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I fell into this hole while whipping thru nodal space. It looked so empty I just had to fill it!
The word comes from the opening line of the four questions asked at the Pesach Seder service by the youngest at the table:
Ma nishtana ha-laila ha-zeh mi-kol ha-leilot?

Why is this night different from all other nights?
A large number of Jewish men, even if they have wandered far from their roots, will still will remember this question, if not the answer. Either he remembers the pride in executing a serious responsibility, or the disgust in getting suckered into asking the question which will take all night to answer (at least it feels like all night).

First Question

She-be-chol ha-leilot ah-nu oh-chlin chametz u-matza, ha-laila ha-zeh kulo matza?

On all other nights we eat all kinds of chametz or matzah, why do we eat only matzoh tonight?

Second Question

She-be-chol ha-leilot ah-nu oh-chlin sh-ahr yerakot, ha-laila ha-zeh maror?

On all other nights we eat any kinds of vegetables, why do we eat marror (bitter herbs), tonight?

Third Question

She-be-chol ha-leilot ayn ah-nu mat-bilin ah-feelu pa-am eh-chat, ha-laila ha-zeh sh-tay p-amim?

On all other nights we don't usually dip one food into another, why tonight - twice? We dip the karpas vegetable in salt water and the maror in Charoses?

Fourth Question

She-be-chol ha-leilot ah-nu oh-chlin bayn yosh-vin u-vain m-subin, ha-laila ha-zeh ku-lahnu m-subin?

On all other nights we eat either sitting or leaning, why do we lean on a pillow tonight?
While I am not Jewish, I have attended many Seders and have always been conscious of the pride of both the parents and child as these questions are asked. Maybe this is one of the reasons why Jews have persisted in the face of prejudice and systematic attempts at total extermination of a people (= Rus. pogroms).

The origins of the modern seder are in the discussions and commentaries by Jewish sages, particularly the mystics. They felt that in particular it was crucial that each person be actively involved in the retelling of the Passover story. Asking questions -- being in a questioning state -- was seen as crucial to the "mood" of the seder. As a result, we do a lot of unusual things at the seder, in order to invite wonderment and interest. For example, normally when one does a ritual handwashing, a bracha (prayer) is said. However, on Passover there is an additional earlier handwashing which is done without prayer at all - why? One reason, the Rabbis explain, is to make people ask the question why.

According to the Mishna, you are only obligated to recite the Ma Nishtana if the child does not spontaneously ask his or her own questions about the seder. A popular commentary in the Haggada states, "The Gemara tells of a story of young Abaye at a Passover seder. Just before they are about the recite the Ma Nishtana, the servants rush up to the table and remove the seder plate. Abaye asks, 'Rabba, why did they remove the seder plate?' To which Rabba answered, 'You have fulfilled the obligation of asking questions; we no longer need to recite the Ma Nishtana.'"

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