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Ma Nishtana - The Four Questions

May 9, 2009 | by Rebecca Rubinstein

Ideas and games that are guaranteed to bring to life some of the key sections of the Haggadah with your family.

The primary goal of the Seder is to stimulate lively discussions around the main themes of Yeztiat Mizrayim, the leaving of Egypt. Here are some ideas and games that are guaranteed to bring to life some of the key sections of the Haggadah with your family.

In many homes, the youngest child usually sings the Four Questions -- Mah Nishtana -- while parents, grandparents and guests qvell with nachas. Quite often we forget to answer the questions in the midst of all the excitement. The following (expanded) questions and games will help you bring out the meaning of this section of the Haggadah. They are geared for children of all ages.

Why different

Ask your kids to name as many differences as they can. (Some suggestions: the Seder plate, the cup for Eliyahu, matzah instead of challah, four cups of wine instead of one... )

What do these differences represent?

The answer is they are mostly signs of our freedom, the main theme of the Seder. (See below for discussion ideas on the theme of freedom.)

Why Matzah

Someone at the table will probably answer that we eat matzah because the Jews left Egypt in haste and the dough they made on the night they left did not have time to rise. Therefore matzah symbolizes freedom.

Why Matzah
What is freedom?

Go around the table and have everyone complete the following sentence without too much thinking. “Freedom is...”

Chances are you’ll hear, “Not having to go to school!” “Doing whatever I want!” “Staying up late.” Examine some of their answers more closely and ask if this is real freedom.

The following scenarios are tools to help you discuss the concept of freedom to mean doing what we want most of all -- which is listening to one’s Yetzer Hatov, the inner voice that tells us to do the right thing, and saying no to one's Yetzer Hara, the inner voice of the ego that wants us to do what we feel like.

  • (For younger children): It’s your sister’s 5th Birthday party. Your mom has just finished icing the birthday cake with all kinds of candies, and you’re dying to pick a couple of candies off the icing. Ask two kids to act out the imaginary conversation between the two inner voices, the Yetzer Hara and the Yetzer Hatov.
  • (For older children): Your mom has asked you to come home by 6 pm because she has to go out on time and needs you to babysit the younger kids. You get totally absorbed in a football game with your friends. You look at your watch and notice it’s 5 minutes to 6. Act out the inner conversation between the Yetzer Hara and Yetzer Hatov.

Why Matzah
Which voice does the matzah symbolize?

Matzah, a humble bread made of the simplest ingredients, just water and flour, represents returning to our essence, to our true inner free voice that wants to do good.

Why Matzah
What could chametz represent and why?

Chametz is the ingredient that causes dough to rise, to blow up and get all inflated. It represents the drives of our inflated ego, which is usually telling us to do what we most feel like doing, no matter if it's bad for us.

Once a year, on Pesach, we try and reconnect with our sense of internal freedom, our true essence through ridding ourselves of physical chametz and eating matzah.

Why Matzah
(for older kids): Does true freedom have restrictions?

A possible answer is that a truly free person is willing to take on certain restrictions to achieve a greater good.

Athletes training to compete in the Olympics will place tight limits on what they eat, what time they go to bed and how much exercise they force themselves to do. They’ll even a hire a coach to act as a slave driver! All these restrictions enable a person to reach their goal, whether it’s winning a gold medal, doing well in school, or learning how to play the violin. Real freedom requires some binding limitations.

Maybe that explains why matzah is both the symbol for freedom and slavery.

Why Bitter Herbs

Maror reminds us of the way the Egyptians embittered our lives when we were enslaved in Egypt.

Ask your children if they think it is important to remember the painful times as well as the good times in our history? Why would we want to make ourselves feel sad?

Remembering a difficult period or painful experience makes us more sensitive to the suffering of others. God tells us to remember the period when we were “strangers in a strange land” so that we become sensitive and caring to others’ pain. Remembering our suffering as a nation also gives us a certain inner strength to know that we have survived very dark periods in history and that God has been there for us, guiding our destiny.

You can ask your kids to think of a difficult incident in their lives, and what did they learn from it.

Why Dip twice

We dip the Karpas vegetable into salt water, and we dip the Maror into the Charoset.

The double-dippings represents our freedom, but the salt water reminds us of the many tears the Jews shed in their slavery and over the years in various exiles. The Charoset reminds us of the cement the slaves used to build Pharaoh’s cities.

You can point out that even in moments of freedom, we remember the bitterness of our exile.

Why Lean

We lean as a sign of freedom. In olden days, rich people used to lie on couches as they ate, a true sign of nobility.

(Asking questions is one of the highlights of the Seder night. See "The Why Game" to be played after the Mah Nishtana for family fun.)

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