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116a - Ma Nishtana

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            Last week we finished all the gemara to the mishna we began three months ago. It would be a good idea if you reviewed the entire gemara to that mishna, in order to get an idea of how the gemara is structured around a mishna. In the shiur, however, we shall be continuing in the text, and shall start the next mishna.


            We are on 116a, at the first mishna on the page (line 17).


            The webpage is at

            On the webpage, there is found, aside from the photo of the printed daf, a typed text version of the gemara, with a translation. In addition, I have added minimal punctuation to the typed text, to aid in reading it.




            We begin with the mishna. Remember that the Mishna is an independent work, written several hundred years before the Gemara. Hence, this mishna is a direct continuation from the previous one, and not from the last gemara that we learned. In our case, the mishnayot (plural of mishna) are sequential in time as well, as they are defining the order of the seder.



They pour for him the second cup. Here, the son asks his father, and if the son is not intelligent, his father teaches him:

How is this night different from all nights? -

For on all nights we eat chametz and matza (leavened and unleavened bread), but on this night it is only matza;

For on all nights we eat other vegetables, but on this night maror (bitter herbs);

For on all nights we eat roasted, braised, and boiled meat, but on this night it is only roasted;

For on all nights we dip one time, but on this night two times.

The father teaches the son according to his intelligence.

He begins with ignominy and ends with esteem, and he expounds "Arami oved avi" until the end of the passage.


            This is the mishna of the "four questions." The mishna does not only state a law relating to recitation, but gives the text as well. This is actually a very unusual occurrence in the Mishna. Generally, the text of the siddur is not found in the mishna, and there are very few exceptions.


            Those with good memories will immediately notice that in fact the text of this mishna is not identical to that of our seder. There are at least two differences, and we will discuss them both shortly.


            Let us examine the Rashbam to the mishna.



Vekan haben shoel et aviv

Here, the son asks his father - here, at the pouring of the second cup, the son, if he is intelligent, asks his father, why is it different now, that we pour a second cup before eating.


            This comment is taken more or less exactly from Rashi. Rashi is explaining the word "here" that introduces the four questions. Rashi's explanation is that the questions are engendered by the pouring of the cup in the previous sentence. Pouring the second cup now, before the meal, is an unusual step, which arouses the child's curiosity. We have seen previously that actions that are meant to arouse curiosity are one of the distinguishing marks of the seder. The Talmud does not state that that is what is taking place here, but Rashi reads it into the introductory word "here" as the connection between pouring the cup and the son's questioning.


            The Rashbam continues and quotes a different explanation, which he has received also from Rashi (although it does not appear in Rashi's commentary).


And our master (Rashi, who was the Rashbam's teacher as well as grandfather) received from R. Yaacov b. Yakar, "So the son asks his father" (Instead of "kan" = "here", R. Yaacov b. Yakar is reading "ken" = "so"). This is like "Ken bnot Tzelofchad" (Bemidbar 27) (the verse means that the daughters of Tzelofchad spoke correctly); i.e., it is appropriate that the son ask "ma nishtana" at the pouring of the second cup.


            Basically, this is the same explanation of the mishna. There is an intrinsic connection between the pouring of the second cup and the four questions.


            As I mentioned, viewing the pouring of the second cup as one of the "unusual events" which are designed to arouse the child's curiosity is not supported by the Talmud, unlike the eating of karpas or the removal of the table, which, as we have seen in the past, are explicitly related by the gemara to "so that the children will realize and question." Perhaps for this reason, the Ran differs with Rashi.



Mazgu lo kos sheni

They pour for him the second cup, and here the son asks - for now they come to remove the table, and the child pays attention and asks "ma nishtana etc."


            The Ran clearly preferred to relate the questioning to an act that the gemara has stated is designed to arouse curiosity. He therefore interprets the word "here" as referring to the removal of the table, which was mentioned in the previous mishna, rather than to the pouring of the cup, which is the immediate precedent of the son's questioning.


            Continuing with text of the questions, the Rashbam does not comment on the first two (matza and maror). Presumably, the text is clear. He does comment on the next two, though the comments are out of order.


Matbilin paam achat

We dip one time - dipping vegetables during the meal. The gemara will question this.


