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If the Haggadah Is Right, We’ve Got Education All Wrong

If the Haggadah Is Right, We’ve Got Education All Wrong

Crucial lessons to take from the Haggadah for the whole year


They say the Haggadah never ends. That makes sense, because the Haggadah is the classic Jewish guide to education, and education never ends.

So now that we’ve done our Seder for the 3,329th year, and while it’s still Passover, I’d like to open a discussion on how we educate our kids. And I’d like to start by listening to what the Haggadah is telling us.

It seems it’s telling us we’re doing it all wrong.

Here’s evidence: How do we test, monitor and measure the success of our students? By asking questions, right? (Like I just did.)

And indeed, the average middle-grade teacher asks around 400 questions a day. That’s about two per minute. After 15 years, a teacher has asked at least one million questions. The student has asked if he can go to the bathroom.After 14 and a half years, that’s a million questions. The average student, however, generally only asks two or three questions a week—most commonly, “Can I go to the bathroom?” In high school, not much better, with about ten questions a day. Compare that to preschool kids, who ask an average of 100 questions a day.

Some will tell you that’s the Socratic method. We’re attempting to elicit intelligence from students by battering them with questions they never thought of asking.

But the Haggadah does the opposite. Rather than evaluating children by their ability to answer, it identifies them in four categories by their ability to ask.

Questions Are Rich

That turns everything around.

For one thing, from a child’s correct answers, you often know very little. Maybe he simply has a good memory. Maybe he’s good at guessing what you want to hear. At very best, a child’s answers only tell us what that child knows.

But theA child’s answers tells us what he knows. A child’s questions tell us who he is. child’s questions provide a window into the child’s mind and soul. A child’s questions tell us who that child is.

Every child is on a critical mission to make sense of things, to find the meaning behind everything, to put the pieces together. But each child sees a different world, through different eyes. So each child discovers that meaning in his or her particular way.

So that only once we know what this child is looking for, and how he is looking for it, only then we can assist him to find it. And that is education—assisting the child on his or her particular journey of discovering meaning.

Ask! Please Ask!

Let’s start from the beginning: The Haggadah is designed to incite questions.The Haggadah is designed to incite questions. How does it do that? By breaking the routine.

Generally, a festive Jewish meal begins with a blessing on the wine. We then all proceed to wash our hands, return to the table, and say a blessing on the bread.

On the Seder night, we also start with the wine. And then the hand-washing. And we return to the table. And then we take small vegetable and dip it in some sort of liquid, and eat it.

Why the change?

You’ll hear all sorts of reasons, but there’s one definitive answer cited in the Code of Jewish Law: We do it so that someone will ask a question.

And if they ask, what do we answer? We answer that they got it right. They asked a question.

Which means that the question is of prime value, even when there is no answer. As the ancient rabbis said, “Even though we have no answer for this question, once the child is asking, he will ask more questions.”

And why is that important? Because, to those ancient rabbis, it’s obvious that you can’t teach a child a thing until the child has a question.

Passing by a ninth grade classroom in a yeshiva, I hear the teacher lecturing: “Okay, so the ultimate reason for the creation of all things is…”

The diligent students take notes. The rest stare into empty space. The teacher may as well be speaking about the average rainfall in Indonesia.

You can’t teach a thing until you have first awakened a question.

A question creates a vacuum, a space in the brain to fit new knowledge. Just like a car is useless if you live in a big city where there’s no place to park it, and a meal goes in the trash if there’s no one to eat it, so the most satisfying answer in the world is meaningless to the child who never had the question. He has no place in his skull to store it. It’s just a distraction and confusion for his mind from its true quest—to find meaning.

Yes, in case the child has no questions, we provide some, in the form of the Ma Nishtana—”Why is this night different from all other nights?”

But that’s Plan B. Plan A is that the children will ask questions of their own. And you, the parent, will wrack your brains finding answers for them.

Answering the Children

That brings us to another vital lesson from the Haggadah: We don’t answer the question.Don’t answer the question. Answer the child. We answer the child.

“The wise child—what does he say?” Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch would point out that in Hebrew, with just a slight change in punctuation, those words can read quite differently: “The wise child—what is he? He says…”

Through the question, we see the child. And that is who we answer.

The wise child articulates his question. He's obviously thought it through well and knows exactly what he's looking for.

If he's wise, why does he ask? Why doesn't he just have faith, like a good religious boy, and accept all his parents and teachers tell him?

