There is a famous Israeli song which (apparently) all Israeli children know called Be’Egozim Nesacheka. The opening line reads: ‘with walnuts we will play, pesach is here.’ It refers to a game traditionally played with walnuts over Pesach. If you are interested in the song further, you can listen to it here
I’ve never heard of it either and, yes, it sounds ridiculous to me too.
However, it’s not as bizarre as it sounds. Its origins track back 2,000 years ago to the time of Rabbi Akiva. The Gemara in Pesachim 109a reads: ‘R. Akiva used to distribute walnuts to children on the eve of Passover, so that they might not fall asleep, but ask questions.’
This still leaves us with some confusion. Rabbi Akiva was one of, if not the greatest Rabbi of his generation. Yet on Erev Pesach, when he could be using his time a lot more productively, he was going around giving out sweets to kids. Don’t worry; it is not what it sounds like. Rabbi Akiva was actually doing something very important and very relevant to Erev Pesach.
We all know about the importance of questions on Seder Night, especially the focus placed on getting children to be curious and ask them. A lot of the minhagim that are established for Seder night are purely to distinguish it from other nights, so that the differences will stand out for the children, in order that they ask questions. One example comes from one of the sources for the reasons behind Karpas; because we don’t usually dip vegetables at the table, this gets the children puzzled at the beginning of the Seder so they will ask questions.
However, I always have one question (excuse the irony) when I hear these ideas about getting the children to ask questions.
What is the point of the children asking all these questions if most children know the answer already? They all know ‘avodim hayinu’ and either way most kids are just regurgitating the ‘Ma nishtana’ that they know off by heart, having recited it every year. Surely there is something behind asking these questions. It can’t just be about finding out the answer.
The first questions in history appear in Parshat Bereishit. In Bereishit 3:1 the snake asks Chava, ‘did, perhaps, Hashem say you shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’ Rashi comments that the snake was not asking to be inquisitive, he was asking just to engage her in conversation. Likewise, after the events of eating from the forbidden tree, Hashem calls out to Adam ‘Where are you?’ (3:9). Hashem obviously knew where Adam was, he just wanted to start a conversation with him. The best way to engage with someone is to ask questions.
The same thing happens on Seder night. The Jewish people are timeless, and transcend generations. To maintain this, it is vital we have a strong link from one generation to the next. This is the real reason why we focus on questions and on children- to strengthen that bond and connect the generations. That is why Pesach is so well kept, and that is why Seder night has such prestige in the Jewish calendar.