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QUESTION: Does a katan (minor) exempt the father or leader of the Seder from having to recite the Mah Nishtanah? The father could continue with Avadim hayyinu, as stated in the Shulchan Aruch (473:7, Hilchot Pesach). The poskim bring proof from Tractate Pesachim (116a), where R. Nachman continued with Avadim hayyinu, as did Abaye and Rava. I put this question to my grandfather, Reb Beryl Ackerman, and he responded that in the margin of the Shulchan Aruch the Chatam Sofer quotes Rambam, who states that the reader of the Haggadah must repeat the Mah Nishtanah. His Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Binyomin Paler, understands Rambam to mean that since a child is not a bar chiyyuva, the father must repeat the Mah Nishtanah, and the cases cited in the Talmud do not deal with a minor. In light of the above, why do certain poskim such as the Mishna Berura state that he does not have to repeat the Mah Nishtanah?
Pinchus Cynamon
Bais Medrash of Flatbush
ANSWER: Indeed, the Mechaber (Orach Chayyim 273:7) states as follows: “We pour the second cup immediately so that the children ask, ‘Why do we drink a cup [of wine] before the meal?’ If the son lacks sufficient intelligence, his father teaches him; if he has no son then his wife asks him; if he has no wife then he himself asks; even two scholars ask one another the Mah Nistanah.” The Rema notes, “If the son or wife asks, there is no need to repeat the Mah Nishtanah and we continue with Avadim hayyinu, etc.” The Mishna Berura ad loc. adds that where there are two scholars and one asks the other, there is no further need to repeat the Mah Nishtanah, and we continue with Avadim hayyinu.We find that even though the Rema states that there is no need to repeat, and the Mishna Berura further includes that rule for all cases, there are many whose custom it is to repeat the questions.

Let us now examine the procedure for the Seder on Pesach to help clarify the source of this particular mitzva.

We read in the Torah (Exodus 13:8) as follows: “Ve’higad’ta le[b]incha bayom hahu le’mor, ba’avur zeh asah Hashem li betzeiti mimitzrayim – You shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is on account of that which Hashem did for me when I left Egypt.'” Rambam lists this precept in Sefer Hamitzvot as the mitzva of “sippur yetziat mitzrayim – relating about the exodus from Egypt,” a positive commandment (Mitzva 157).


Rashi ad loc., citing the Mechilta, sees this as a hint to the answer one gives the wicked son: Hashem did it for me, but had you been there, you would have been unworthy of redemption. Rashi is actually citing the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 10:4), a text source for our Haggadah [which differs somewhat from the text in our Haggadah], which states as follows, “R. Chiya learned in a baraita that the Torah speaks of four sons: one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is foolish, and one who does not know what to ask.”

The Pnei Moshe in his commentary ad loc. explains that we find in the Torah four times a “haggadah,” lit. a telling, of a father to a son. The Gemara now explains to us why we refer to four sons.

The first verse we refer to concerns the wise son, who asks (Deuteronomy 6:20), “Ki yish’alcha [b]incha machar lemor, Mah ha’edot vehachukim asher tziva Hashem Elokeinu et’chem – When your son asks you tomorrow, saying, What are the testimonies, the decrees and the ordinances that Hashem our G-d commanded you?”

Pnei Moshe notes that the verse concludes with “commanded you,” but the Gemara quotes it as “commanded us.” He explains that in so doing the wise son manifests his wisdom because he does not wish to utter the words “commanded you,” for these words, on the face of it, appear to exclude him. Additionally, even though the verse states “commanded you,” he still prefaces his words with “Hashem our G-d,” unlike the wicked son who makes no mention of Hashem.

Therefore we answer him, pursuant to the verse in Exodus (13:14), “Bechozek yad hotzianu Hashem mimitzrayim mibeit avadim – With a strong hand Hashem brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.”

The Gemara continues, “The wicked son, what does he say (Exodus 12:26)? ‘Mah ha’avoda hazot lachem – What is this service to you?'” The Gemara explains this to mean, “What is the great effort that you expend each and every year?” Since he has excluded himself from the community, you must tell him (Exodus 13:8), “… Ba’avur zeh asah Hashem li… – It is on account of that which Hashem did for me.” For me it was done, but for the wicked son it was not done, for had he been in Egypt, he would never have been worthy of redemption.

The Gemara then states, “The foolish son, what does he ask (Exodus 13:14)? “… Mah zot … – … What is this…- Therefore you must teach him the laws of the paschal offering ? that one may not partake of the afikoman after the paschal lamb [i.e., one may not leave his chabura (group) that partakes of the Korban Pesach, and subsequently join another group].”

