Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Mah Nishtannah

 From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                           Mah Nishtannah: The Three Questions

                         It is well-known that the Mishnah in the tenth chapter of Pesaḥim includes a set of mah nishtannah. If one opens a standard printed Babylonian Talmud (Pesaḥim 116a), one sees four questions in the text of the Mishnah (matzah, maror, roast, and dipping). But if one opens a standard printed Jerusalem Talmud, one sees three questions (dipping, matzah and roast). Is this one of those rare instances of a disagreement between the text of the Mishnah preserved in Babylonia and the text of the Mishnah preserved in Palestine?
                      It turns out that it is practically certain that the original text of the Mishnah recorded only 3 questions: dipping, matzah and roast. This is what the earliest and most reliable Mishnah manuscripts record. There is no distinction between a Babylonian Mishnah and a Palestinian Mishnah here.
                      Moreover, if one opens up a standard Massekhet Pesaḥim of the Babylonian Talmud and looks at the text of the Mishnah recorded in the Rif (R. Isaac Alfasi, 11th century) and the Rosh (R. Asher b. Yeḥiel,  13th century), one sees that they too record a Mishnah which included only the above three questions. Also, Rambam (12th century) utilized a text of the Mishnah which included only the above three questions.
                     Almost certainly, the familiarity of later copyists with the maror question from the texts of their Haggadah led some of them to erroneously insert the maror question into their texts of the Mishnah, generating a new four-question Mishnah.                                                                  
                     A widely quoted understanding of the mah nishtannah takes the position that there were always four questions, and that the roast question did not survive after the ḥurban, with the reclining question substituting for it. I just showed that there were originally only 3 questions. It also turns out that the roast question survived in some areas for 1000 years after the ḥurban.
                   Documents from the Cairo Genizah generally date from the 10th through the 13th centuries. This is roughly the period of the Haggadah fragments as well. Of course, not all of the Haggadah fragments from the Genizah span the mah nishtannah section. But of those that do, many include the roast question.
                Although most of the mah nishtannah Haggadah fragments found in the Genizah record four questions the way they are asked today, we also find the following:
                       -Several record three questions: matzah, dipping, and roast, just like the original text of the Mishnah.                       
                       -One records the following three questions: dipping, matzah and reclining.
                      -One records five questions: dipping, matzah, roast, maror, and reclining. (See the photograph in M. Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, p. 93.)
                      -Two record only the questions of dipping and roast. (There does not appear to be any reason why the matzah question would have been intentionally discontinued. Perhaps the matzah question was accidentally dropped by a scribe in one source, and further copies were later made from that source.)
                      - One records only the questions of dipping and matzah.
            I would like to focus on this last source, which is not actually a Haggadah fragment, but is a section of an anonymous Geonic responsum that includes an outline of the procedures at the seder. It can be deduced that the responsum was composed in Babylonia because it includes avadim hayyinu, which was not a part of the Palestinian seder ritual in this period. This responsum was first published by Louis Ginzberg, in his Ginzey Schechter, Vol. 2,  pp. 258-60. (It is cited in Kasher, p. 113, n. 11 with the symbol shin.) Ginzberg took the position that the author of this responsum provided only an abbreviated version of the mah nishtannah, and listed only the first two questions, even though his practice was four. But this interpretation seems very unlikely. The whole purpose of the responsum was to spell out the procedures and text of the seder. Abbrevation here would have defeated its purpose.
         Shmuel and Ze’ev Safrai take a different approach to this responsum in their monumental work Haggadat Ḥazal. They write that the third and fourth questions are ḥaserot be-sof he-amud, implying that these questions were originally included in this responsum but were cut off. See Haggadat azal, p. 64, n. 53. (See also their later English adaptation, Haggadah of the Sages, p. 65, n. 30.)  They take this approach so that the set of questions in our responsum could then parallel the set of questions found in the other known Babylonian Geonic sources of the Haggadah text: Seder Rav Amram Gaon, Siddur Rav Saadiah Gaon, and the Haggadah text published in 1984 by M. R. Lehman. All these sources record the standard four questions: dipping, matzah, maror, and reclining.
            But anyone can now view this responsum (Cambridge T-S Misc. 36.179) at It is clear that the third and fourth questions were never there. The first side ends with the last words of the matzah question, the next side continues immediately with avadim hayyinu, and there are no missing lines in between.
            Assuming we reject the unlikely interpretation of Ginzberg, this source records a two-question set in Babylonia. The idea that we have now been able to “excavate” such a set, evidence of a period before four questions became the universal practice there, is truly remarkable. On a paleographical basis, the responsum has been dated to the 10th century.
            Regarding the issue of when the maror and reclining questions were added, the following are some reasonable observations:
               ◦ The reclining question was probably the last question to be added. Unlike the maror question, it did not make its way into in any manuscripts of the Mishnah, and in all communities, it is the last question of the set.
               ◦ The maror question probably did not arise until after the text of the dipping question was changed in Babylonia (see Pesaḥim 116a) and the dipping question lost its connotation as a maror question. Once the dipping question lost this connotation, it was probably viewed as necessary to add a question relating to maror.
                ◦ The reclining question probably originated in Babylonia as well. It was probably added, after the maror question, due to a desire to fix the number of questions at four, parallel to the themes of four cups of wine and four sons.
              The above an abridged version of an article published in my book Esther Unmasked (2015).                                                   
             P.S.  I cannot leave this topic without the following diversion into the modern period. The Haggadah particularly resonated with the early kibbutznikim because they felt that they were like people who had gone out of Egypt. But they felt free to modernize the text. For example, at Kibbutz Ein Harod in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the Four Questions were: “Why do people all over the world hate Jews? When will the Jews return to their land? When will our land become a fertile garden? When will there be peace and brotherhood in the world?”  For more on this topic, see Muki Tzur and Yuval Danieli, Yotzim Be-Chodesh Ha-Aviv (2004).  This book includes extracts from hundreds of kibbutz Haggadot written between the late 1920’s and 1960’s.

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at He looks forward to creating his own novel mah nishtannah questions someday.

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