What Are the Four Questions at the Passover Seder?

Understanding the Classic "Mah Nishtanah" Song

White House Seder in 2012
A Passover seder at the White House in 2012. The White House

The Four Questions are an important part of the Passover seder that highlight the ways in which Passover customs and foods distinguish the holiday from other times of the year. They are traditionally recited by the youngest person at the table during the fifth part of the seder, Maggid, which is the retelling of the Israelite exodus from Egyptian persecution found in the Passover haggadah.

Meaning and Origins

Called "The Four Questions" in English, the basic Hebrew question is Mah Nishtanah ha'Lilah ha'Zeh? 

which translates to "How is this night different from all other nights?" Then there are four verses that explain why this night is different. (Read more about the significance of the number four in Judaism.)

The questions find their origins in the Mishnah Pesachim 10:4 but appear differently in the Jerusalem (Yerushalmi) and Babylonian (Bavli) Talmud

The Babylonian Talmud focuses on four essential questions:

  • Why is matzah eaten?
  • Why is ​maror (bitter herbs) eaten? 
  • Why is roasted meat eaten? 
  • Why is food dipped twice? 

The Jerusalem Talmud focuses on three essential questions, and it is the most commonly quoted in ancient texts:

  • Why is matzah eaten?
  • Why is roasted meat eaten?
  • Why are foods dipped twice? 

The question about roasted meat refers to the paschal sacrifice that was fire roasted during the time of the Holy Temple. However, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., sacrifices were no longer consumed, so the question was dropped from the Passover seder questions.

Later, the fourth question was added, as the number four plays a significant role in Judaism and the seder overall (see below). 

The Questions

This portion of the seder begins as the question is asked:

Mah nishtanah ha'lilah ha'zeh mikol ha'leilot?

מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת

Why is this night different from all other nights?

The first verse is then:

She'bakol ha'leilot anu ochlin chametz u'matzah; ha'lailah ha'zeh, kuloh matzah.

שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין חָמֵץ וּמַצָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה, כֻּלּוֹ מַצָּה

 

On all other nights we eat leavened products and matzah, and on this night only matzah.

The second verse is:

She'bakol ha'leilot anu ochlin sh’ar yerakot; ha'lailah ha'zeh, maror.

שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין שְׁאָר יְרָקוֹת הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה, כֻּלּוֹ מָרוֹר

 

On all other nights we eat all vegetables, and on this night only bitter herbs.

The third verse is:

She'bakol ha'leilot ein anu matbilin afilu pa’am echat; ha'lailah ha'zeh, shtei f’amim.

שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אֵין אָנוּ מַטְבִּילִין אֲפִילוּ פַּעַם אֶחָת הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה, שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים

On all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, and on this night we dip twice.

The fourth verse is:

She'bakol ha'leilot anu ochlin bein yoshvin u'vein m’subin; ha'lailah ha'zeh, kulanu m’subin.

שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בֵּין יוֹשְׁבִין וּבֵין מְסֻבִּין הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה, כֻּלָּנוּ מְסֻבִּין

On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining, and on this night we only recline.

Although this is the most common order of the Mah Nishtanah questions, the custom of Chabad-Lubavitch, Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Yemenite communities follows the following pattern:

  1. Dipping.
  2. Matzah.
  3. Bitter herbs.
  4. Reclining.

Meaning

Each of the first three "questions" refers to a food or act of the Passover seder. Leavened bread is forbidden throughout the holiday, bitter herbs are eaten to remind us of the bitterness of slavery, and vegetables are dipped in salt water to remind us of the tears of slavery. 

The fourth "question" refers to the ancient custom of eating while reclining on the left elbow and eating with the right hand. According to Maimonides (also called Rambam or Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), this is "In the manner that kings and important people eat" (Mishnah Pesachim). It symbolizes the concept of freedom, that Jews would be able to have a celebratory meal while relaxing together and enjoying one another's company. As mentioned above, this fourth question was added after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

and replaced the pre-existing question about why roasted meat is eaten during the Passover seder

Bonus Fact

Not too long after the Mah Nishtanah section of the Passover seder is the section with the Four Sons, who ask four questions (although the fourth son doesn't know how to ask). They are:

  • The Wise Son: “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws that G‑d, our G‑d, has commanded to you?” (Deuteronomy 6:20)
  • The Wicked Son: "What is this service of yours?!"
  • The Simple Son: “What is this celebration about?” 
  • The One Who Doesn't Know How to Ask: "As for The One Who Knows Not How To Ask — you must open up [the conversation] for him."

The haggadah then goes on to say how to respond to each of the children. 

Learn More

If you'd like to learn more about The Four Questions, or Mah Nishtanah, watch one of the following videos to learn the most popular tunes, which was composed by Ephraim Abileah in 1936. 

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Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "What Are the Four Questions at the Passover Seder?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 28, 2016, thoughtco.com/four-questions-at-the-passover-seder-4038588. Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. (2016, April 28). What Are the Four Questions at the Passover Seder? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/four-questions-at-the-passover-seder-4038588 Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "What Are the Four Questions at the Passover Seder?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/four-questions-at-the-passover-seder-4038588 (accessed December 17, 2017).