Tag: Passover

Got Any Dip for These Chips?

The Four Questions.

Do any other three words strike as much fear into the hearts of little Jewish kids around the world as those? Generations of Jews remember having to stand up in front of everyone present (and especially nasty old Aunt Ida who never had a good thing to say) and sing these questions while trying not to make a mistake.

The Four Questions serve as a starting off point for the Seder. You’ll notice that the Four Questions are not in fact followed by the Four Answers. If that were the case, the Seder would be over by about 7:30. No, you have to learn and discuss the story of Passover, as told in the Haggadah, to figure out the right answers.

Still, I wonder whether everyone can actually answer each of the Four Questions. To review, here they are:

  1. On all other nights, we eat bread or matza. (Question 1A: why would anyone eat matza if you didn’t have to?) Tonight, why do we only eat matza?
  2. On all other nights, we eat any kind of herbs. Tonight, why do we eat bitter herbs?
  3. On all other nights, we don’t dip our foods. Tonight, why do we dip our foods twice?
  4. On all other nights, we eat while sitting or reclining. Tonight, why do we eat while reclining?

(I wonder whether this is where Jerry Seinfeld got his comedic inspiration: Hey guys, what’s the deal with bitter herbs….?)

So go back and read that third question again. It’s a particularly strange one–I suspect everyone sings it but doesn’t pay too much attention to what’s it’s really asking.

On all other night, we don’t dip our foods. Tonight, why do we dip our foods twice?

That’s actually two questions built into one: Why do we dip our foods, and what are the two times we do it?

The first time is easy of course. We dip our celery or other green vegetable into the salt water, to combine the images of the Festival of Spring with the tears of the Israelite slaves. But what’s the second dipping?

When I ask this question to kids and adults, they often answer that we dip our fingers into the wine during the recitation of the Ten Plagues. Good guess, except that our fingers aren’t food, unless you’re attending the Donner Family Seder.

In fact, when it’s time to make the blessing over maror and eat it, you’re supposed to dip it into a little charoset–to mitigate the bitterness with a little bit of sweetness.

OK, so now we have our two dippings–but it doesn’t answer the larger question: Why? What does dipping foods have to do with Passover? The other questions are pretty obvious and straightforward: matza, bitter herbs, reclining at the table. Is dipping foods some weird Passover custom that we never learned?

In fact, like reclining at the table, dipping your foods (which On All Other Nights might reflect poor table manners) is a sign of luxury. Slaves have to grab whatever is there, eat it fast, and get back to work. But now we’re a free people–we can sit, take our time with our food, dip one kind into another, and really savor the meal.

And now we can see that the Four Questions make a lot more sense. They’re structured in such a way to progress from slavery to freedom.

The first two questions–matza and maror–deal with what the Israelites experienced as slaves, while the last two questions–dipping and reclining–are a demonstration of how free people act.

Now go practice some more so Aunt Ida doesn’t give you the stink eye.

B-B-B-Bad to the Bone?

You gotta hand it to those ancient rabbis–they sure knew how to tackle classroom management. In fact, we read about their nuanced understanding of effective pedagogical techniques each year at the Passover Seder.

Forget everything you thought you knew about education. The rabbis had it all figured out: there are simply four kinds of learners–the familiar four sons that appear in the Haggadah:

The Wise Son
The Wicked Son
The Simple Son
The Son Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask

(Of course, in true traditional Jewish fashion, the women-folk were relegated to the kitchen, so we’re not sure what the daughters were up to.)

So which kind of kid do you think is the best? Which one might go on to become a Jewish professional or effective leader? Who is more apt to make Mom and Dad proud?

No brainer right? I think it’s the wicked child.

Like a lot of kids who seem to resist learning, I think the wicked child is the most misunderstood. Let’s take a closer look at how the Haggadah presents this type of learner.

We might imagine that he simply disappears during the Seder. Maybe he announces to everyone, “This is stupid!” and storms off to go partying and have an illicit bagel with his other hoodlum friends. But that’s not what happens at all. This kid is engaged. He’s present. He’s asking questions and challenging authority. Rather than absenting himself, he wants answers. And most surprising, he’s knowledgeable about the Seder and the Torah. He uses a direct quote from Exodus–What does this service mean to you?–and puts a sarcastic twist on it by emphasizing the words “to you,” challenging the adults in his life to explain why and how he should embrace these rituals. He wants in–but needs to see more.

In other words, what the rabbis of the Haggadah called the Wicked Son is really just a typical teenager.

And here’s where actually understanding the Hebrew text comes in handy, because in most translations I’ve read, this next part is simply omitted. When asked how we should handle such an awful child, the text reads:

.אף אתה הקהה את שיניו
Smack him in the teeth.

Obviously, those guys had very little patience for anything but blind obedience. That’s why they loved the wise child, an annoying little goody-two-shoes who sat right up front, always raised his hand first, and begged to be called on with the correct answer. (Good thing the Jews never believed in gym class, because this kid would have been toast.)

As for me, give me the wicked child any day. I much prefer to be around students who ask difficult questions, challenge established beliefs, and rethink the best way for them to engage in Jewish tradition.

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