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Mah Nishtanah: The Three Questions

It is well-known that the Mishnah in the tenth chapter of Pesachim includes a set of Mah Nishtannah. If one opens a standard printed Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 116a), one sees four questions in the text of the Mishnah (matzoh, maror, roast, and dipping). But if one opens a standard printed Jerusalem Talmud, one sees three questions (dipping, matzoh and roast).[1] Is this one of those rare instances of a disagreement between the text of the Mishnah preserved in Babylonia and the text of the Mishnah preserved in Palestine?

It turns out that it is practically certain that the original text of the Mishnah recorded only three questions: dipping, matzoh and roast. This is what the earliest and most reliable Mishnah manuscripts record. There is no distinction between a Babylonian Mishnah and a Palestinian Mishnah here.

Moreover, if one opens up a standard Massechet Pesachim of the Babylonian Talmud and looks at the text of the Mishnah recorded in the Rif (R. Isaac Alfasi, 11th century) and the Rosh (R. Asher b. Yechiel, 13th century), one sees that they too record a Mishnah which included only the above three questions. Also, Rambam (12th century) utilized a text of the Mishnah which included only the above three questions.

Almost certainly, the familiarity of later copyists with the maror question from the texts of their Haggadot led some of them to erroneously insert the maror question into their texts of the Mishnah, generating a new four-question Mishnah.

A widely quoted understanding of the Mah Nishtannah takes the position that there were always four questions, and that the roast question did not survive after the churban, with the reclining question substituting for it. I just showed that there were originally only 3 questions. It also turns out that the roast question survived in some areas for 1000 years after the churban. [2]

Documents from the Cairo Genizah generally date from the 10th through the 13th centuries. It is reasonable to assume that this is roughly the period of the Haggadah fragments as well. Of course, not all of the Haggadah fragments from the Genizah span the Mah Nishtannah section. But of those that do, many include the roast question.

Although most of the Mah Nishtannah Haggadah fragments found in the Genizah record four questions the way they are asked today, we also find the following:

-Several record three questions: matzoh, dipping, and roast, just like the original text of the Mishnah.

-One records the following three questions: dipping, matzoh and reclining.[3]

-One records five questions: dipping, matzoh, roast, maror, and reclining.[4]

-Two record only the questions of dipping and roast. (There does not appear to be any reason why the matzoh question would have been intentionally discontinued. Perhaps the matzoh question was accidentally dropped by a scribe in one source, and further copies were later made from that source.) -One records only the questions of dipping and matzoh.

I would like to focus on this last source, which is not actually a Haggadah fragment, but is a section of an anonymous Geonic responsum that includes an outline of the procedures at the seder. It can be deduced that the responsum was composed in Babylonia because it includes avadim hayyinu, which was not a part of the Palestinian seder ritual in this period.[5] This responsum was first published by Louis Ginzberg, in his Ginzey Schechter.[6] Ginzberg took the position that the author of this responsum provided only an abbreviated version of the Mah Nishtannah, and listed only the first two questions, even though his practice was four. But this interpretation seems very unlikely. The whole purpose of the responsum was to spell out the procedures and text of the seder. Abbrevation here would have defeated its purpose.

Shmuel and Ze’ev Safrai take a different approach to this responsum in their Haggadat CHazal. They write that the third and fourth questions are chaserot be-sof he-amud,[7] implying that these questions were originally included in this responsum but were cut off. They take this approach so that the set of questions in our responsum could then parallel the set of questions found in the other known Babylonian Geonic sources of the Haggadah text: Seder Rav Amram Gaon, Siddur Rav Saadiah Gaon, and the Haggadah text published in 1984 by M. R. Lehman. All these sources record the standard four questions: dipping, matzoh, maror, and reclining.

But anyone can now view this responsum (Cambridge T-S Misc. 36.179) at It is clear that the third and fourth questions were never there. The first side ends with the last words of the matzoh question, the next side continues immediately with avadim hayyinu, and there are no missing lines in between.

Assuming we reject the unlikely interpretation of Ginzberg, this source records a two-question set in Babylonia.[8] The idea that we have now been able to “excavate” such a set, evidence of a period before four questions became the universal practice there, is truly remarkable. On a paleographical basis, the responsum has been dated to the 10th century.[9]

Regarding the issue of when the maror and reclining questions were added, the following are some reasonable observations:

The reclining question was probably the last question to be added. Unlike the maror question, it did not make its way into in any manuscripts of the Mishnah, and in all communities, it is the last question of the set.

The maror question probably did not arise until after the text of the dipping question was changed in Babylonia (see Pesachim 116a) and the dipping question lost its connotation as a maror question. Once the dipping question lost this connotation, it was probably viewed as necessary to add a question relating to maror.

The reclining question probably originated in Babylonia as well. It was probably added, after the maror question, due to a desire to fix the number of questions at four, parallel to the themes of four cups of wine and four sons.

A few months ago, a siddur from the 9th century came to light. It had been sitting in a collection of Judaica but its antiquity had not been noticed. The contents of this siddur have not yet been published, but it is reported to include a text of the Haggadah. I anxiously await which version of the Mah Nishtannah it includes. Perhaps we will find another two-question Mah Nishtannah!

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney who doubles as a Jewish historian. He can be reached at [email protected]. This article is an abridged version of an article (with extensive footnotes) published at on Mar. 26 2010. (But the last paragraph above is new.)

[1] I will call them questions, even though some have argued that they are best understood, in the context of Mishnah 10:4, as explanations or exclamations. Richard Steiner argues that the Mishnah is most properly understood as intending only one (long) question, i.e., “what special characteristic of this night is causing us to depart from our normal routine in so many ways?” He shows that R. Saadiah Gaon and every early medieval source understood the Mah Nishtannah as only one long question. It was not until the 13th century that a medieval source first referred to them as she’eilot (plural). See Steiner, “On the Original Structure and Meaning of Mah Nishtannah and the History of Its Reinterpretation,” Jewish Studies, an Internet Journal 7 (2008), pp. 163-204.

[2] My discussion in this section is based on the Haggadah fragments from the Cairo Genizah included in Shmuel and Ze’ev Safrai, Haggadat CHazal (1998).

[3] See Menachem Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah (Jerusalem: 1967, third ed.), p. 113, n. 11. This manuscript is MS Cambridge T-S H2.145. It is possible that this is not a legitimate variant and that the maror question was omitted in error by the scribe who copied this fragment. There is also evidence of a Mah Nishtannah set of dipping, matzoh, and maror. This does not come from the Genizah, but from additions made to a text of the siddur of R. Solomon b. Nathan (12th century).

[4] T-S H2.152. See the photograph at Kasher, p. 93.

[5] Safrai, p. 50.

[6] Vol. 2 (1929), pp. 258-60. It is cited in Kasher, p. 113, n. 11 with the symbol shin.

[7] Safrai, p. 64, n. 53. See also their later English adaptation, Haggadah of the Sages, p. 65, n. 30.

[8] R. Isaac Alfasi quotes a text of Mishnah Pesachim 10:4 that includes only the questions of dipping, matzoh and roast, and then remarks that the roast question is no longer recited. It can be argued based on this that the Mah Nishtannah at the seder in his community may have only included the dipping and matzoh questions.

[9] This is the opinion of Dr. Edna Engel of the The Hebrew Palaeography Project at The National Library of Israel, in correspondence to me. She also opines that the script is Oriental, i.e., from Egypt, Palestine or Syria. Since the responsum reflects the Babylonian ritual, perhaps the last is most likely. The surviving responsum may be a copy of an earlier responsum.

By Mitchell First

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at

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