for the cutoff on before-berakhah for maror, why worry about the after-berakhah for karpas?

      2- The Rambam (Chameitz uMatzah 8:2) requires *eating* karpas to the extent that one *must* consume the minimum shiur for eating. So, eat less than a kezayis, and you mess up one shitah. Eat more, and you mess up the other.

      3- Without a kezayis of karpas, I'm not sure Urchatz has a purpose. If it's not a kezayis, is it food that it can become tamei from touching a wet presumably-tamei hand?

      The SA holds one way, and therefore we non-Yemenites should. (Yemenites follow the Rambam, as usual.) BUT, that's just one compromise, not avoiding the problem.

    5. This opens the door for vacuum-packed portion-control Karpas packets labelled according to the shita being used and other details about timing and berachot.

  2. We have kept them in the beginning of Maggid, even though (according to Mahara"m Rotenberg) maggid was moved earlier in the Seder after there was no longer a korban, and the various practices asked about now happen well after the Mah Nishtana instead of before.

    Chag Kasher v'sameach.

  3. Parts of "Retzeih" (birkhas Avodah in the Amidah), are so old, we can't figure out how to make it work. As the commas and periods were originally placed, the Kohanim asked Hashem to accept the "fires of Israel" (ve'ishei Yisrael) in the Beis haMiqdash.

    So today we have a debate as to whether to leave it as was, "ve'ishei Yisrael usefilasam teqabel beRatzon -- and the fires of Israel and their prayers, may You accept with 'Desire'", or to rephrase it with the previous sentence as "vehasheiv es ha'avodah ledevir veisekha ve'ishei Yisrael -- and return the service to the sanctuary [ie the Holy of Holies] of Your house along with the fires of Israel."

    When I stumble over how to read the phrase, those days I'm davening with more than my mouth, I feel a similar connection. Knowing I'm saying a line of prayer coined for the second Beis haMiqdash.

    For the same reason, I make a point of not skipping the reading about the Qorban Tamid, even when in a rush. I might say it walking to shul, if I overslept. But not skip it. After all, the morning tamid is where Shacharis all began.

    To be part of a chain that runs millennia. It's my best hope of defeating the Existential angst of death.

  4. You remind me of the model of a Seder at the Diaspora Museum, no one can identify the time or place the model is set, but everyone can immediately identify what words are being said just by looking at the child standing on a chair in front of everybody:

    1. That's great, and I hadn't seen it before; thanks!

  5. One very insightful explanation about the nominal amount of Karpas is that the initial elation of some food and then the grumbling of stomachs over maggid matches the Jews initial elation of Moshe confronting Pharaoh only to be met with even harsher work.