MAH NISHTANNAH (Heb. מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה; "What is different?"), first words of the four questions asked at the Passover seder service. The questions come at the beginning of the recital of the *Haggadah and are usually asked by the youngest participant. The first sentence reads: "Why is this night different from all other nights?"
According to the Ashkenazi rite, the questions come in the following order: (1) Why on this night is only maẓẓah ("unleavened bread") eaten? (2) Why are bitter herbs consumed? (3) Why are herbs dipped twice (in salt water and in haroset) during the seder meal? (4) Why do we sit reclined at the seder table? The text of the answers "We were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt…," follows the set of four questions. The reply is usually made by the father, or the person conducting the seder.
The Mah Nishtannah dates back to mishnaic times (Pes. 10:4) and originated in contemporaneous dining customs (manners and sequence) at festive meals. The questions were made part of the seder celebration as an introduction and reminder to the father to fulfill the biblical injunction: "And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: it is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt" (Ex. 13:8; see also Ex. 13:14, 15). The Mishnah enumerates four questions to be asked during the seder (Pes. 10:4); the third, "Why do we eat only roasted meat [of the paschal sacrifice]?" was omitted after the Destruction of the Temple and the consequent cessation of sacrifices, and for it was substituted another question which is not mentioned in the Mishnah (Why do we recline?). The Sephardi ritual retained the geonic order of the four questions: (1) dipping, (2) unleavened bread, (3) bitter herbs, (4) reclining.
In the geonic literature (and as late as *Rashi and *Maimonides, Yad, Ḥameẓ u-Maẓẓah, 8:2) the Mah Nishtannah was probably recited by the person conducting the seder and not asked by the children. Where there is no child present at the seder table, the questions should be asked by the housewife, and if only men participate, they must ask each other, even if they are learned scholars (Pes. 116a). The Mah Nishtannah questions form part of the Haggadah ritual of all trends and segments in Judaism, including Reform.
E.D. Goldschmidt; Haggadah shel Pesaḥ (1960), 10–13; J. Levy, A Guide to Passover (1958), 27, 31.