Mah Nishtanah: What Makes Passover Different?

Passover 2021 begins on Saturday, March 27 at sundown. Jews all over the world will celebrate the first night of Passover by gathering with friends and family for a Seder. During the Seder, we remember when we were enslaved in Egypt by putting certain items on the Seder plate, eating symbolic foods, and saying various traditional blessings. The Haggadah guides us through the 14 total parts of the Seder, but today, we are going to focus on the fifth one: Maggid, which is Hebrew for narrate.

Maggid is when we retell the Exodus story. It includes reciting the Ten Plagues, singing Dayenu, and one of the most beloved and well-known aspects of the Seder experience: Mah Nishtanah, or the Four Questions.

In Hebrew, Mah Nishtanah literally means “What is different?” The phrase is commonly associated with Passover because Mah Nishtanah are the first two words of the line Ma nishtanah ha’laila ha’zeh mikol ha’lailot, which translates to “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This question is posed before each of the Four Questions.

The Four Questions are traditionally asked by the youngest person at the table, which is a great way to keep kids interested and engaged with the Seder. However, many families and friends without youngsters at the table choose to recite them together or to switch off whoever asks.

What are the Four Questions?

  1. On all other nights, we don’t dip vegetables in saltwater at all, but on this night, we dip twice?
  2. On all other nights, we eat chametz (leavened bread) and matzah, but on this night, we only eat matzah?
  3. On all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night, we only eat maror (bitter herbs)?
  4. On all other nights, we eat while upright or reclining, but on this night, we all eat while reclining?

What are the answers?

The next part of Maggid doesn’t involve instantly answering these questions. Instead, we delve into retelling of the Exodus story. However, the questions are answered throughout the rest of the Seder.

We learn that we dip vegetables in saltwater to remember the tears of the enslaved Israelites’ and the hardships they endured. During Passover, we only eat unleavened grains, like matzah, because the Israelites fled in such a rush that they didn’t have time to wait for their bread to leaven. At the Seder, we eat only maror (bitter herbs) to remember the bitterness of slavery. And we recline during the Seder meal to embrace and celebrate our modern day freedom, because slaves were forced to stand while they ate in the past.

Where does this tradition come from?

Like many of our holiday celebrations, the origin of Mah Nishtanah comes from the Talmud. However, in the Babylonian Talmud, the Four Questions were actually a bit different — it featured the question, “Why is it that on all other nights we eat meat either roasted, marinated, or cooked, but on this night it is entirely roasted?” instead of the question regarding reclining.

The meat that question refers to is the Passover sacrifice that was traditionally brought to the Temple. However, after the Temple’s destruction, rabbinical authorities decided to remove this question, and Maimonides later added the new question: “On all other nights, we eat while upright or reclining, but on this night, we all eat while reclining?”

Mah Nishtanah around the world

In North America, Europe and other Ashkenazi communities around the world, this tune written by Ephraim Abileah in 1936 is the most widely known. Contemporary Jewish artists, such as the Maccabeats and Gad Elbaz, have even released their own versions.

Over the years, Mah Nishtanah has been translated into hundreds of languages by people seeking to sing it in their native tongue. Recordings of the Four Questions exist across the internet, in languages ranging from Yiddish and Ladino to Chinese!

No matter where you are or what language you’re singing Mah Nishtanah in, we hope you and your loved ones have a meaningful Seder and a Chag Sameach!