So That The Children Will Ask by Gavriel Epstein


Immediately following Ha Lachma Anya, the introduction to Maggid, there is a famous custom to remove the Seder Plate from the table. It is usually suggested that the purpose of this custom is to get the children asking questions, which is, on the surface, a highly dissatisfying explanation. The answer seemingly creates a circular argument; the answer to the question is the existence of the question itself. Perhaps it is necessary to look at the source for this Minhag and determine why exactly it is so important that children ask questions at the Seder.

The source for this custom is found in Pesachim (109a), where it says, “Chotefin Matzot BaLeilei Pesachim Bishvil Tinokot SheLo Yishnu,” “We grab the Matzot on the night of Pesach for the children, so they do not fall asleep.” Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Chotefin Matzah) explains that “Chotefin” refers to grabbing, because we remove the Seder plate from the table so that the children will ask questions about it. Alternatively, Rashi suggests that “Chotefin” actually means that the Matzah should be eaten quickly so that the children do not fall asleep before the conclusion of the Seder. This answer explains more logically why the action would prevent children from falling asleep during the Seder. However, this does not explain the custom to remove the Seder plate.

Several similar Minhagim at the Seder are based on the goal of keeping children engaged and awake throughout the Seder. One custom is to put the Afikoman on one’s back and reenact Yetzi’at Mitrayim. Another custom is to feed children “Kelayot VaEgozim,” “roasted nuts” (Rambam Hilchot Chameitz UMatza 7:3), and a third custom is to remove the table before people are finished eating (ibid.). The purpose of these customs is, “Kidei SheYir’u HaBanim VeYish’alu,” “So that the children will see and ask questions” (ibid.). Every Seder has an endless repertoire of customs established around the absolute necessity that children should be engaged and asking questions.

The crux of this network of customs is centered on two Pesukim in the Torah. One of them commands a parent, “VeHigadta LeVincha,” “And you shall explain to your son” (Shemot 8:13) the story of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim. This Pasuk explains that children should remain awake throughout the Seder in order for parents to fulfill their Mitzvah of teaching. A second Pasuk instructs parents, “Ki Yomeru Eileichem Beneichem Mah HaAvodah HaZot Lachem,” “If your children ask you ‘what is this service to you?’” (Shemot 12:26) you should respond with Sippur Yetzi’at Mitzrayim.

Perhaps it is possible to explain the curious custom of removing the Seder plate by comparing it to its parallel Minhagim. While the other Minhagim have a specific action designed to entertain and engage children such as stealing, eating, and acting, removing the Seder plate from the table is associated only with the question that follows it. It seems to be the black sheep, the Minhag that drew the short straw and failed to entertain anyone.

The problem with the excitement of the Minhag arises not when the child asks the question, but when the parent answers “so the children will ask.” However, Rashi simply writes that the Minhag exists “SheYish’alu,” “So that [the children] will ask,” (ibid.) but does not suggest that this should be the answer to their question. Perhaps the intended answer was left intentionally to the ad lib of the parent, removing any creative blocks and serving as a catalyst to engage the children and prompt them to further question the story Yetzi’at Mitzrayim itself. Children’s active participation at the Seder table is an essential component of fulfilling the Mitzvah of Sippur Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, and one should go to great lengths to ensure that that participation is cultivated.

Pesach in the Days of Chizkiyahu - the Dream and the Reality by Rabbi Ezra Frazer

The Power of Love by Eli Hyman