No Simple Answer

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published April 18, 2003, issue of April 18, 2003.

‘The best kashe is kasha with gravy,” goes an old pun about the Passover Seder’s Four Questions, which are known in Yiddish as the fier kashes — a pun based on the word kashe in Yiddish meaning both buckwheat grits and a question.

And yet a kashe is not an ordinary question. If you ask someone, “What time is it?” or “Are you free for lunch tomorrow?” you’ve probably asked a frage or a shayle, not a kashe. A kashe is a hard question, either because there is no simple answer to it or because any simple answer you give will involve you in contradictions leading to more questions. The word itself derives from the Hebrew kasheh, “hard,” via the Aramaic kashya, a talmudic term for a puzzling problem. “What’s going to happen in Iraq?” Now that’s a kashe!

Or is it a klotzkashe? That’s a handy Yiddish term for a kashe asked by a klutz — i.e., a question that the questioner thinks is hard but that is in fact idiotic, possibly because the answer is right under his nose and possibly because there’s no conceivable answer at all. There is a Yiddish saying, Af a mayse fregt men kayn kashe nit, “You don’t ask kashes about a mayse,” that is, about an imaginative story or tall tale. In other words, don’t look for logic in places where you can’t expect to find it. And from this comes the Yiddish expression a kashe af a mayse, “a kashe about a mayse,” which is a way of replying, “How should I know?” “You’re asking what will happen in Iraq? A kashe af a mayse!”

Which brings me to ask: Should the fier kashes really be known as the fier klotzkashes?

Take the first of them: “Why on all other nights do we eat either leavened bread or matzo but on this night only matzo?”

This is a kashe? Why, every schoolchild knows that we eat matzo on Passover because we Children of Israel had to bake bread in a hurry so as not to miss the exodus and didn’t have time to let the dough rise! A simple shayle, sure, but where’s the kashe?

Of course, you might answer, “You yourself are asking a klotzkashe! No one is claiming that the Four Questions are really kashes from an adult point of view. They’re meant to be asked by small children who haven’t started school yet — and for them, seeing a table with only matzo on it is a real puzzle.”

But it isn’t quite as simple as that. If you look at the Four Questions carefully, you’ll see that they actually begin to get harder. The second one — “Why on all other nights do we eat all kinds of vegetables but on this night bitter herbs?” — takes a bit more knowledge to answer, since it’s not automatically obvious that the bitter herbs are an allusion to the bitterness of life in Egypt, while the third — “Why on all other nights don’t we dip even once but tonight we dip twice?” — is more difficult yet. In fact, since we often do dip our food in various liquids during the rest of the year — our doughnuts in coffee, our bread in salad dressing — Question Three involves a genuine kashe and is even treated as such in a discussion in the tractate of Eruvin, where Rava, one of the greatest of talmudic sages, proposes as an alternate reading, “Why on all other nights are we not required to dip even once?,” which another sage, Rabbi Safra, shoots down on logical grounds.

Indeed, it would seem that the increasing difficulty of Questions One through Three is a deliberate attempt to go from easy to hard, as if to provide a suitable query for every level of education. But then we come to Question Four — “Why on all nights do we eat upright or reclining but on this night we all recline?” — and things get easier again. After all, even our pre-school child can immediately see that reclining is a sign of leisure and comfort. What gives?

A kashe!

But this kashe, too, has an answer. Originally, the Four Questions did not end with today’s Question Four but with today’s Question Three. Preceding it was a different Question Three, which went, “Why on all other nights do we eat our meat roasted, boiled or stewed but tonight all of it is roasted?” This question was dropped from the Haggada sometime in the course of the first millennium C.E., presumably because growing urbanization made it difficult to roast a whole sheep in imitation of the Paschal sacrifice, and Jews switched to other methods of cooking — yet in order to keep the number of questions at four, a new one about sitting and reclining was added. Instead of being inserted before Question Four, however, it was inserted after it, so that became the fourth question and what had been the fourth became the third, thus spoiling the easy-to-hard progression.

Have a kosher (no relation of kashe) Passover!



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