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AND RENA ROTENBERG SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH NEWS
a nishtanah ...? Why is
this night different from
all other nights? Vir-
tually every Jew can
remember saying the Four Ques-
tions at the Passover seder. For
a few minutes, the youngest one
— sometimes nervous, some-
times self-assured — is the focus
of everyone's attention. Usually,
the child is vigorously applaud-
ed after his or her performance.
What we can teach children
through the seder is the impor-
tance of asking questions. From
the Four Questions, the whole
seder unfolds. The child's role is
essential. The goal of the service
is to get children to ask: "Why do
we celebrate this holiday? What
is this all about?"
Questions are very important
in Judaism. The Talmud and rab-
binic commentaries on the Torah,
with their endless and intricate
questions, answers and debates,
are all posited on the premise
that asking leads to deeper un-
The Passover Haggadah's sec-
tion on the four sons provides a
ready-made framework for help-
ing parents to understand how
their children ask questions and
how to answer them: one who is
wise, one who is wicked (or re-
bellious), one who is simple, and
one who does not know how to
ask. These four children repre-
sent a range of personalities,
learning styles, and levels of ma-
Commenting on this passage
in the Rabbinical Assembly's
Passover Haggadah, editor
Rachel Anne Rabinowitz says,
"The rabbis counseled that the
story of the Exodus should be
geared to the attitude and age of
the questioner." Based on the Tal-
mudic commentary, we can ex-
pand this to a general principle
for parents: "The.parent should
teach each child on the level of
the child's understanding." (Pe-
sahim 116a.) • '
The passage about the four
children can be viewed "either as
a description of four different chit-
Gail Lipsitz is community
relations coordinator and
Shana Goldfinger is a social
worker at Jewish Family
Services in Baltimore.
Rena Rotenberg is director of
early childhood education at
the Council on Jewish
dren, or as a description of the
same child going through devel-
opmental stages," say Rabbi Ju-
dith Z. Abrams and Dr. Steven A.
Abrams in Jewish Parenting:
Rabbinic Insights. Most children
probably will go through the four
phases: the very young child who
does not know enough to ask, the
child who knows enough to ask
simple questions, the rebellious
child separating from his parents
and rejecting tradition, and the
child who has attained the intel-
lectual and emotional maturity
to be interested in the subject for
Here are some insights into dif-
ferent kinds of questioners and
advice on how to respond.
The simple child: Young chil-
dren think very concretely, ask-
ing about what they see. Lacking
a wide vocabulary, they may un-
derstand more than they can say.
To find out what the child is re-
ally asking, the parent can
rephrase the question in the form
of a statement, reflecting it back
to the child. Acknowledge the
child from where he is. Break up
the subject into little, under-
standable pieces, and repeat ex-
planations if necessary.
The child who does not know
how to ask: Some parents worry
because their child doesn't ask
questions or communicate easi-
ly. The Haggadah advises these
parents to "open the discussion
for him." This child is part of the
family and must be included —
but how? Try an indirect ap-
proach to get a child to talk, such
as reading a book and then using
it as a jumping-off point for a dis-
cussion. Talking or listening
while busying oneself at another
task, such as preparing dinner,
without looking directly at the
child, may free him from feelings
of being scrutinized and enable
him to ask. Perhaps this is why
so many children bring up ques-
tions that take parents by sur-
prise while driving. Parents also
need to wonder, "Why is my child
not asking?" Perhaps the child
feels the parent is not accessible.
Or maybe the child's earlier ques-
tions were not answered with
sensitivity ("What a silly ques-
tion!" "You don't need to know
that."). And so the child simply
The child who asks constantly:
Though not exactly one of the four
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