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Ariel Gros-Werter Headshot

Why on This Night Must We Ask the Same Four Questions?

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One of the cutest Jewish traditions is that during the Passover seder, the youngest child recites four reasons why "this night is different from all other nights," commonly known as the Four Questions. The purpose of this tradition is to prompt learning. It is derived from a sentence of the Mishna, an ancient text that helps decode Jewish law, that states that the "table" should be removed part way into the seder, before dinner, as a means of prompting questions. If the children do not then ask why it was removed, you should teach them these four reasons. This teaching required of the seder leader has since evolved into the Four Questions recited by children, now found in all Passover Haggadahs.

This requirement stems from the principle that even the youngest child should feel able to ask questions about the Passover seder and story, so the Four Questions is provided to make sure this principle is realized. For many young ones, the recitation is practically a rite of passage, with parents beaming at their children's ability to chant the questions. Most children are the youngest only for a few years before the baton gets passed to a more junior sibling or cousin.

In my family, however, I'm still the youngest at age 26. I've had the honor of reciting the Four Questions at nearly every seder in my lifetime. While an adorable 4-year-old singing a question and four answers in a foreign language is cute, to be sure, the same person singing the same question and answers 20 years later is perhaps less cute.

Over the years, I've tried mixing it up: I've had my grandmother recite them as the oldest person present; I've had all the under-30s recite them together; I've assigned each of the four answers to a different person present; there's even a Dr. Seuss-esque rendition I've substituted in. But in the end, they were still the same Four Questions -- and they started feeling a little stale to me.

This year, I'm suggesting an alternative in my family, and I invite you to do the same in yours. This year, everyone is bringing their own questions. After all, if the purpose is that everyone should learn, then why is it only the youngest children who ask, and why are they asking canned questions instead of being prompted to come up with their own? So I encourage trying something different this year.

Have everyone bring two questions about the Passover story or the seder. As the relevant issues come up during the seder, or perhaps in the place of the traditional Four Questions, have each person ask his or her questions for everyone to consider. The goal is not necessarily to have answers for the questions, but rather to make people think analytically in search of possible answers, usually generating new questions.

Alternatively, have everyone bring three questions -- one that puzzles them and two that they can already answer. In this way, everyone participates both in asking and in teaching. This is particularly good for seders that include young people, as it lends the element of a trivia game.

Now, I'm not trying to deprive anyone of the adorableness of a 4-year-old singing, and if that's an option you certainly should enjoy it. But a child chanting the traditional Four Questions does not negate the value of everyone bringing their own questions. For a "Night of Questions," there is no such thing as having too many. After all, if a child asking questions is symbolic of the ability of everyone to raise questions, why not take your seder a step beyond the level of symbolism and encourage everyone to participate in the asking!