4 Daughters and 5 Questions

4 Daughters and 5 Questions

In many holidays, women play a secondary or supporting role and the gender balance is largely skewed in favor of patriarchy. Yet, if you look at the Passover story, one could very easily frame the holiday within the context of women’s heroism.  Think of Yocheved (the mother of Moses), Shiphrah and Puah (the midwives who defied Pharaoh’s order to kill the male Hebrew children), Miriam (Moses’ sister who cleverly arranged for Moses’ protection, and later a prophetess to her people), Tzipporah (who saved her husband Moses when God wanted to kill him on the way back to Egypt for not circumcising his son) and Pharaoh’s daughter (named Bithiah in Jewish tradition, who drew out Moses from the Nile, named him and fostered him).  Despite the significant contributions these women made, they are never mentioned in the telling of the Passover seder. Traditionalists reason that God, not humans, is to be celebrated in the telling of the story and therefore no biblical characters, including Moses himself, are featured prominently in the liturgy. However, it is striking that a large cast of (all male) rabbis are mentioned repeatedly throughout the liturgy for their exegetical contributions and thus they become the new heroes of the haggadah. What we see is that human actors are present in our memory and women are explicitly excluded.

In response to this clear discrepancy, there are a number of contemporary seders which seek to restore women to their place of prominence in the collective memory and include them in the telling. Using the seder plate as a call to action, some add an orange to the other traditional elements in remembrance of those marginalized in the Jewish community including gays and women. Others add an olive in memory of Palestinian farmers who have had olive trees uprooted to make room for expanding Jewish settlements. [2]

Toward the beginning of the traditional Passover seder there is a short section on the four types of children that ask four different questions regarding the Exodus from Egypt. Four times our Scriptures command us to tell our children about the liberation from Egypt and three times it says “When your son asks...tell him…” (Ex. 12:26-27; Ex. 13:8,14; Deut. 6:20-21).  Jewish tradition has interpreted this that each time we tell the story, it is in response to a different type of a child: the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the son who has no capacity to inquire.

I recently came across a contemporary midrash on the four types of children. This time, it deals with the four daughters rather than the four sons.

The Four Daughters

The daughter in search of a usable past. Mah hi omeret? What does she say?

[Question 1]
"Why didn't the Torah count women among the '600,000 men on foot, aside from children,' who came out of Egypt? And why did Moses say at Sinai, 'Go not near a woman,' addressing only men, as if preparation for revelation was not meant for us, as well?"

Because she already understands that Jewish memory is essential to our identity, teach her that history is made by those who tell the tale. If Torah did not name and number women, it is up to her to fill the empty spaces of our holy texts.

And the daughter who wants to erase her difference. Mah hi omeret? What does she say?

[Question 2]
 "Why must you keep pushing your women's questions into every text? And why are these women's issues so important to you?"

"To you," and "not to me." Since she so easily forgets the struggles of her mothers and sisters, you must tell her the story of your own journey to the seder table and invite her to join you in thanking God for the blessing of being a Jewish woman.

And the daughter who does not know that she has a place at the table.  Mah hi omeret? What does she say?

[Question 3]
"What is this?"

Because she doesn't realize that her question is, in itself, a part of the seder tradition, teach her that the haggadah is an extended conversation about liberation, and tell her that her insights and questions are also text.

[Question 4]
 And the daughter who asks no questions?

You must say to her, "Your questions, when they come, will liberate you from Egypt. This is how it is and has always been with your mothers and grandmothers. From the moment Yocheved, Miriam, and the midwives questioned Pharaoh's edict until today, every question we ask helps us leave Egypt farther behind." [1]

Wherever you are this holiday, remember that questioning is important. If you do not see yourself in the traditional stories, seek the reasons why and find your way into it as you have a role to play and contribution to make. If you are not comfortable with your identity, if you don’t include yourself in your community, unlike the traditional Passover text which excludes you by your own choice, remember there are always alternative tellings like this of “The Four Daughters,” in which there is always a place for you if you wish to return. If you are unsure of what something means, keep asking, as questions can be catalysts toward and acts of freedom. If you have no questions, learn to ask and wonder about why things are the way they are as our stories need new tellings, but we can only arrive at them if someone like you chooses to question.

In closing, I wish to leave you with a fifth question. When we celebrate, we remember as if each of us journeyed from oppression to liberation, slavery to freedom.

[Question 5]
Between this Passover and the next, how can you be the one who questions the past and present in order to leave behind the contemporary injustices of our modern-day Egypt so we can actively build a better future?



[1] Tamara Cohen, Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, and Ronnie Horn, “The Four Daughters,” Excerpted from The Journey Continues: The Ma'yan Haggadah (Ma’yan 2000).
[2] Sue Fishkoff, “From oranges to artichokes, chocolate and olives, using seder plate as a call to action,” Jewish Telegraph Agency, 12 April 2011.


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