            There seems to be a problem with this text, and the Rashbam tells us not to worry about it, as the gemara will discuss this problem, whatever it is.


Shtei pe'amim

Two times - the first dipping of other vegetables and the second dipping of maror.


            Taking the two comments of the Rashbam about the question of "dipping" together, the Rashbam is pointing out that the single dipping of the rest of the nights is not equivalent of either one of the two on the seder night. The single dipping of a regular night is a normal one during the meal, whereas both dippings on the seder night are ritual, one BEFORE the meal, and one of maror.


            More important is the Rashbam's comment on the third question, the one about roast meat (which is in the fourth position in the Rashbam, coming after the question of the dippings).


Ha-laila ha-zeh kulo tzli

But on this night it is only roasted - He would ask thus in the time that the Temple was in existence.


            In other words, this question is inappropriate today. The son's questions are based on his actual experience at the seder, not on what he learned in school (even assuming he went to a school that taught him the order of the paschal sacrifice). Hence, there is no way that he could ask about eating roasted meat, which is a law about the eating of the sacrifice. The Rashbam therefore simply states that this question is historical, and was asked only in ancient times, when the Temple still stood.


            The Rashbam's implied ruling, that the question about roast meat is not asked today, is quoted by several commentators as a statement of the gemara itself. The Meiri, for instance, adds to his commentary on the mishna the statement that "The gemara explains that in these times when there is no paschal sacrifice, one should not mention "cooked and roasted."


            The missing line in fact appears in the Rif, which, as we have seen in the past, consists mostly of direct citations of the gemara. In this case, the first line in the Rif after the completion of the mishna is "Today one should not mention 'roast meat,' since we do not have the paschal sacrifice."


            Logically, there are two possibilities. Either the line was a genuine gemara text, and is missing in the our texts (as well as in that of the Rashbam, since he presents the idea as his own in his commentary to the mishna), or it was a comment of the Rif, which was subsequently added mistakenly to some gemara texts (such as the Meiri's).


            In our seder today, there appears an alternative fourth question. Apparently, there was a desire to preserve the framework of FOUR questions. Hence, in place of the question about the paschal sacrifice, there appears a question about "reclining." (The Rambam has all FIVE questions during Temple times, and four today).


            Let us now see the gemara to this mishna.


The Rabbis taught:  If his son is intelligent, his son asks; and if he is not intelligent, his wife asks; and if not, he asks himself. Even two scholars who know the laws of Pesach should ask each other.


            The Rambam had apparently a different version of this law, reading: "If he had a son, his son asks; and if he does not have a son, his wife asks, and if not...." Basically, the idea is clear. Asking questions is a mandatory form for the seder text, preferably from a child, but if not, then someone else must do so.


For on all nights we dip one time, but on this night two times.

Rava asked: Are we obliged to dip at least one time every night?

Rather Rava said: This is how it should read: For on all nights we are not obligated to dip even one time, but on this night two times.

Rav Safra asked: Obligation for children?

Rather Rav Safra said: This is how it should read: (For on all nights) we do not dip even one time, but on this night two times.


            Rav Safra's question ("Obligation for children?") is explained by the Rashbam thus:


Obligation for children? - a question! It is because of the recognition of the children, that they should ask, that we do it.


            In other words, since the first dipping is done in order to arouse the children's curiosity, it should not be described as an obligation (unlike matza and maror, which are mitzva obligations).


            This gemara is emending the text of  "ma nishtana."


(Notice, that in the printed versions of the mishna, there were versions that already included Rav Safra's emendation, which is probably due to the scribe knowing the haggada by heart. This makes reading the gemara impossible, however. The printers restored the original version of the mishna, using the convention of parentheses and brackets.)


The conclusion of Rav Safra is the text that we recite in the haggada today.  The two differences between the mishna and our text were firstly, the line about the "roast meat," and secondly, the emendation to the line about "two dippings."


Continuing on in the gemara.


He begins with ignominy and ends with esteem. What is "ignominy"?

Rav said: "In the beginning, our ancestors were idolaters."

Shmuel said: "We were slaves."


