The four questions asked at the Passover Seder are strategically placed at the beginning of the Maggid section in order to open the floodgates to robust storytelling. These questions, a slightly different version of which can be found as far back as the Mishnah, are a key component of the night’s ritual for many families.
They can be sung in any language, to multiple tunes, and are customarily asked by the youngest person present. A child barely old enough to parrot the words can have a starring role by “asking” these formulaic questions. The Maggid section, the telling of stories about Jewish peoplehood, slavery, freedom, and the exodus from Egypt are all unleashed by this barrage of questions.
Asking questions is an ancient skill with a modern twist: recent developments around AI have media outlets buzzing about the new skill of asking questions designed to elicit the perfect answers from AI bots. New technologies like ChatGPT are only as useful as the questions they are asked. But Jewish tradition prizes a different kind of question: One that is more open ended, has multiple answers, and is about curiosity, not correct information.
Consider the case of the karpas.
As a child, I was taught that karpas reminds us of spring, which is a plausible explanation if what you eat is a fresh green vegetable, like parsley. In fact, the precise symbolism of karpas is murky, as is the question of what one should eat for this part of the meal. Jewish legal sources from medieval times agree that karpas must be a food upon which the blessing of “Who created the fruits of the ground” can be recited.
Maimonides, in his commentary on the Mishnah, emphasizes that any food that requires this blessing is appropriate for use as karpas. The answer to the question of “what does this food symbolise?” might be different depending on which food you eat. Parsley, potatoes, bananas and strawberries all fit the bill on a technical level, but they don’t all evoke the same feelings.
Karpas is the mystery food, the least defined of all the seder rituals, and throughout Jewish history it has sparked curiosity and debate.
In fact, a number of Jewish sources assert that the true purpose of karpas is just to arouse questions. Not factual questions, like “what should we eat” or “how much should we eat” — questions that any Google search can resolve — but questions that spark our imaginations: What symbolism is most important to us at this moment in the seder? How might the karpas we choose help us tell the Passover story more fully? How might we leverage this moment to more deeply explore our Jewish identities?
This kind of question is what makes the Seder not just a twice-a-year feast, but a model for our entire Jewish lives. The Pri Chadash, a 17th-century legal work emphasises the role of karpas as a mechanism for eliciting questions: "The intention is to do things differently, so that they will ask. And as a result, they will ask about everything else. And this is the case even though we cannot answer their questions…”
The answers are not the point; it is the questions and the conversation they evoke that will define the Seder, and inspire us going forward. The point isn’t merely to ask questions about a vegetable, any more than the four questions are meant to exhaust the list of Passover conundrums. Karpas, according to this view, opens us up to approaching our Jewish lives with curiosity and wonder. If we do it correctly, it will last well beyond the nights of the seder.
The power of a good question can define and enrich our lives as Jews in ways that last well beyond the nights of the seder. In the book “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, ” journalist Warren Berger defines a “beautiful” question as “an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”
The exodus from Egypt is a definitional moment in Jewish history, radically transforming how we think about ourselves as a people. Seder night is an exercise in asking questions so that we may reenact that moment of transformation, and open ourselves up to the opportunities that arise when we bring our best questions to our lives.
This year, try asking — or thinking about afterwards — the four questions asked in a tone of wonder. Instead of striving for answers, refine the questions. Warren Berger notes that “[e]piphanies often are characterised as “Aha! moments,” but that suggests the problem has been solved in a flash.
More often, insights arrive as What if moments — "bright possibilities that are untested and open to question.” We can use every bite of karpas, Seder night and after, to exercise our curiosity and commit to using it to brighten our Jewish lives all year long.
Rabbanit Sara Wolkenfeld is the chief learning officer at Sefaria.org, an online library for Jewish texts