He asks because he has faith. Like a scientist who believes that there will always be an explanation if we will just dig a little further, he believes that there will always be meaning, and deeper meaning, and yet deeper. His mind is not fettered by faith, but driven by it. And his faith, in turn, is enriched by his questions.

As I'm writing, something neat Rabbi Avraham Altein just pointed out: If there are no children to ask, no guests, nobody, the halacha is that you have to ask the question to yourself. According to Maimonides, even if the children have asked the questions, the parents must also ask.

Hold on—the Seder is not about pretending. If you know the answer, how can you ask a question? And if you don't know the answer, who will answer?

But that's just the point: You know the answer, but you have to revisit the darkness of “I don’t know”—as though you never knew. Because last year’s answer no longer satisfies you. That’s how you get to a new light. And that’s what it means to be wise.

All the Children

Which all explains why the Wise Child often ends up getting all the attention, while the others are left out.

But no, there are three more children in the room.There are three more children in the room. They are also our children. They are also our children.

Like the Wicked Child. He’s next in line in expertise at asking questions. After all, he has identified exactly what it is that is bothering him. Problem is, he’s not interested in an answer.

But he’s still number two, because something bothers him. The whole Seder bothers him. Which means he's alive and kicking. Which means there’s something there to work with.

The Simple Child asks, but he's not sure what he's asking. He's the one that is too often ignored. Since you don’t really get his question (because neither does he), he never gets an answer. In the times we live in, that’s a precarious situation. Because that may one day mean to him that there is no answer. And if so, he will have a different question: “Why am I doing all this if there is no answer?”

So the Haggadah instructs you to tell him stories of wonders and miracles. That is his world, that is what he sees. He is in wonderment. Go with it—take that wonderment and nurture it, all the way. Don’t give him any less than the Wise Child, or the Wicked One. And don't demand that he become the Wise Child—lest you push him towards his cynical brother.

As for The Child Who Doesn’t Know How To Ask—In illustrated Haggadahs, he’s always a baby with a pacifier in his mouth. But that’s nonsense.The Inquisitively Challenged Child got 100% on his Haggadah test. I’ll bet he got 100/100 on his Passover Haggadah finals.

You know why I think that? Look at the answer we give him: “For the sake of this, G‑d did what He did for me when I left Egypt.” That’s a deep answer to an intelligent person.

So what does it mean that “he doesn’t know how to ask”?

Many of the ideas I’m writing here were sparked years ago by a conversation with an Israeli researcher, a student of renowned educational psychologist, Benjamin Bloom, who visited our school along with many high schools across North America. At each school, the researcher would ask the principal, “Give me your best students, one by one, in a private room.”

When the student would enter, she would just sit there for a minute or two. Then she would ask, “Do you have any questions?”


Then: “I’m visiting from Israel.”

More silence.

“I’m doing research.”

You get the gist of it.

But then, she would ask the principal to bring in the troublemakers, one-by-one. They would enter, and immediately break into, “Why am I here? Who are you? What is this all about? Israel? What’s that like?”

Open For This Child

So this child #4, a bright child who excels in school, why does this child not ask? Why is he not in search of understanding and meaning? What went wrong?

My guess? He went to school. There he was rewarded for answering questions just the way the teacher likes. But he was never rewarded for asking the really good ones that might disrupt the class, or the questions that the teacher might not have the answers to.

So Teach him, by example, that it’s ok to question even the most basic assumptions.for this child, “You must open for him.” Open his mouth. Teach him to ask. Teach him that it’s ok to ask. Teach him that it’s even ok to question the most basic assumptions. How? By example. By showing him how you yourself question assumptions.

That could explain another one of those Seder tidbits that should spark a thousand questions—or at least some annoyance. Immediately after the episode of the four children, a heavy chunk of Talmudic exegesis plops down upon us, seemingly telling us nothing of the Exodus narrative or the people sitting here.

Here’s the classic translation:

One may think that [the discussion of the exodus] must be from the first of the month. The Torah therefore says, “On that day.” “On that day,” however, could mean while it is yet daytime; the Torah therefore says, “It is because of this.” The expression “because of this” can only be said when matzah and maror are placed before you.

But Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abravanel (15th century) tells us it’s actually as relevant as you can get. It’s a response to that Inquisitively Challenged Child. It’s about opening his mind with a question that challenges the most unquestioned assumption of the entire ritual: Who says it's Passover tonight?

