Ma Nishtana - The Blues Version, MP3, 1.36MB Ma Nishtana - The Blues Version
by Dan Krimm
Copyright 1999 Dan Krimm

A whimsical variation on the Four Questions from the Passover Seder
Click on the cover image to the left to download the MP3 file, and listen at your own risk

The Ma Nishtana, or Four Questions, are one of the highlights of the Passover Seder ceremony in the Jewish tradition. The youngest child present who is able to read and speak recites the ritual questions in order to motivate the telling of the story of Exodus.

The overall question is "Why is this night different from all other nights?" and it refers to four particular characteristics of the Seder that make it special:

  1. no leavened bread is eaten, only unleavened matzoh
  2. bitter herbs are eaten
  3. herbs are ritually dipped twice (bitter herbs in charoset, parsley in salt water)
  4. all present are expected to eat reclining

These are rather unusual rituals, and it's no surprise that a curious child might be puzzled by them. The Seder itself presents the answer to these questions, explaining the symbolism over the course of a reading of the story of Exodus and rabbinical commentary on it, and a festival meal. ("So, ya wanna answer for these questions, hm? Well, lemme tell you...")

The recitation of the Four Questions is usually chanted or sung according to one of several traditional melodies. An older melody from the European Diaspora is familiar to a certain generation of Conservative and Orthodox congregations, and can be characterized as a chant. A more modern melody derived from Israeli folk music is popular among younger generations, and sounds more like a song.

(Update 2014: The kids came home from school this year with a brand new melody, wow! The first new one in many years, and from an official source. This one also sounds like a song, but it's organized slightly differently: it re-asks the question each time, rather than only once at the beginning. So, it emphasizes that the questions are about these various practices, not just the single observation that things are different. Why do we eat only unleavened bread? Why do we eat bitter herbs? Why do we dip herbs twice? Why are we supposed to eat reclining? For those who used to complain that there was only one question with four answers, now it's clear that there really are four questions -- and the answers will come during the conducting of the seder. My version still has just the opening question followed by the four observations, and for the Blues I think maybe that's quite enough.)

My cousins have a wonderful Seder that celebrates a multiplicity of traditions and interpretations, and any and all variations are welcomed, in solos starting with the youngest, combos, and as a full group together. Some years, when lots of participants want to get involved, it can take quite some time to get past the Four Questions...

One year back in the late-1980s, it occured to me that the Four Questions embodied a classic call-and-response format (on all other nights, A -- tonight, B), and another famous call-and-response musical form familiar in America is the Blues. In 12-bar format, the Blues involves a call, a second call, and then a response, also known as an AAB form. It didn't take too long to fit the Ma Nishtana into this format. All that was required was a backup section, so I recruited my brother Dave and another family friend to do-wop the harmonies behind me, and we surprised everyone without warning. Needless to say, it was a big hit, if a bit cheeky.

With just a few exceptions, the Blues Ma Nishtana has been performed at that Seder ever since.

But, there was a small imperfection: musical instruments are not allowed to be played during the Seder, only voices and drums. Thus the arrangements we were able to come up with on short notice were rather constrained. And we tried it a bunch of ways over the years: me on bass line, Dave on lead vocal; me on lead, Dave on harmony; just me solo, burning real quick; me on lead, Dave on bass line, me filling in harmonies in between the lead phrases; etc. If only they could hear the complete arrangement I had in my head all at once!

So, in 1999 I finally decided to do it (I'm a jazz electric bassist when I get around to it, and can carry a tune, if not the world's greatest singer). I went into my friend Jeff Penney's studio one Sunday several weeks before Passover (February 28), and laid down the tracks one by one until the whole thing was there. Bass, bass-chords, finger-snap/chest-slap percussion, three background vocal tracks and the lead vocal. Mixed it, burned the CD master, and walked out of there a few hours later with what you hear here. A few copies went out to close family and friends in advance, and it got a nice reception, so I figured I'd put it out here on the Net to see if anyone else liked it. You can download the MP3 here, just click the cover image above. (Note: If you want to make any commercial or derivative use of this, you need to get my permission first. You can look me up at BMI as publisher Krimbo Music.)

I imagine some very strict fundamentalists might be rubbed the wrong way by it, and to them I apologize for any offense, but I also point out that anything that draws attention to the story is probably good for the religion, as long as it is not malicious, and I can assure you there is no malicious intent here, just good humor in the spirit of a festive celebration. (This is The Blues more like Bruce Willis would do it on a bad day than B.B. King in his prime...)

If you enjoy it, feel free to spread the word (and you can point them here to get their own copy). And go ahead and sing it yourself at your own Seder if you feel the muse, I'm sure you can do just as well as me in the vocal department. I don't know how far this might spread, but if you hear it somewhere else someday, you'll know that you heard it at the source!

Hag Sameach,

Dan Krimm
July 1999

Update, 2008: This recording is featured on the supplemental DVD accompanying an intriguing book released in 2008 called 300 Ways to Ask The Four Questions: From Zulu to Abkhaz by Murray Spiegel and Rickey Stein. These guys labored for many years collecting translations of the Four Questions into a multitude of languages, modern, ancient, and fictitious/artificial/whimsical. It's nothing short of astonishing, and if you have any doubt about the care and research put into this project, just read the forward by Theodore Bikel.

Ma nishtana halaila hazeh, mikol halelot?

Sheb'chol halelot, anu ochlin, chametz umatza,
Halaila hazeh, kulo matza.

Sheb'chol halelot, anu ochlin, sh'ar y'rakot,
Halaila hazeh, maror.

Sheb'chol halelot, ain anu matbilin, afilu pa'am echat,
Halaila hazeh, sh'te p'amim,

Sheb'chol halelot, anu ochlin, ben yoshvin uven m'subin,
Halaila hazeh, kulanu m'subin.

Why is this night different from all other nights?

On all other nights we eat either leavened bread or matzah.
On this night, we eat only matzah.

On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables.
On this night, we eat bitter herbs.

On all other nights we do not usually dip vegetables even once.
On this night, we dip twice.

On all other nights we eat either sitting upright or reclining.
On this night, we eat reclining.

Composer/Arranger   Dan Krimm
Bass Guitar (Bass, Chords)   Dan Krimm
Hand Percussion   Dan Krimm
Vocals (Lead, Backup)   Dan Krimm
Engineering/Mix/Mastering   Jeff Penney/Sons of Sound Productions
MP3 encoding   Dan Krimm
Copyrights   Composition: Copyright © 1999 Dan Krimm, BMI
Sound Recording: Copyright ℗ 1999 Dan Krimm