Question: Why do Jews celebrate Passover?
Answer: To teach children the story of the exodus from Egypt.
This answer is in both the Torah and the Talmud, along with the need for adults to recall the story of liberation in an unforgettable way.
Two rituals in Exodus
Passover/Pesach begins this Wednesday at sunset. Jews around the world will gather at dinner tables and perform an elaborate ritual that is quite different from the two observances required in the book of Exodus.
In the book of Exodus, God orders the Israelites to gather in their houses for dinner on the 14th of the month of Nisan, which begins at sunset. That night, God will afflict Egypt with the last of the ten plagues: death of the firstborn. Each Israelite household must slaughter a year-old male lamb or goat; smaller households should combine and share one.
And they must take some of the blood, and they must put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they will be. And they must eat the meat on this night, roasted in fire, and matzot on bitter herbs they must eat. You must not eat it raw, or cooked by boiling in water, but rather roasted in fire, its head on its lower legs and on its entrails. And you must not leave any for yourselves until morning; and [any] leavings from it in the morning you must burn in the fire. And thus you must eat it: your hips girded, your sandals on, and your staffs in your hand. And you must eat it in haste. It is a pesach for God. (Exodus/Shemot 12:7-11)
matzot (מַצּוֹת) = plural of matzah (מַצָּה) = unleavened bread; dry flatbread baked quickly to avoid sourdough action.
pesach (פֶּסַח) = “Passover” offering. (From the verb pasach, פָּסַח = hop (in 1 Kings 18:21); protect (in Isaiah 31:5); skip over, spare (in Exodus 12:23).)
Presumably the Israelites were enacting this ritual on the first night of Passover when Exodus was written down. As God’s instructions continue, the ritual about daubing blood and eating a whole lamb standing up is followed by seven days of eating matzot:
Seven days you must eat matzot; indeed, on the first day you must remove the leaven that is in your houses, since any soul eating leaven must be cut off from Israel from the first day through the seventh day. (Exodus 12:14-15)
Pilgrimage festivals ceased after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. But the seven days without leaven is still a widespread Jewish observance during the week of Passover.
However, painting your door frame with blood, eating a whole lamb including the head and entrails, and/or eating standing up with a staff in hand are rare today. Instead, on the evening of Nissan 14 (and sometimes on subsequent evenings during the week of Passover), Jews sit around the dinner table going through a Haggadah (הַגָּדָה = telling), a guide to saying blessings, singing songs, telling traditional stories, doing show-and-tell rituals, and eating ritual foods (as well as dinner). The event is called a seder (סֵדֶר= order, arrangement) because all these ritual acts are done in a prescribed order.
The reason for doing this is not only to remind ourselves of the story about God bringing us out of slavery in Egypt, but to teach it to our children.
Children in the Torah
The section of the Haggadah called “The Four Sons” or “The Four Children” paraphrases questions and answers in the Torah, imagining a different type of child corresponding to each answer.1 Three of the four biblical instructions on what to tell children are given in Exodus on the eve of the final plague and the liberation from Egypt:
When a child asks why we paint blood on our doorframes every year on Nissan 14, say:
“It is a pesach slaughter-sacrifice for God, who pasach over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when [God] afflicted the Egyptians, but saved our households.” (Exodus 12:26)
When everyone has to eat matzot instead of leavened bread for a week, say:
“On account of what God did for me, when I went out of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8)
When a firstborn son is ransomed in a ritual at the beginning of Passover, say:
“With a strong hand God brought us out from Egypt, from the house of slavery …” (Exodus 13:14)
The first of the Four Children in the Haggadah is based on the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses posits a son who asks about all the rules God has given. What Moses (unlike the Haggadah)2 tells you to answer begins:
“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out …” (Deuteronomy 6:20)
But the biblical questions and answers are not enough. Before the Four Children section, the Haggadah makes sure children are engaged with a section called “The Four Questions”.
The Four Questions in the Talmud
Most of the traditional Haggadah3 is described in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim, including the Four Questions, which appear in the older part of the tractate, the mishnah.4 The mishnah dates to the early third century C.E. and records what the Israelites in Babylonia were already practicing; therefore the Four Questions, like the Four Sons, has been an important part of the Passover ritual for about 2,000 years.
And for about 2,000 years, the purpose of the Four Questions has been to make the children at the seder pay attention.
All four questions are amplifications of the basic question:
Why is this night different from all other nights?
But the content of the four amplifications has changed somewhat since Talmudic times.
The original Four Questions (or amplifications) in the Talmud are:
On all other nights, we eat leavened bread or matzah, but on this night only matzah.
On all other nights, we eat other vegetables, but on this night only bitter herbs.
On all other nights, we eat meat roasted, stewed, or boiled, but on this night only roasted.