Try reading it like this:

You: Hold on, maybe we were supposed to do this Seder on Rosh Chodesh—15 days ago on the first day of the month!

Child: Umm. Why then?

You: Because that’s when God told Moses about the mitzvah of Pesach.

Child: Okay, so we messed up.

You: Nope, it says on that day.

Child: Okay, so let’s get on. What do we say next?

You: Not so simple. Because then we should be doing it during the day. Now it’s night already.

Child: So it’s over. Let’s eat.

You: Not so fast. You see, it says, for the sake of this stuff. Meaning this matzah and bitter herbs that we eat on the night of Pesach. So we have to wait until we’re supposed to eat that stuff—and that’s tonight.

Child: Why on earth do we have to tell a story to food?

See? It worked!

So here’s what I’m taking from my Seder into the coming year:

Torah comes to us in a beautiful package, wrapped and tied. The only way to untie those knots and open up its treasures is by asking the right questions whenever and wherever they come to mind, and asking them without fear or shame.

How do we get ourselves,How can we teach the faith and courage it takes not to fear a good question? our children, other Jews, and everyone else who can benefit, to ask? How can we teach the faith and courage it takes not to fear a good question?

If we can find answers to those questions, we will have half of education nailed.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Cydank Albany, NY April 6, 2017

I totally relate! I was the child who asked lots of questions until I stopped. Thank you Reply

Neshi rodin Ottawa April 19, 2017

I never understood what it means when it says because of this. Because of peach matzoh motor haShem took us out of Egypt? ??
Someone said the lamb is first: because we weren't afraid to tell the truth to the Egyptians that we were going to kill their God to show we really trusted our God that He was going to take us out of eqypt. And we therefore agreed to do what He asked us even if we were endangering ourselves. Reply

Tzvi Freeman April 19, 2017
in response to Neshi rodin:

"Because of this…" means: Because G‑d trusted that I would keep these mitzvahs in this promised land, therefore He liberated me from Egypt and brought me here. Reply

Anonymous Israel April 18, 2017

How a grandmother does when the father of the child do not let you teach one pasuk of the Torah and does empty pray and reading of the Hagada according sefarady ways Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for April 26, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

There are many different customs, more most notably that of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews. A family's tradition is usually set by the parents, so while I understand that you would prefer that your grandchild follows your customs, understand that it is the parents' call. Reply

Ross Bay Area, CA April 17, 2017

Corrupted purpose. When people learn for the sake of learning and teach for the sake of teaching, it works as it should. Reply

Moishe Las Vegas April 16, 2017

Excellent. Reply

Anonymous April 16, 2017

Thank you so much for a wonderful article! Reply

Neshi.rodin Ottawa April 19, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Continued from previous
'what's that about?? God did for us, now we have to do for Him or H e won't take us out? What's that all about? What kind of a God is that?
I like Chabad because it gives permission to ask all these kinds of real questions (if you get the right teacher). Not just a dismissive look that says 'what kind of a question is that? ' and shamefaced you shut your mouth and ears and mind Reply

Anonymous Beijing April 15, 2017

Your article is great except for one small point: we're really not talking about education, we are reflecting on the merits of learning. Learning is defined by Reg Revans the innovator of 'action learning' as: L = P + Q + R. Learning is one's programmed knowledge (everything that is already amassed in one's thinking) + Q (asking learning not judging questions) and implied R (reflection-further thinking and also implied taking action). For their can be no learning without action and no action without learning. Revans also shared: "learning has to be greater than the rate of change".And as we ask questions about the Torah and Pesach our learning guides us to survive and add value to our modern world. Reply

Steve Nyc April 15, 2017

What would you answer when the child responds to your answer, "what is the evidence and where is the data for your answer?" Reply

Tzvi Freeman April 16, 2017
in response to Steve:

As the article states, I would first need to determine "who is this child?" and "where is this question coming from?" Reply

Alan Klein New Jersey April 14, 2017

I often want to ask a question when a Rabbi is teaching but feel that they often present their views in a kind of take it or leave it attitude. Why aren't they more open to challenges and debate? I know I learn more that way even as an adult when I ask questions to probe the points being made. Reply

Anonymous April 14, 2017

Add a comment...Benjamin Bloom is cited, but then referred to as she. Is this a scribal error, or is it a hint to a deeper meaning? Reply

Tzvi Freeman April 14, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

The researcher was a student of Benjamin Bloom.

