Some people get “brilliant” ideas when in the twilight area between falling asleep and waking up, or between sleeping and awakening. They are often forgotten – or reevaluated as inane – when the person is fully awake. For some reason, many of mine pop up while I’m in the shower. It doesn’t mean that they really are brilliant, but at least I’m less apt to forget them.
This morning, I began to think about the Four Questions. I’ve no idea why. It’s been decades since I’ve been the youngest at a Seder and “required” to recite them.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Passover Seder ritual, one of the centerpieces is the recitation by the youngest of the Four Questions. They are designed to involve the children in the Seder and as an introduction to the rest of the Seder, although they are never directly answered.
1. Why is this night different from all other nights? Why on all other nights do we eat any kind of bread, but tonight we eat only matzah?
2. Why on all other nights do we eat any kind of vegetables, but on this night we eat bitter herbs?
3. Why on all other nights do we not dip [the vegetables into salt water], but on this night, we dip twice?
4. Why on all other nights do we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night, we recline?
Just like the Hagaddah, I’m not going to answer them. The Questions (and answers) are not what I was thinking about while soaping up. It was the language of the Questions that interested me.
When I was the youngest, I asked the Four Questions in English, until I learned how to read Hebrew. Then I would say the recite the Questions in Hebrew and my younger cousin did them in English. When he started Hebrew school, he took over the recitation and I was allowed to stay in the other room with the overflow relatives and escape to the basement rec room as soon as possible to watch TV.
In my husband’s family, it was traditional for the youngest of each generation, no matter how old, to recite the Four Questions. My father-in-law and his twin brother were the youngest of five, and continued to ask the Questions for years. We still ask my father-in-law to say them – in Yiddish.
And here’s what I was thinking about this morning: why did he learn the Questions in Yiddish, not in Hebrew? A few thoughts, which may or may not be accurate:
Yiddish was the lingua franca of Eastern European Jews for centuries. Hebrew was used only for study and prayer. Even most of the Hagaddah (the book with the order – which is what the Hebrew word “Seder” means – of the ritual meal) is written in Aramaic (with the notable exception of the Four Questions), the language of the Talmud, not in Hebrew. My father-in-law’s generation, even those born in the US, knew at least some Yiddish. By reciting the Questions in Yiddish, he and his cohorts could understand what they were saying. Those of my generation, who did go to Hebrew School and learned how to read Hebrew, did not necessarily (or usually) understand it, so we were reciting essentially meaningless words. But mine was also the first generation to receive Jewish educations after the establishment of the State of Israel, and the renewal of Hebrew as a spoken, modern language. Today, the Yiddish would be as incomprehensible to most Jewish kids as the Aramaic and Hebrew were to my friends and me – and to my father-in-law.
Even though I wrote a book about Yiddish slang and expressions, I don’t speak Yiddish. I can understand it, though, to some extent. And in Yiddish the Four Questions is translated as “Di Fir Kashes” – which has the implication of “conundrum,” or “difficulty.” Even though “kashe” can be – and often is – used for question, the Yiddish word for question is “frege,” and the child, on introducing his (in “those” days, it was always “his”) recitation would begin with “Tate, ich vil bei dir fregen di fir kashes” – “Daddy, I am going to ask you the four questions.” I wonder if the wording is to avoid using “frege” twice in the same sentence (in English, the words are “ask” and “question”) or if the word is to indicate that these queries are not idle or frivolous but worthy of serious consideration.
I have no intention of answering my own perhaps idle or frivoulous thoughts, but offer them to you for serious consideration. And whoever asks the questions at your Seder in whatever language, I wish all my Jewish friends a Zissen Pesach (in Yiddish, a sweet Passover).