On all other nights we dip [vegetables] once, but on this night we dip twice.
The mishnah continues: “And according to the son’s understanding, his father instructs him.”5 (Perhaps this remark inspired the creation of the section traditionally called “The Four Sons”.)
By the 10th century C.E., the question about how the meat is cooked had been dropped from the list, and replaced with a different question:
On all other nights we eat sitting up or reclining, but on this night only reclining.
Reclining instead of sitting up was already a requirement by the time the mishnah of Pesachim was written.6 The Talmudic rabbis cited in the gemara (the part of a Talmud tractate written during the 3rd through 5th centuries C.E. as commentary on the mishnah) argued about the technicalities of reclining. They agreed that:
Lying on one’s back is not called reclining. Reclining to the right is not called reclining, as free men do not recline in this manner. People prefer to recline on their left and use their right hand to eat, whereas they find it more difficult to eat the other way. (Pesachim 108a)
After some argument, they also agreed that reclining was necessary not only while eating matzah, but also while drinking each of the four cups of wine, since only free and independent people got to recline while drinking—the opposite of “We were slaves” in the retelling of Exodus. But nobody had to recline while eating the bitter herbs.
When the requirement about reclining replaced the method of cooking meat in the Four Questions, the order of the questions also changed.6 During the last 1,000 years, the most common order has been:
Why is this night different from all other nights?
- … but on this night we dip them twice.
- … but on this night only matzah.
- … but on this night only bitter herbs.
- … but on this night only reclining.
Today, after we pour the second cup of wine and come to the page in the Haggadah with the Four Questions, all the questions are sung by the youngest person at the table who can manage it. Some children relish the job; others complain. But someone has to do it.
And if even his wife is not capable of asking or if he has no wife, he asks himself. And even if two Torah scholars who know the halakhot of Passover are sitting together and there is no one else present to pose the questions, they ask each other. (Pesachim 116a)
The Talmud offers additional ways to prompt children to ask about the unusual things they see in the dining room. Following Rabbi Akiva, Pesachim recommends giving the children roasted grains and nuts, “so that they will not sleep and also so they will ask the four questions at night.” (Pesachim 109a)
Another technique was to grab the matzot and wolf them down, “so that, due to the hasty consumption of the meal, they will not sleep and they will inquire into the meaning of this unusual practice.” (Pesachim 109a)
One prompt in the Talmud is to actually remove the dinner table from the room before the main meal!
Why does one remove the table? The school of Rabbi Yannai says: So that the children will notice that something is unusual and they will ask: Why is this night different from all other nights? The Gemara relates: Abaye was sitting before Rabba when he was still a child. He saw that they were removing the table from before him, and he said to those removing it: We have not yet eaten, and you are taking the table away from us? Rabba said to him: You have exempted us from reciting the questions of: Why is this night different [ma nishtana], as you have already asked what is special about the seder night. (Pesachim 115b)
Another rabbi quoted in Pesachim, Rab Shimi bar Ashi, explained:
Matza must be placed before each and every participant at the seder. Each participant in a seder would recline on a couch at his own personal table. Likewise, bitter herbs must be placed before each and every participant, and ḥaroset must be placed before each and every participant. And during the seder, before the meal, one shall remove the table only from before the one reciting the Haggadah. The other tables, which correspond to the seder plates used nowadays, are left in their place. (Pesachim 115b)
I have never been to a Passover seder in which each person reclines on a couch at a separate table, as at an ancient Greek symposium. And since we are all sitting at one big table (leaning to the left uncomfortably at the appropriate times), I have never seen the table removed.
But I have witnessed other devices to keep children—and even adults—awake and asking questions. If you were leading a seder, what would you do?
- See my post Pesach: Changing Four Sons.
- The reply to the first son (or child) in the Haggadah is to summarize only the rabbinic rulings (halakhah) about Passover, up to the ban on eating anything after the afikomen, the final piece of matzah.
- Modern Jews have added new ritual elements to the seder, and therefore new pages of text and songs in the Haggadah, while retaining all the important elements of the traditional Haggadah that is still used by more orthodox Jews.
- Pesachim 116a. (All translations from tractate Pesachim in this post are from The William Davidson Talmud on www.sefaria.org.) The mishnah in each tractate of the Talmud is the oral law collected by Yehudah HaNasi at the beginning of the third century CE. Later rabbinic commentary on the mishnah, the gemara, was added over the next few centuries.
- Pesachim 116a.
- Pesachim 108a. The question about reclining is added to the Four Questions in the writings of both Saadiah Gaon (10th-century rabbi Saadiah ben Yosef Gaon) and Rambam (12th-century philosopher Moshe ben Maimon, a.k.a. Maimonides).
- This is the order of the four questions according to Saadiah Gaon, Rambam, and the first extant printed haggadah (Soncino, 1485).