This short, but very important, dispute between Rav and Shmuel is a basic one concerning the theme of the haggada. The shiur from Rav Kahn will discuss some of the issues involved. A quick review of the haggada text will show that we follow both opinions, reciting both texts.


What is lacking in the gemara is an explication of what is the corresponding "esteem" text. Look in the haggada and try and decide what is the "esteem" of Rav, corresponding to the ignominy of "in the beginning, our ancestors were idolaters," and the same for Shmuel.


Now for the last section.


Rav Nachman said to Daru his slave: A slave whose master frees him and gives him silver and gold, what should he say to him?

He said to him: He should thank and praise.

He said to him: You have exempted us from saying "Ma nishtana." He began and said "Avadim hayinu" ("We were slaves").


            The last line of this passage is very difficult. Why should Daru's statement that the slave should give thanks and praise exempt Rav Nachman from reciting "ma nishtana"? Previously (115b), we saw that Abaye's QUESTION about removing the table exempted the recital of "ma nishtana;" however, there Abaye asked a question. (Even so, Tosafot there explained that Abaye continued and asked the other questions as well). Here, Daru has not asked any question at all.


            In fact, many manuscripts of the Talmud do not have this line at all. It may well be a mistake, which has "jumped" from the previous page. Look in the Rashbam - it would appear that he did not have the line in his version of the gemara. Rav Kahn, in the accompanying shiur, will discuss possible interpretations of this line.


            So, we have finished an entire mishna with accompanying gemara in one shiur. Do not worry - this will happen often.


            Now for the shiur of Rav Kahn.


Matchil Bi-gnut

            There is a debate between Rav and Shmuel whether the gnut (ignominy) refers to the enslavement of the children of Israel in Egypt "avadim hayinu"), or the polytheism which preceded Avraham's discovery of Hashem ("mi-tchila ovdei avodat gilulim").  At first glance, the position of Shmuel that one should begin with the enslavement seems the obvious choice.  Why did Rav depart from such a straightforward interpretation?  Moreover, what is the relationship between idolatry and the story of the exodus?

            The solution to this problem can be found in Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim.  The Rambam begins these halakhot with a brief account of the history and development of polytheism, and the return of the Jewish people to faith in Hashem.  In the third halakha he describes how Avraham, a child of idol worshippers, was personally involved in idolatry ("mi-tchila ovdei avodat gilulim hayu avoteinu").  Nevertheless, Avraham eventually realized the absurdity of polytheism and embarked upon a new path of absolute faith in Hashem.  The Rambam continues to describe the development of the community of faith, until he reaches the children of Yaakov: "And it kept expanding with the children of Yaakov and those that joined them, and there became in the world a nation that is aware of Hashem."  At this point, the Rambam introduces Egypt.  "Until Yisrael spent a long time in Egypt and they learnt their ways and to worship idols like them ... and the root planted by Avraham was almost destroyed as the children of Yaakov returned to the errors and absurdities of the world.  However, due to Hashem's love for us, and in order to heed his oath to Avraham our father, He designated Moshe as master of all prophets and sent him..."

            What the Rambam describes is another story relating to the events of the exodus from Egypt, a story of freedom from spiritual bondage and the regaining of faith in Hashem.  This story began when Avraham was a young child, living in the house of his father Terach, an idol worshipper.  It concludes with the revelation experienced through the ten plagues in general, and the plague of the firstborn in particular.  Thereafter, the children of Israel are permitted to leave Egypt in order to worship Hashem in the wilderness.

            The halakha accepted both Rav and Shmuel (see Rambam Hilkhot Chametz U-matza 7:4).  Therefore, the haggada includes both the story of bondage and political freedom, as well as the tale of apostasy and faith regained.  Thus, the nation that was born during yetziat Egypt, is defined both politically as well as religiously, and the faith-community became a reality.


Patratan Mi-lomar Ma Nishtana

            Taken at face value, the response of Daru, Rav Nachman's servant, substituted for the "ma nishtana."  In the previous sugya (115b), there was an additional situation which alleviated the need to recite the ma nishtana.  When Abaye questioned why the table (seder plate) was being removed prior to the meal, Rabba responded "patratan mi-lomar ma nishtana."

