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Ma Nishtana?

March 12, 2013

By: Julie Lookatch - Gan Ami Communications & Outreach Coordinator

Welcome to the Hebrew month of Nisan! Very soon, at seder tables in Milwaukee and all around the world, young children will be center stage as the adults turn to hear them chant or recite, “Ma nishtana ha-laila ha-zeh mikol ha-laylot?” This translates to “How is this night different from all other nights?” which is the introduction to the Four Questions - – why we eat matzah instead of bread, why we eat marror (bitter herbs) instead of other vegetables, why we dip the karpas (green vegetables) in saltwater and the marror in charoses (fruit & nut mixture), and why we lean instead of sitting up. These questions are asked each year by the youngest child at the Seder and are answered by the adults during the next part of the Seder.

This is such an important moment for parents and grandparents who may be eagerly anticipating a moment of pride as this tradition is passed on to a new generation. After all, the main purpose of the Passover Seder is to teach the children the story of the Exodus from Egypt and ensure that it is passed down from generation to generation. But how can you be sure that your child is ready for this big moment?

The first thing you have to ask yourself is, what are my (my family’s) expectations for this part of the Seder? Will there be a lot of pressure for my child to perform up to the expectations of older relatives?  While a two or three year old may not be able to chant the Four Questions in fluent Hebrew in front of a large crowd as well as a child who already has a couple of years of Hebrew school under their belt, there are ways that even the youngest children can participate in this important tradition.

As soon as your child can speak in sentences and learn simple songs, you can begin to introduce them to the tune and the words. This can be done informally in the weeks leading up to Passover. You can sing with them during bath time, in the car or while preparing the house for the holiday. Preschool age children love to learn through song and may pick up a lot from you even if you aren’t necessarily asking them to repeat after you.

Here is a link to an audio file of the Four Questions that you can download and use as a resource.

If there are older children at your Seder who will be reciting the questions, a preschooler can be included by interjecting the “Ma Nishtana” when someone points to them. Or even if they just want to stand next to an older child and hum along, they can feel like they were involved. Kindergarteners can sometimes manage to shyly sing “Ma nishtana ha-laila ha-zeh mikol ha-laylot?” and then older children can come to the rescue, chanting about the four ways in which this night does indeed differ from all other nights of the year.

But what about the child that doesn’t want to be the center of attention? If you know your child isn’t ready to be in the spotlight, this doesn’t mean they can’t learn the Four Questions during the weeks leading up to the Seder. Even though they may enjoy hearing someone else do it while they listen from their place at the table, they can feel connected to the Questions because the words will be familiar.

Finally, keep in mind that young children may have questions of their own about the Passover story. Don’t let yourself be so focused on the recitation of four set questions that you miss a moment to encourage your child’s natural curiosity. They may even surprise you by coming up with their own answers as well. The ultimate goal of the Passover Seder is to open up a dialogue between the generations in which our oral and written history can be passed down to our children and their children to follow. Chag Sameach!