Different, in any case

5 04 2010

I’m almost too late to write anything about Pesach, which is currently departing for another year, but I wanted to break my lengthy cyber-silence with some words in its regard. The first night of Pesach (or the first two nights, for those who continue to cling to the pre-4th century diaspora custom) features the reading of the Haggada: an early rabbinic text that muses upon the exodus narrative in typically midrashic style. Part of this text constitutes what appears to be a poem, laconically entitled Ma Nishtana, which is traditionally sung by the youngest member of the family.

Nishtana, for those of you who care, is a distinctly rabbinic verbal form. Known as a nifta’al, it turns up in Mishnaic Hebrew [MH], but never once in Biblical Hebrew. It is a passive stem, the meaning in this instance being “is different”, or (perhaps) “differentiates”. In fact, the first line of the poem is a question, traditionally translated into English as, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” A pertinent question, but not necessarily an accurate translation.

The Hebrew phrase, מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות, rather than meaning “Why is this night different…”, may actually mean “What differentiates this night…” The distinction is a critical one.

Richard Steiner wrote an article early last year (available for download here), in which he discussed the meaning of this first clause, and the various ramifications that different translations have on our understanding of the whole. To summarise his argument, there are three distinct ways of understanding the first word (מה), and three correspondingly different ways of understanding the relative particle -ש (she-) that links this clause to the subsequent four stanzas:

1. מה (mah) = “What?”; -ש (she-) = “that”
ie: “What differentiates this night from all [other] nights, such that [examples A, B, C, D]?”

2. מה (mah) = “Why?”; -ש (she-) = “for”
ie: “Why is this night different from all [other] nights? For, [examples A? B? C? D?]”

3. מה (mah) = “How!”; -ש (she-) = “for” (or, idiomatically, “why”)
ie: “How different this night is from all [other] nights! Why, [examples A! B! C! D!]”

As you will note, the first possible translation elicits a reading in which the poem asks a single question, while the second translation produces a poem with four or five distinct questions (depending on whether or not one perceives the first clause as a question on its own), and the third translation yields a text with a rhetorical assertion only. Steiner provides biblical examples of מה denoting a rhetorical assertion (such as Gen 28:17, 2 Sam 6:20 and Ps 119:103, among others), but concedes that the rabbinic evidence is scanty, and rests on certain contemporary translations in supporting his third possible reading. For the former two, Steiner provides a lengthy list of medieval examples that attest either one or the other, with rabbinic exegetes in dispute over whether the passage features a single question or four/five.

Interestingly, Steiner also describes (on pp165-166 of his article) the 1609 Venitian Haggada. This was released with three different translations, reflecting the variegated demographics of early 17th century Venice. The Yiddish translation rendered the first word as וואז (“What?”), while the Judeo-Italian translation rendered it as פַיר קַי (“Why?), and the Judeo-Spanish translation rendered it as קואנטו (“How!”). Even more interestingly, in my opinion, these different translations alter the referent of the verb.

As Steiner goes on to explain, the first interpretation attaches the verb (נשתנה) to a referent in the past. By asking, “What differentiates this night from all [other] nights”, the thing that is doing the differentiating is a characteristic separate from the present-day characteristics enumerated in the four stanzas. They become the contemporary ramifications of this differentiation, and the question remains unanswered by the poem itself. The second interpretation, on the other hand, attaches the verb to the night itself. By asking, “Why is this night different from all [other] nights”, the word “night”, itself, becomes the referent and the four characteristics that are enumerated in the subsequent stanzas become an additional four ways of asking the same question. (Of course, as Steiner does note, it is likewise possible to read the ensuing relative clauses as four answers – an understanding not without precedent.) Finally, the third interpretation – “How different this night is from all [other] nights!” – anchors its referent in each of the examples listed in the relative clauses. Each one of those, in other words (be they the consumption of matzah or maror, the reclining at the table, or the twice-dipped vegetable) is the individual referent of נשתנה.

It would seem to me that the greatest ramification of one’s translation of the first clause is not so much our understanding of the question(s), but our understanding of the answer. Is the difference between the evening of Pesach and all other nights of the year the fact that, on this night, we commemorate the exodus from Egypt (as a macro-reading of the poem in its context would lead us to suggest), or a handful of superficial differences – as might be suggested by a reading of the poem, divorced from its broader context. Furthermore, were we to remove the poem from its context and adopt either of the first two readings, it is indeed possible that there is no answer given at all.

So, what are we left with? The liturgical recitation of a text that possesses several contradictory interpretations, yielding an uncertain number of questions that lack any recorded or satisfying answer. It doesn’t sound that different to every other festival, in my opinion, but I’ll take the poem’s word for it that it is.

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2 responses

6 04 2010
Hebrew Scholar

Thanks for your excellent analysis of the Hebrew nishtana, and what is meant by that verb form. I agree with your analysis.

6 04 2010
Thomas Anderson

insightful. thanks

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