April 16, 2024
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The Four Different Types of Questions

Back in the day, Mah Nishtanah was not necessarily the opening line of the four questions in the Pesach Haggadah. In many an Eastern European Jewish home, it was quite typical for the youngest child to begin the age-old tradition of asking the four questions by intoning, “Tatteh, ich vill dir freggen die feer kahshes (Father, I want to ask you the four questions).”

In and of itself, this Yiddish introduction serves as a rettenish (enigma). Why was it that the child did not begin asking the accepted, “Mah nishtanah halylah hazeh mikol halaylot?” And, if a Yiddish introduction was very much in vogue, then why did the child choose not to intone “Tatteh, ich vill dir freggen die feer frahgges?” After all, freggen (ask) and frahgges (questions) share the same root.

With the Seder night soon upon us, perhaps, it would do us well to consider why the four questions are referred to as kahshes—instead of frahges, shyles or any other term that could arguably be seen as a Yiddish synonym for the word “question.”

Frahggeh (question): A frahggeh is devoid of any religious connotation. “Who manufactures the best hand baked shmura matzah?” is a frahggeh. Often, it is the price of shmura matzah or its suitability for Passover use at the seder that is in question.

Kahsheh (question): Unlike a “frahggeh” which is answered with straightforward information, a kahsheh (taken from the Hebrew “kooshyah”) demands an explanation. When the question concerns why we dip a green vegetable into saltwater and a bitter herb into charoset, an explanation is necessary. A hahrbeh kahsheh (a difficult or involved question) requires more of a detailed or intricate explanation.

Shyleh (question): A shyleh demands a halachic ruling. To be sure, there are circumstances where either a straightforward “yes” or “no” answer is ultimately sought. Alternatively, there are situations that warrant whether a food or an activity is either “permissible” or “forbidden.” And even though an explanation would—in many situations—be most welcome, it is ultimately a halachic decision or ruling that needs to be rendered. If—for whatever reason—there are no dairies that have prepared their equipment for Passover production, one would ask a shyleh of a competent halachic authority, whether regular milk could be used during Passover, and if so, under what conditions.

As we sit down to the seder and recount our ancestors’ freedom from Egyptian bondage, perhaps yet another element of discussion could be added to the evening. Borrowing from the above, we could ask the following four questions: What is the “rettenish” in the Yiddish introduction of the four questions? Why is a “fraggeh” the easiest type of question? Why are the four questions referred to as “kahshehs?” What “shyleh” could be asked regarding the four questions?

It was once pointed out that it is not the answer that enlightens, but the question. Perhaps, we could emend that to read that it is not the answer that enlightens, but whether it was asked as a fraggeh, a kahsheh or a shyleh.


Rabbi Shawn Zell has recently returned to New Jersey, after serving at a pulpit in Dallas. He possesses certification in teaching Yiddish. Rabbi Zell is the author of three books.

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