Finally, the Gemara concludes with “the son who does not know what to ask.” Upon reviewing the four verses that we have repeated numerous times in relation to those questions, one verse, the one we cited originally (Exodus 13:8), lacks the preface of a question. Therefore you initiate the query. R. Yosah quotes the Mishna (Pesachim 116a; Jerusalem Talmud Pesachim 10:4) that if the son lacks the intelligence to inquire, his father teaches him.

It appears from all of the above that a main element of the Haggadah is the instruction of the children, who should be encouraged to make inquiries.

The Mishna Berura (Orach Chayyim 473, cited at the outset) is essentially explaining the Shulchan Aruch and the Rema ad loc., who in turn are codifying the law based on the Gemara (Pesachim 116a), which states as follows, “We learned in a baraita: if the son is intelligent he asks [the father], if the son lacks intelligence, his wife asks him, and if [he has no wife] he himself asks, and even two scholars who are well versed in the laws of Pesach ask one another.”

The Rema deduces from this Gemara – and the Mishna Berura rules accordingly – that in the event the son or wife asks the Mah Nishtanah, the father continues with Avadim hayyinu and there is no need for him to repeat the questions of the Mah Nishtanah.

The Chatam Sofer, whom your grandfather quotes as found in the margins of the Shulchan Aruch, cites Rambam (Hilchot Chametz U’Matza 8:2), who states: “… We pour the second cup [of wine] and the son asks [the Mah Nishtanah], and then the Reader says Mah Nishtanah, etc.”

The Chatam Sofer notes that this text of Rambam appears to be at odds with what we conclude from the Gemara, upon which the Rema and the Mishna Berura seem to base their ruling. The Chatam Sofer leaves this question unanswered, which only further confounds us in regard to this matter.

In attempting to answer your question, we must establish where the actual “haggada” begins, i.e., the requirement of “maggid,” according to our texts.

The Gaon R. Yehuda Loew, zt”l, known as the Maharal of Prague, prefaces the recitation of “maggid” in his Haggadah with the following: “Hineni muchan u’mezuman…” lit. “I am prepared and ready” to fulfill the obligation of the commandment to recount the deliverance from Egypt, as the verse states (Deuteronomy 6:20), “Ki yish’alcha [b]incha… – When your son will ask you tomorrow, saying, ‘What are these testimonies, statutes and laws that Hashem our G-d has commanded you?’ you shall answer ‘Avadim hayyinu…’ – We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong arm.”

The Maharal continues with “Leshem yichud… For the sake of the unification of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His presence, through Him who is hidden and inscrutable, I pray in the name of all Israel. May the pleasantness of the L-rd our G-d be upon us. May He establish our handiwork for us; our handiwork may He establish.”

In this text of “Hineni muchan” we see that the mitzva of the Seder night is dependent on the she’ela (“Ki yish’alcha [b]incha”), the question of the son.

Thus, it seems that according to the Maharal, the Haggadah begins at Mah Nishtanah, the questions. Yet we see that “Hineni muchan” is immediately followed by “Ha lachma anya,” lit. “This is the bread of affliction.” The Divrei Negidim commentary (Maharal Haggadah ad loc.) explains that the Sages (Pesachim 114a, Mishna) enacted that matza be a staple of the Seder. In the Gemara (115b) Shmuel, based on the verse in (Deuteronomy 16:3), “Shiv’at yamim tochal alav matzot lechem oni… ? Seven days shall you eat because of it unleavened bread of affliction…” explains that lechem oni, the bread of affliction, is “lechem oneh,” the bread [which] answers (oneh) many questions. Thus, this is the appropriate place for us to commence the recitation of the Haggadah.

Similarly, we find in the early authority Kol Bo that the Haggadah starts from “Ha lachma anya.”

The Satmar Rebbe, Admor R. Joel Teitelbaum, zt”l, in his Haggadah “Divrei Yoel,” disputes the text of “Hineni muchan” of the Maharal, who bases his opinion on the verse “Ki yish’alcha” (Deuteronomy 6:20). He states that “Hineni muchan” is based on the verse at the beginning of Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:2), “U’lema’an tesapper be’oznei [b]incha u'[b]en bincha … – So that you may relate to your son and your son’s son…” This verse indicates that no question is meant to preface the father’s statement.

Possibly, when Rambam in his Sefer Hamitzvot (which we cited at the outset) refers to this as the mitzva of sippur (relating), he derives it from this verse as opposed to the verse “Ve’higad’ta – You shall tell” (Exodus 13:8) which he quotes in his Mishneh Torah. It should be noted that the Sefer Hachinuch, which lists sippur yetziat mitzrayim as Mitzva 21, also derives it from the verse “Ve’higad’ta le[b]incha,” as does Rambam in his Mishneh Torah.

