An Interesting Look at Mah Nishtana


By Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss

When Rav Dovid Jungreis was young, he spent time in the home of the venerable Rav of Yerushalayim, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt”l, zy”a.  One day, Rav Leib Auerbach, Rosh Yeshiva of Shar HaShamayim, zt”l, zy”a, came with his new sefer, Chacham Leib, to get a haskomoh, an approbation, from Rav Sonnenfeld.  As Rav Sonnenfeld was thumbing through the wonderful sefer, he noticed that Rav Leib quoted some fine Torah novella from his young son, Rav Shlomo Zalman, zt”l, zy”a, who would later become the Posek HaDor.  In his approbation, Rav Sonnenfeld did a curious thing.  He dedicated quite a few sentences to the astute Torah thoughts of Rav Shlomo Zalman.  Upon seeing that, Rav Jungreis questioned Rav Yosef Chaim.  After all, it was Rav Leib’s sefer!  Why was he spending so much time on his son’s comments?

Rav Sonnenfeld explained as follows.  About ten years prior, Rav Leib was walking home from shul with little Shlomo and Rav Sonnenfeld met them on the way.  It was right after the seder and Rav Sonnenfeld asked little Shlomo Zalman if he had asked the Mah Nishtana.  The little boy said ‘yes.’  Then, the Rav asked if he understood the answer of Avodim Hayinu.  Once again, the little boy answered with a vigorous ‘yes.’  Then, the Rav asked Shlomo Zalman if he had asked Mah Nishtana last year.  The young Shlomo Zalman assured the Rav that he had.  The Rav persisted, “Did you understand the answer last year?”  Shlomo Zalman nodded again that he understood last year as well.  Then, the Rav asked, “If you knew the answer last year, why did you ask again this year?”  This time, Shlomo Zalman looked perplexed and started crying.

Rav Sonnenfeld told Rav Jungreis that this was not at all the reaction he had expected and he felt very bad about it, and he was always looking for a way to make it up to this young boy.  So, when he got the opportunity to praise his Torah thoughts in his father’s sefer, he jumped at the chance.  When Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would retell this story later on in life, he would say that if a Torah question troubles you and when an obvious question never even bothers you, it is something to cry about.  The Hagadah MiKarvan L’Torah says that the take-away of this story is how Rav Sonnenfeld was troubled for over a decade about causing a young child to cry.

However, as we prepare for the Hagadah this year, let’s see if we can figure out an answer to this question.  Why do we ask Mah Nishtana over and over again, if we already know the answer?  The simple explanation is that it makes the matzah kosher, for the Torah calls the matzah lechem oni, which the Gemora interprets as, “Lechem sh’onin alov devarim harbeh – Bread that we answer over it many questions.”  Another explanation is that since the Hagadah was written by Rabbi Akiva (according to Rav Chaim Pulagi, zt”l, zy”a) or by the Anshei Kneses HaGedola, it is written in a way that has hundreds of explanations, and every year we discover different ways to understand the Mah Nishtana and its answers.

There is yet another explanation.  Our declaration, “Mah Nishtana ha’laila hazeh, mikol ha’leilos,” which can be interpreted, “How different is this night from all other nights,” changes from year to year.  I just look at my own life as an example.  One year my departed Rebbetzin, Miriam Liba bas Aharon, zt”l, zy”a, was healthy.  The next year she was in a wheelchair struggling with pancreatic cancer, lo aleinu.  The next year she was valiantly trying to get down a morsel of matzah in chicken soup with her last embers of life.  The next year, I was eating my matzah in the grief of a widower.  And, this year, with the kindness of Hashem, I will declare Mah Nishtana with joy, bli ayin hara, with my new wonderful Rebbetzin, Shoshy, shlit”a.  With the passage of time, every Mah Nishtana takes on a new dimension.

May Hashem bless us with the smarts to understand and share with our families many messages from the Hagadah and in that merit may we be blessed with long life, good health, and everything wonderful.


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