"…an Israeli researcher, a student of renowned educational psychologist, Benjamin Bloom…" Reply

Coby Ingram Washington April 14, 2017

This takes me right back to the example of Jacob Barnett. Jacob was an autistic child who just sat and stared out the window. After he failed to learn at school, they recommended to his mother to institutionalize him. She took him home instead. One day Jacob began looking at the patterns on the glass. He began to question other things. He said that his life changed when he quit trying to learn information and started asking questions about why the world works. By the time he was 14 he was doing original work in theoretical physics.

I like the fact that his name is Jacob. I've always thought that G_d said "Jacob have I loved" because Jacob (יעקב) was a person who wrestled (עקב) with life. An interesting note on this is that in the autistic community we recognize four types of human personalities, depending on what it takes to stimulate a person and how much they wish to control the result. Some children are quiet, and others throw themselves at life. Others are restless or anxious. Reply

S U.K. April 14, 2017
in response to Coby Ingram:

Thank you, for this account of Jacob the child with Autism. This demonstrates fully how education is failing so many children.

Jacob's mother was the enlightened individual who provided her son with the correct environment for him to learn.

Thank you, for relating this account to our Patriarch Jacob. Also, Abraham came to HaShem via questioning his environment. Reply

S United Kingdom April 14, 2017 is brilliant, I ask the Rabbi and get an appropriate response very quickly. Reply

Anonymous April 14, 2017

Vshenantum Why are we told to 'blunt the teeth' of the wicked son?

How is this related to 'vshnamtum lvenecha' in Shemayev which has the same root as teeth? Reply

David Ranin New Zeaand April 14, 2017

Christine Melody Andersen. You have asked 3 very pertinent questions. You will find the answers in the Prophecy of Zechariah, chapter 14. I find this prophecy a place of both great concern for the short term and great encouragement for the long term future of Israel. Reply

Denise South Africa April 14, 2017

Add a comment...Simply - Brilliant Reply

sunil subba India April 14, 2017

Yes, the different approaches are handy in the path of making the full potential of the student.Some students are good in hearing too as well as learning by watching especially those who have the mechanical and technical mind. Reply

Hanna Geshelin Pocatello, Idaho, soon to be Israel April 13, 2017

The child who is unable to ask I've been a teacher for 40 years. For the last 4 I have taught sewing in my home studio to students who are homeschooled, who learn in charter or religious schools, and to public school students. I have noticed that the public school students do not ask. Not for help--they sit quietly waiting for me to notice they need help--and not about anything else. This has frustrated me, but I never related their being unable to ask to the fourth child at the seder. Those four seder children will never be the same to me--and neither will be the living children I try to teach who are unable to ask. Thank you for this amazing and important essay. Reply

Zippora Pittsburgh April 13, 2017

Where's the Education Revolution so badly needed? If you are serious about this, I am ready to join with you in the Jewish education revolution that is so badly needed, it is in state of extreme emergency. Kids are dropping out of school, out of our communities, and G-d forbid out of life because we are more concerned about institutions and egos than the true education of our children. I'm ready. Are you? Reply

Paul Mears Peachtree Corners April 13, 2017

At the young age of 72 I found this insight profoundly enriching. The insights shared within this great commentary provided some understanding to the apparent social trend to be "Right" or "Get it right", than to seek greater understanding. For most of my like I too have join those who have not "ask", being taught we are to simply comply, obey, and not ask or question the authority, structure, and fit in with the norm, yet thankful for Chabad and Hashem for their gentle influence upon my passion to seek and understand through asking. Thank you for this truly enlightening and helpful insight. Gratefully, Reply

Michael April 13, 2017

I was a High School teacher in an inner city school. My process was to always allow the student to ask question, and my answers did not come from on high; nor were they written in stone. During the Sadar there are pat questions and pat answers. If the public education system were run that way, students would know only one answer to pre set questions, and it would be the end of creativity. My favorite answer to some of the question I ask rabbis, and the one that makes me laugh the most is: "The Rabbis have said" That almost always means a group of pishers in a Yasheva who, without an understanding of the world think they can speak for all Jews. I love the Passover time, and because my guest are well educated the conversation takes on great philosophical meaning. I also love attending holidays at the local Chabad, but find the discussions limited because of their isolation from all that is so important to know. Reply

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