            However, some commentators did not adopt this interpretation of these sugyot.  Tosafot (115b s.v. Kedei) claim that Abaye, sparked by the removal of the table, actually continued to ask all the questions relevant to the seder night.  However, had he only questioned the removal of the table, the obligation to recite ma nishtana would have remained intact.  This interpretation is problematic, since it transforms Rabba's exclamation into a trivial and therefore unnecessary remark.

            The Rashbam (116a s.v. Patach), in a puzzling interpretation, explains our gemara as follows: After the response of Daru, Rav Nachman exclaimed "you have alleviated our obligation of ma nishtana."  He then proceeded to recite "avadim hayinu", FOLLOWING THE QUESTIONS OF THE CHILD.  Apparently, according to the Rashbam the obligation of the child to ask the four questions was not alleviated.  According to this explanation of our sugya, Rav Nachman's exclamation appears totally meaningless.

            Before attempting to explain how the Rashbam's interpretation understands the statement of Rav Nachman, it is significant to note that this strange interpretation was not applied by the Rashbam to the previous sugya.  Why was the Rashbam (as opposed to Tosafot) willing to accept that Abaye's comment could substitute for ma nishtana, while Daru's statement could not?

            The answer is obvious.  The Rashbam understood the obligation of ma nishtana as being rooted in the requirement for a question-and-answer format for the haggada (derekh she'eila u-teshuva).  Therefore, although Daru supplied the participants at the seder with the personal insights of a slave, he nonetheless was not moved to query the odd practices of the seder night.  He did not ask any question parallel to the ma nishtana, and did not fulfill the requirement of reciting the haggada in a question and answer format.  Abaye, on the other hand, perplexed by the strange removal of the table, asked ma nishtana; why on this night are we removing the table before eating.  Therefore, the specific requirement of the ma nishtana was alleviated, and the haggada could be continued as a response to Abaye's question.  Hence, the Rashbam accepted the straightforward interpretation of the sugya on 115b, that Abaye's question replaced the ma nishtana, but avoided a parallel explanation of our sugya, regarding the statement of Daru.

            Nevertheless, as we noted, it is very difficult to read the Rashbam into our sugya.  Perhaps we can suggest a solution based on the Rambam's unique formulation of the ma nishtana obligation.  The Rambam mentions ma nishtana in Hilkhot Chametz U-matza in two separate places.  In the first (7:3), while discussing the mitzva of sippur yetziat Egypt, he mentions the necessity to incite the child to ask ma nishtana.  Later, when reviewing the entire seder (8:2), he writes "and here the child asks, AND THE RECITER SAYS ma nishtana.  In other words, ma nishtana is not limited to the questions asked by the child.  It is also part of the text of the haggada.  It is not only questions, but an exclamation as well: How different is this night!

            Based on this, we can suggest that although Daru's statement could not substitute for the QUESTION of the child, as we explained above, nevertheless it could replace the EXCLAMATION of ma nishtana, which expresses appreciation of the uniqueness of this night.  Following Daru's candid statement regarding the personal feeling of a freed slave, this appreciation was so obvious, that the statement ma nishtana became superfluous.  However, it was still necessary to have the child ask the questions of ma nishtana, according to the Rashbam, to implement the interactive aspect of the haggada.  Only then could "patach ve-amar avadim hayinu," which clearly refers to the reciter, follow.  However, this does not appear in the gemara on 115b, since Abaye's query replaced only the question of the child, but did not substitute for the exclamation of ma nishtana.

            Tosafot argue that Abaye's question did not replace the question of ma nishtana.  Apparently, Tosafot did not view derekh she'eila u-teshuva as merely a format issue.  According to Tosafot, questioning per se is not sufficient.  The content of the questions, revolving around the symbols of sippur yetziat Egypt is crucial.  Therefore, asking about the removal of the table is irrelevant.  One must ask about the matza and the maror.  The curiosity of the child must be aroused, so that he is interested in the meaning of these symbols.  The questions are merely a tool used to inspire the child and develop an appreciation of the events of yetziat Egypt.  Therefore, although questioning the removal of the table does not substitute for the ma nishtana requirement, Daru's statement, which goes to the heart of the experience of the seder night, alleviates the need to begin the story with questions.