It’s All About the Question Mark

Yom Rishon shel Pesach, Holidays Exodus 12:37-42, 13:3-10

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Ben Spratt

My elementary school teacher believed the question mark was inspired by the curiosity of the cat. Some suggest the symbol stems from an abbreviation of the Latin quaestiō ("question"). But my favorite theory is that the question mark, looking initially like a lightening flash, was the invention of the 8th century calligrapher and poet Alcuin of York. Yes, even the beloved question mark is questionable, at least in origin. 

So what, you may ask?  

That’s a wonderful question! At this season, Jews around the world will begin the holiday of Passover, the “holiday of questions.” Passover is known by many other names, but this association with questions is linked all the way back to the Torah. On this Yom Rishon shel Pesach, when children question why we eat unleavened bread for the seven days of the holiday, Torah guides us, “And you shall explain to your child on the day, ‘It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt’ ” (Ex. 13:7-8). The text continues, "And when, in time to come, a child of your asks you, saying, 'What does this mean?' you shall reply, 'It was with a mighty hand that the Eternal brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage ...' (Ex. 13:14)"  As the Torah suggests, a question is intended to ignite the holiday's tale. 

The Rabbis of the Talmud, living nearly two millennia ago, helped establish the familiar practices of Passover today. The importance of the question, however, remained central for them. We read:

Everyone is obligated to drink the four cups of wine — men, women, and children. 'What satisfaction do children get from wine?!' asked Rabbi Yehuda. They are given [instead] roasted ears of corn and nuts so that they won't fall asleep, and will instead ask questions ... Rabbi Eliezer said: One eats matzah excitedly on the night of Passover so that the children will not fall asleep [and will ask questions]. (Babylonian Talmud, P’sachim 108b-109a)

We see a reoccurring need to keep everyone engaged, even our children, specifically so that they will ask questions. The medieval rabbis would build on this idea further, suggesting that nearly every element of the Passover seder is meant to inspire questions. 

One of my professors in rabbinical school relayed his own practice of changing the order of the Passover seder every year, purely to spark questions. Another professor spoke of scattering random objects on the seder table with the same goal. Even during the seder itself we speak of four children, each with his own approach to questioning, each engaged in her own way. The question unlocks Jewish memory, as Passover participants are inspired to recall past and present redemption in the world. Even more than the holiday of matzah, more than the holiday of gefilte fish and horseradish, Passover is truly the holiday of questions. 

Following on the heels of Passover, which we celebrate on the 15th of Nisan, the 27th of Nissan has become a special day of commemoration, Yom HaShoah, because of its association with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began on the seder night of April 19, 1943. On April 19, 1948, Albert Einstein spoke at the dedication of the first memorial to the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. In A Passover Haggadah, the Reform Movement chose to precede the questions of the four children with his words:

This monument shall serve as a reminder for us who have survived to remain loyal to our people and to the moral principles cherished by our fathers. Only through such loyalty may we hope to survive this age of moral decay. Let us clearly recognize and never forget this; that mutual cooperation and the furtherance of living ties between the Jews of all lands is our sole physical and moral protection in the present situation. But for the future our hope lies in overcoming the general moral abasement which today gravely menaces the very existence of mankind. (A Passover Haggadah, Herbert Bronstein, ed. [NY: CCAR Press, 1975], p. 33)

Einstein would later reflect:

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.” (“Old Man’s Adivce to Your:’Never Lose a Holy Curiousity," LIFE Magazine, May 2, 1955, p. 64)

The question inspires conversation. The question elicits dialogue. The question enables the stories of one generation to hold meaning for the next. The question transforms memory into the persistent quest towards hope.

We live in an age and in a world of tremendous telling. From pundits to social media platforms, we are deluged with statement and monologue. But this sacred holiday returns us to the essential power of the question, holding as an ideal the child of wisdom who asks questions in order to find a deeper sense of meaning and identity; the question that connects the stories of old to the experience of the present.

Like the Rabbis of old, may we inspire questions around our Passover table this year, encouraging all to discover themselves through dialogue, through mutual learning, and make memory a source of meaning. Like a lightening flash in the darkness, may our questions illumine our homes, connecting person to person, generation to generation.

Rabbi Ben Spratt is the senior associate rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, NY. His passion continues to be building community beyond existent walls and boundaries and, in partnership with many others, has sparked Shireinu, Tribe, New Day Fellowship, and Minyan.

Encouraging Our Children to Be Curious on Passover

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Jen Lader

One of the things I love about having a smartphone is having an endless amount of information at my fingertips at all times. We call it the “magical answer box” in my family because of how quickly an iPhone can settle a dispute about an actor’s name, what ingredients are really in Jell-O, or the longest time anyone has ever held his or her breath (it’s 22 minutes, trust me).

For this Yom Rishon shel Pesach, Rabbi Ben Spratt speaks to the importance of questioning as we sit together at our Passover seders, encouraging our children to engage, to ask, to stay curious, to develop a sense of wonder in the world around them. But in a time and place when we can find answers almost instantaneously, how can we make the argument that questioning is essential to who we are?

In his book, The Secrets of Happy Families: How to Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smart, Go Out and Play, and Much More, Bruce Feiler explores what makes families resilient, connected, and – yes – happy. His conclusion is that the more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the healthier their family systems function. And this doesn’t just apply to young children!

Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Who were their role models? Do you know where your parents met? What made them fall in love? Do you know the story of your birth? Do you know what your aunts and uncles’ greatest struggles were? Their proudest moments? So many stories, so many moments, great and small, are lost to the ages. Should we simply not ask the questions? These are answers that even the newest iPhones can’t deliver.

As Jews, we are blessed not just with being part of our own immediate families, but also with being part of a faith, a history, a culture, and a people that spans time and space. And it is our questions and our answers, and the relationships that are strengthened by the dialogue, that help bind us to our past and teach us who we are.

Just as we are instructed to see ourselves as though we personally were freed from Egypt (Mishnah, P’sachim 10:5), just as we eat the bitter herbs to remind ourselves of the bitterness of our enslavement, just as we find joy in the retelling of our people’s journey to the Promised Land, so too do we find comfort and identity and meaning in the stories of our families. So after the brisket is gone and the matzah ball soup runs dry, don’t stop. Keep questioning. Keep answering. And put the iPhone down every once in a while.

Rabbi Jen Lader serves as the rabbi at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, MI.

Reference Materials

Shabbat, Yom Rishon shel Pesach, First Day of Passover
Torah Portion, Exodus 12:37−42; 13:3–10
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 462−470; Revised Edition, pp. 414–416
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 368–371
Haftarah, Isaiah 43:1−15, Song of Songs is read
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,657−1,659; Revised Edition, pp. 1,457−1,458