Why do we say ‘Mah Nishtana’ only on Pesach?


One of the best-known parts of the Haggadah is the section known as “Mah Nishtana,” where one or more children at the Seder ask the Four Questions. It is based upon the following Mishnaic statement:

“Now we pour the second cup of wine. At this juncture, the son asks his father [the Four Questions.] If the son lacks the ability to ask, his father teaches him, ‘mah nishtana halailah hazeh mekol halailot…’ (‘how different is this night from all other nights’)” Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 116a).

The great Chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, asks a fascinating question on this Mishnah: “Why does the son ask Mah Nishtana on Pesach, and not on the Festival of Sukkot as well?” (This and the following quotes, Kedushat Levi, Drushim l’Pesach.)

This is a very powerful query, since, like Pesach, Sukkot has many mitzvot, including sitting in the sukkah and the Four Species, that differentiate it from the rest of the year. As such, a child’s interest would surely be piqued, and it, too, should generate the recitation of Mah Nishtana.

In order to answer this question, the Berdichever introduces a well-known Talmudic dispute regarding the creation of the world — namely, was the world created in the Spring, in the month of Nissan and Pesach; or in the Fall, in the month of Tishrei and Sukkot (Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 10b)?

In his analysis of this Talmudic debate, the Berdichever submits that Hashem rules the world in two different ways, corresponding to these two seasons of the year. In his view, Tishrei is universal in nature, in the sense that it is the time when Hashem approaches the entire world in His goodness and mercy. In contrast, Nissan is primarily the time when the Almighty relates to the world through the vehicle of Tiferet Yisrael (the glory of the Jewish nation), and exalts Himself through His inseverable connection to Israel, His chosen people.

As the Berdichever suggests: “He [Hashem] performs their will [the Jewish people’s] by providing them with all that is positive, in response to that which they request from Him.” Little wonder, then, that Pesach, in the month of Nissan, was the time when we experienced “the miracles and great wonders” of the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds, when we cried out to Him, “O L-rd, save [us]; may the King answer us on the day we call” (Tehillim 20:10).

At this point, the Berdichever proceeds to answer his initial question, why the son asks the Mah Nishtana on Pesach and not on Sukkot, by introducing the idea of tzimtzum. This concept maintains that Hashem contracts His Infinite Being in order to communicate with and be “a part of,” our finite world:

“This, then is intimated by the [Mishnah’s] phrase, ‘the son asks on Pesach:’ For in truth, [the notion] that the Holy One Blessed be He runs the world through [the principle] of Tiferet Yisrael actually means that He contracts Himself [in such a manner that His Divine Presence inheres] in the Jewish people’s worship of Him. He, in turn, has ‘great pleasure’ from this [worship] and consequently fulfills their will and desire.”

The Berdichever asserts that when the son asks his father the Four Questions at the Seder, the two of them are engaging in the exact same approach that has always existed between the Jewish people and Hashem:

“And this model [of the Jewish people requesting their needs from Hashem,] is repeated [at the moment] of the son’s question to his father [at the Seder table]. For, [in truth] the intellectual capacity of the father far exceeds that of the son, and it is only because of the father’s love for his son that he ‘contracts himself’ to provide answers to his son’s difficulties. This is the selfsame model that we have already discussed, wherein the [Infinite] Holy One blessed be He ‘contracts Himself’ within [the finite] boundaries of the Jewish people, in order to glorify Himself amongst them by fulfilling their will [and providing for their needs].”

The Berdichever has now provided us with a solid understanding as to why the son asks the questions of the Mah Nishtana solely at Pesach. During this Yom Tov, the principle of Tiferet Yisrael is particularly pronounced, for, as we have seen, this is the time when Hashem performed His countless wonders and miracles for us, both in Egypt and at the Sea of Reeds. We beseeched our Father in Heaven, and He answered us in an unprecedented manner.

What better moment exists, therefore, for children to ask their father to explain the amazing events of the Exodus other than at the Seder itself? For this, too, must surely bring joy to our Father in Heaven.