Notwithstanding the above, we can understand the Satmar Rebbe’s reasoning when he explains that the entire purpose of man is to fear Hashem and to propagate further generations who will also fear Hashem, as we find in Genesis (18:19), “Ki yeda’tiv lema’an asher yetzaveh et banav ve’et beito acharav veshamru derech Hashem… – For I know him (Abraham) that he will command his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem….” Thus, the entire process of sippur yetziat mitzrayim is that they should be aware of the miracles and wonders that were performed and thus know that “I am Hashem.”

This may be a hint that the actual mitzva of “maggid” first begins at “Avadim hayyinu,” which starts the narrative of the great miracles and wonders that led to our exit from Egypt.

Indeed, Hagaon R. Shmuel HaKohen Burstein, zt”l, of Sha’tava, Ukraine, the grandfather of our good friend, colleague, and columnist, HaRav J. Simcha Cohen, explains in his Ma’adanei Shemuel on Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Hilchot Pesach) that the entire obligation of the Seder is for the father to explain to the children the great wonders and miracles that Hashem wrought for us. Thus he stresses that it is important that it be explained in a language that they can comprehend. From here, too, we see that the essence of maggid starts at “Avadim hayyinu.”

Additionally, if we consult the Shulchan Aruch HaRav (473:43, Hilchot Pesach) we see that he states openly that “the essential text” of the Haggadah (“maggid”) which our Sages enacted as a requirement for all is from the beginning of “Avadim hayyinu” (the view of the sage Shmuel, Pesachim 116a).

We further find that the Gaon R. Moshe Sternbuch in his responsa Teshuvot VeHanhagot” (Orach Chayyim 236) cites the following in the name of the Brisker Rav, R. Chaim Soloveichik, zt”l: “The essential requirement of the son is that he ask ‘Why is this night different?’ He need not ask the four questions. Therefore, as the Sages say, we return the ke’ara (the Seder Plate) and we distribute parched stalks of grain (to the children) in order that the child be moved to ask. In fact, this is what Rambam states, ‘Here the son asks, and then the reader [father] says Mah Nishtanah etc. [all four questions].'”

The Gaon R. Chaim explains that the son simply asks about the difference of this night, but the adult (gadol) asks all the four questions so that the Haggadah will be in the style of an answer to a question, for this is the essence of sippur yetziat mitzrayim.

On the other hand, if the child did indeed ask all four questions, it would seem that according to the Rema, as interpreted by the Mishna Berura, there is no need for the adult to ask the questions, and one can proceed to the main mitzva of sippur yetziat mitzrayim.

I was very fortunate to find a similar explanation in the Haggadah Kol Dodi (p. 104) by the Gaon R. Dovid Feinstein, shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem, which we now quote:

“If one’s child or wife asked the Mah Nishtanah, the one who has been asked need not himself recite it… (Rema, ibid.)

“We note two implications: (a) Only when asked by his child or wife is the leader of the Seder exempt from reciting the Mah Nishtanah, but not if the questions are asked by another participant. (b) All other participants at the Seder must say the Mah Nishtanah regardless of who asked [the questions] out loud to the leader. However, [the] Mishnah Berurah (ibid. 473:70) interprets Rema to mean that the one questioned need not recite the Mah Nishtanah, regardless of who asked it.

“It seems to me, though, that when the questions are asked by a child or other unlearned persons, the narrative of the Haggadah is literally a response to the questions, so that there is no need for the questions to be repeated. But if the participants of the Seder are scholars who know the Haggadah, the recitation of the Four Questions is in order not to tamper with the Haggadah’s text. If so, the participants, including the leader, must also adhere to the text and repeat the Mah Nishtanah, for the mitzvah does not consist of teaching unknown facts to the questioner. Since the participants, too, do not fulfill the mitzvah of answering the questions and informing the questioner, they, too, must recite the Four Questions. From this practice, that the participants repeat the questions, the custom developed that even the leader repeats the questions.”

On the other hand, the Gaon R. Paler, zt”l, whom your dear Zeide cited, probably was following the opinion of R. Chaim Brisker which we previously cited, who says that the gadol (which might be read as the bar chiyyuva, the one who is obligated in mitzvot) asks the questions. Yet I am sure that even he would agree that the mitzva of “Ve’higad’ta le[b]incha” does not precisely require that the child be a gadol, a bar chiyyuva, to exempt the father from asking the questions. Rather, a child or any other unlearned person who asks the questions prompts the response which is the Haggadah, namely, the mitzva of maggid, as the Gaon R. Dovid Feinstein states. But he also adds that it has become the custom for the leader to repeat the questions.


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Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at