I see in my in Chabad haggadah that the order of the Four Questions is different than in the “standard” haggadah text. Whereas at all the Seders I’ve attended the first question is about eating matzah, the Chabad haggadah has the dipping question as number one. Isn’t the dipping only a custom? Why have it as the first one?
The order of the Four Questions in the Chabad haggadah—1. Why do we dip the foods? 2. Why eat matzah? 3. Why eat bitter herbs? 4. Why do we recline?—follows the order laid forth in many ancient haggadot. A few of those that follow this order: Saadiah Gaon, Maimonides, Abudraham and Tur. In fact, the first printed haggadah (Soncino, 1485) has the same order as the Chabad one.
The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory. explains that this order reflects the order in which these issues appear in the course of the Seder. The first odd behavior the child witnesses is the dipping of the karpas vegetable. Afterwards the matzah is eaten, followed by the bitter herbs.
[Though we actually recline when drinking the kiddush wine—before the karpas is dipped—that question is a much later addition to the text, appearing in the Middle Ages, after reclining while eating ceased to be in vogue. Until that time, it was not an “odd behavior” that aroused the child’s curiosity.]
But there’s also a profound message to be learned from the fact that the dipping question is front and center. And the lesson lies in the last point you mention: dipping is only a custom.
But what is a custom—known in Hebrew as a minhag? I mean, why is the Jewish legal structure so complicated? Some mitzvot are from the Torah, others are “only” rabbinic in nature, and then there are the myriads of minhagim. If G‑d wanted us to do all of these things, why not just directly communicate them all?
Here’s one way of looking at it:
We often view a mitzvah as nothing more than a commandment that we are obliged to obey, failing to realize that a mitzvah is not only a decree—but a connection. It is our way of creating a relationship with G‑d.
The Rebbe once illustrated this idea using a parable of a father and a child. There are times when a father will give his child direct and precise instructions. For instance, “Do well in school!” or “Be careful when crossing the road!”
On other occasions, he will hint to his child that he is expecting something of him. Perhaps by saying, “We have a lot of dirty dishes tonight.” The child is meant to take the hint and wash the dishes.
Finally, there are those times when a father will remain totally silent. Not even a clue does he offer his child. For example, no father will mention to his child that he has an upcoming birthday in the hope that the child will be thoughtful enough to buy him a present. Such a gesture must come from the child on his own initiative.
Similarly, there are certain commandments that G‑d clearly spelled out in the Torah.
Others were only hinted to us—perhaps through an extra letter or superfluous verse in the Torah.
Finally, there are those things that G‑d didn’t mention to us at all. Yet, as His children, we know this is what our Father wants.
Now, I ask you: which of the abovementioned “duties” takes precedence?
Disobeying an express order will certainly have harsher consequences than merely failing to catch a hint. And most certainly, no punishment will be given for forgetting a father’s birthday.
And as such, if you are focused on the “commandment” aspect of the mitzvot, then those that are written into the Torah take precedence.
But if we focus on the “relationship” aspect, it is clear that the minhag expresses the deepest bond and richest love between father and child.
The minhag is the birthday present.
The minhag is how we begin the Four Questions.
Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar