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The Mishnah (Pesachim 116a), when recording the Mah Nishtanah, phrases the question as:

מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות?‏

The most literal translation I can muster from this is:

What is different this night from all nights?

  1. The Mishnah clearly doesn't mean "What is different on this night from all other nights?" as the questioner proceeds to elaborate the differences: we only eat Matzah, we only eat Marror, etc. Perforce, the Mishnah must mean "What is it that causes this night to be different from all other nights?" So why doesn't the Mishnah just say that - למה נשתנה הלילה הזה, "Why is this night different from all nights?"
  2. The wording of the end of the question is similarly awkward, contrasting this night to "all nights." Clearly it means all other nights, so why doesn't it just say that: משאר הלילות? (This question would similarly apply to the later stitches, where we say שבכל הלילות, "for on all nights," instead of שבשאר הלילות, "for on all other nights.")
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    The literal translation could also be "look how different this night is from all other nights!". Like מה טבו אהליך יעקב or אמת מה נהדר היה כהן גדול. – Heshy Apr 18 at 21:57
  • @Heshy Not much of a question, then, is it? – DonielF Apr 18 at 21:59
  • 1. I think a better way to say it would be איך נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות, how is it different, not why. – Lo ani Apr 18 at 22:29
  • @Loani It’s very clear that he’s not asking what or how it’s different; he’s very aware of how it’s different, and proceeds to list four such differences. Clearly the question is why it’s different. – DonielF Apr 18 at 22:32
  • Maybe it's an implicit question – Jay Apr 18 at 23:47
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To answer your first question, you could translate it as “what is changed this night from all nights?” And then we say what changed: on all nights we eat bread and matzah, tonight only matzah. On all nights we don’t dip, tonight we dip twice. Tonight we eat maror, and on all nights we don’t. On all nights we sit or lean as pleases us, tonight we specifically lean. The rest of the Haggadah goes on to explain why it changed, but mah nishtanah explains what changed. As for why it prefers ‘what changed’ over ‘why’, mah nishtanah is an opening to the Haggadah, so we start with the simple ‘what’ (like the תם son) vs. the more complicated ‘why’.

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I think the most literal translation of מה נשתנה הלילה הזה would be 'What changed this night from being like all other nights?'. Which gets us to the same place as asking 'Why is this night different etc'.

Perhaps it just flowed easier to ask 'Why is this night different etc' in yiddish, which is obviously the source of the common modern day English version.

I think your suggesting of 'What is different etc' would've been phrased as some variant of '...מה משונה'.

  • The Yiddish is irrelevant here, as is the English. And your proposed suggestion gets us no further than mine: why not just say explicitly “why”? – DonielF Apr 19 at 0:33
  • @DonielF As you grapple between the mah and the why, you ask why say mah if we mean why. My point is we don't mean why. You are used to asking why because of the Yiddish translating. Different languages have different ways of asking a question to arrive at the same answer. The Yiddish is very relevant. And again the goal is not to ask why that we should have chosen a different Hebrew word. – user6591 Apr 19 at 0:57
  • Either you’re misunderstanding my question or I’m misunderstanding your answer. If I’m reading your post correctly, in your first paragraph you posit a different translation which you say is fundamentally the same as asking why - so I ask, why not just use the word for why? The second and third paragraphs are irrelevant; I never posited in my question that it should ask “why” just because that’s how I’m used to translating it. I posited that it should say “why” because, in context, that seems to be the general thrust of the line, so it might as well just say it. – DonielF Apr 19 at 1:38
  • @DonielF So let's start over. Translate the line as Edgar changed this night. What would you gain by asking why is this night different? If the answer is nothing, than we have the old answer of why choose a of you could've chosen b, to which we respond had we chosen b you'd ask why not choose a. – user6591 Apr 19 at 2:28
  • If the intent is to ask why, it should just say “why,” rather than ask the question in a more convoluted manner. – DonielF Apr 19 at 2:30

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