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Passover, Pesach in Hebrew, is the holiday which focuses on the exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt around 1313 BCE or 2448 AM on the Jewish calendar. The story of this exodus is covered in the first chapters of Exodus in the Old Testament of the Bible or Torah. Passover is a seven to eight day holiday that is generally considered the most celebrated holiday among Jews.
In celebrating Passover, the number four has symbolic significance. It’s the number of glasses of wine one should drink at the Seder — the ritualistic meal held on the first and second nights of Passover, it’s the number of the different types of personalities in the story about the Four Sons, and it’s the number of questions the youngest child, usually the youngest son, asks out loud. The four Passover questions, known as Mah Nishtanah in Hebrew, are actually sub-questions of a one general question: Why is this night different from all other nights?
The Book of Passover, or Haggadah in Hebrew, stresses the importance of the Seder and defines it as a spectacle that should pique the interest of the children so as to encourage them to ask questions and learn about their history. Because of this, the four Passover questions are asked each Passover at the Seder table.
The first of the four Passover questions is: Why is it that on all other nights we eat bread or matzoh, but on this night we eat only matzoh?
Matzoh, essentially is unleavened bread. Jews eat matzoh on Passover to remember that when the Jews who were enslaved by Pharaoh were leaving Egypt, they did not have the time to properly bake the bread for their journey. Rather, they took the raw dough on their exodus and set it under the hot desert sun. The resulting product was an unleavened bread known as matzoh. This is eaten for symbolic reasons, because it removes the excess, such as pride, from the soul.
The second of the four Passover questions is: Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs, but on this night we eat only bitter herbs?
Bitter herbs, maror in Hebrew, are eaten on Passover not because it's what the fleeing Jews ate, but because of its symbolism. Typically, horseradish and romaine lettuce, endive, or dandelion serves as the maror. The bitterness of herbs is meant to symbolize the bitter and cruel way Pharaoh treated the enslaved Jews.
The third of the four Passover questions is: Why is it that on all other nights we do not dip our herbs, but on this night we dip them twice?
On Passover, celebrants dip parsley or green vegetables in salt water and the maror in charoset — a mixture of fruit, nuts and wine, typically apples, walnuts, sweet red wine and cinnamon or ginger. These two combinations are the two dips. It’s not that each object is dipped twice in succession, but that two different things are dipped. In the first dip, the salt water is symbolic of the tears of the Jewish slaves. The second dip symbolizes sweetening (the charoset) the burden of the bitterness (the maror). The charoset, because of its brown, pebbly appearance, is also said to resemble the clay that the Jewish slaves used to build Pharaoh’s buildings.
The fourth of the four Passover questions is: Why is it that on all other nights we eat in a sitting position, but on this night we eat in a reclining position?
On Passover, Jews typically lean on a pillow as they eat. Wealthy, free people were typically the only ones that could eat reclining and doing so at the Seder table is meant to symbolize the modern Jew’s freedom and comfort.
The fourth Passover question is said to have changed around 70 CE when the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. Before that time, the fourth Passover question referred to the practice of sacrificing an animal, typically a lamb, for Passover. The sacrificial practice was abandoned around the time of destruction of the Second Temple and the current fourth question referring to reclining, replaced it.
In some families, especially those without young children, the youngest person doesn't ask. In our family the oldest actually leads the questions.