Mah Nishtanah: What Makes Passover Different

Passover begins this Friday which means almost everyone is in full-swing of cleaning and cooking for this weeklong holiday. If you live outside of Israel, then you probably participate in two nights of the Passover Seder, which brings together family and friends to retell the story of the Jewish people leaving slavery in Egypt, and their journey to Israel with the help of a Haggadah and Seder plate. Part of the Seder is the singing of the Mah Nishtanah which asks why Passover is different from any other night, because if you have ever celebrated Passover, you know just how different it is.

The Four Questions:

  1. On all other nights we do not dip once, so why on this night we do so twice?
  2. On all other nights we eat chametz (leavened bread) or matzah, so why on this night do we only have matzah?
  3. On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, so why on this night do we eat marror (bitter herbs)?
  4. On all other nights we eat upright or reclining, so why on this night do we all recline?

This part of the Seder is traditionally done by the youngest capable person in the room so that everyone is involved with the Seder. By having a child ask these questions, they often feel more active in the Seder and want to know the answers.

Question 1: Why do we dip twice?

During the Seder, there are two separate times in which we dip our food; once is the karpas (vegetable) into salt water and once is the bitter herbs into charoset (a sweet fruit nut paste). The reason we dip twice is rather ironic, as dipping food is considered a luxury but dipping resembles hardships in Egypt. The salt water represents the tears cried while in Egypt  and the charoset reminds us of the mortar used to create bricks during our time as slaves.  Now that we are free, we can dip our food since we anyways treat ourselves as royalty on this night.

Question 2: Why only matzah?

Over Passover, we eat matzah because it was all the Jewish people could make before leaving Egypt. Matzah is made within 18 minutes, and there really was not much time to prepare bread from the moment they were told to prepare to leave. Matzah also happened to be the bread of slaves and the Jewish people ate it because it was easy and quick to make after a long day of working.

Question 3: Why bitter herbs?

Marror or bitter herbs represents the bitter times while being slaves in Egypt.

Question 4: Why do we recline?

While drinking our four cups of wine at the Seder, it says to lean to the left in the Haggadah, which seems a bit strange. The reason we recline is because we are treating ourselves like royalty, we are a free people no longer in slavery! Some put a pillow behind their back during the Seder to make their chairs a bit more comfortable, and it is not because there is a long night ahead but to make ourselves to be more like kings.

Passover is a time to ask questions, and the Mah Nishtanah is just the start. This is a holiday of renewal, for nature and for our knowledge and we should ask as many questions as we can during the Passover Seder. Hopefully you have gained some new insight here that you can share with your family this Friday night at your Passover Seder. Chag Kasher V’Sameach!