The Ma Nishtana, or the four traditional questions of Passover, is an age-old custom that is observed in every Seder meal. Ma Nishtana is sung by the youngest child at the table. It is actually an overview of the entire story of Passover and in fact, consists of one single question, followed by a combination of four phrases. In Hebrew, the term ‘Ma Nishtana’ means ‘What has changed?’ and is taken from the first line of the song. The recital of the ‘Four Questions’ takes place during the 5th step of the Pesach Seder, which is also called the Maggid. All of these four questions are included in the Holy Haggadah and are read just before the second cup of the Passover wine is filled.
The recital of the ‘4 Questions’ is a great way to make the younger generation aware of its history and culture. It is also a means of keeping them interested in the entire Seder proceedings and making them share the different responsibilities and be a part of their rich and diverse culture. The prime aim of the Passover questions is to dwell on the sensitive issues of slavery and freedom and to explain the true meaning of the story of the Pesach to one and all. This is followed by the narration of the entire story of Exodus, which is told in an organized manner, as a series of events. Finally, the Maggid is concluded, after a description of the 10 Plagues of Pesach.
The origin of the ‘Four Questions of Passover’ can be traced back to the time of the Temple, in the first major work of Rabbinic Judaism called the ‘Old Torah’ (also called as the Mishnah). However, the original layout or the format of these questions was a little different at that time and was later reviewed and modified, taking its present form. During those days, there was a question on why only roasted meat from sacrifice is eaten. This was later replaced by a question about reclining. This way, the theme of ‘four’ came to be maintained during the Seder meal – the four questions, the four sons, the four cups of wine and so on.
Each of the ‘Four Questions’ asked during the Seder meal is structured in such a manner that it naturally arouses the curiosity and inquisitiveness of the members of the new generation. In the process of trying to seek the answer to each of the Four Questions, they end up learning about the principle symbols and the true meaning of the festival called Passover. However, apart from these four questions, Judaism also promote the general asking of questions by the members of the Jewish community, so that there is always the opportunity for every person to learn more and thus, to constantly enhance their knowledge.
Prior to the recital of the Four Questions, the prime or the main question is asked aloud - "Ma Nishtana ha-lahylah ha-zeh mi-kol ha-layloht?”. This English translation for this is: "Why is this night different from all other nights?”. This is followed by the four following phrases –