4. The Text of “Ma Nishtana”

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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]


[2]. 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.

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