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Singing the Ma Nishtana is a traditional part of the Seder meal at Passover. Also called the Four Questions, the tune presents questions used to reflect on the purpose of Passover.
Ma Nishtana is a crucial component of the Passover festivities. Also known as the Four Questions, Ma Nishtana is a song that accompanies the Seder meal. The youngest participant of the meal usually sings the tune in Hebrew. Overall, it presents essential questions about the customs surrounding Passover. By practicing the recitation, Jewish families reflect on the importance of Passover. It is a custom rooted in faith and symbolism.
There is so much to learn about the Ma Nishtana. Many people wonder about the origins of the Four Questions in addition to what the actual answers are. If you want to discover more, then keep reading! This article provides the following information:
- * A description of Passover and the Seder meal
- * The Ma Nishtana
- * The history of the Four Questions
- * Analyzing the possible answers to the Four Questions
A Description of Passover and the Seder Meal
The Ma Nishtana plays an integral part in the Seder meal- the feast that kicks off the holiday of Passover. Therefore, to better understand the Four Questions, it is crucial first to understand Passover.
Celebrated from the 15th through the 22nd day of the Hebrew month Nissan, Passover celebrates a critical period in Jewish history. In the 13th century B.C.E., Moses led the enslaved Jews from Egypt and to the land God promised them. Jews today observe their ancestors’ struggles along the journey to Israel, including their limited supply of food.
The Torah commands Jews to avoid leavened bread throughout the seven-day holiday of Passover. This is one of the most significant customs of Passover because, as they were fleeing from Egypt, the Israelites could not bring leavened bread along with them. There was not enough time to wait for the dough to rise, and the leavened bread would take up too much space on the journey.
Another significant tradition of Passover is the Seder meal. Over the first two nights of Passover, Jewish families gather for a traditional meal full of singing, storytelling, and, of course, eating. This special dinner consists of wine, shank bone, eggs, and herbs. There are also vegetables dipped in saltwater and a paste made of fruit, wine, and nuts.
Fifteen steps make up the entire Seder meal. During each step, the leader follows the directions of the Haggadah. This is a particular book that acts as an instruction manual for the Seder. The 15 steps can include readings, prayers, or songs. Traditionally, each step corresponds with food on the Seder plate. The Ma Nishtana is one of the recitations from the Haggadah. Therefore, the Ma Nishtana holds a vital place in the Seder meal and Passover.
The Ma Nishtana
At the Seder meal, the youngest participant sings the Ma Nishtana in Hebrew. The first question below is the title of the Four Questions. The translation of “why is this night”- the first four words below- is “ma nishtana.” Hence, this is where the name of Ma Nishtana came. Here is the English translation of what Jewish families recite:
Why is this night different from all other nights?
On all other nights we eat leavened products and matzah, why on this night only matzah?
On all other nights we eat all vegetables, why on this night only bitter herbs?
On all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, why on this night we dip twice?
On all other nights, we eat sitting or reclining, why on this night we only recline?
The History of the Four Questions
In biblical times, Jews celebrated Passover like today- with the Seder meal. One of the main differences between the ancient Seder meals and the modern is animal sacrifices. They included the sacrificed lamb in the meal, and while eating it, they asked questions about the sacrifice. These questions have a similar format to the Ma Nishtana. Over the years, animal sacrifices dwindled, and different symbolic foods replaced the lamb. As a result, the questions evolved to match the modernized customary foods of the Seder.
The Haggadah did not intend for Jewish families to sing the Ma Nishtana at the Seder. In the early 20th century, Ephraim Abileah created the tune that popularized itself throughout the world. Abileah was a Zionist, meaning he believed Israel should be the land dedicated to the Jewish people. Born in Russia to a musician, he moved to Israel in the early 1920s, where he composed the tune now sung along with the Ma Nishtana.
Analyzing the Possible Answers to the Four Questions
The purpose of the Ma Nishtana is to make those participating in the Seder reflect on Passover. By thinking about the responses to the questions, people can better their understanding of Passover and the reason why Passover is one of the most important Jewish holidays.
The first question deals with the Passover tradition of not eating leavened bread. Instead, Jews eat matzah, which is unleavened bread. The reason that Jews can only eat matzah on Passover is that the Israelites ate matzah during enslavement and while they fled Egypt. Moreover, to recognize their journey, the only bread Jews can eat is unleavened.
The second question asks about the bitter herbs eaten during the Seder. This food is representative of the bitter period of Israelite’s enslavement in Egypt. As with the matzah, the bitter herbs remind people of the painful times as slaves before their liberation.
To contrast the first two questions, the third recognizes freedom. The reason that Jews dip their vegetables more than once is symbolic of freedom. In ancient times, dipping food was a practice typically reserved for the upper class.
The final question asks about the action of reclining during the Seder. As with the third question, reclining is symbolic of freedom and having the luxury to relax.
All in all, the Ma Nishtana helps people reflect on the importance of Seder and its relation to Passover. The youngest family member sings the traditional questions, instilling the messages of Passover within them.