The Hebrew word מה means ‘what’. It is what is called an ‘interrogative pronoun’, which is a word used to elicit information. It is related to other information seeking words, such as מי which means ‘who’, איזה which means ‘which’ and Lama which means ‘why’. Since information stands at the centre of our quest to understand the world around us, you find these words everywhere.
The word מה has other meanings. It can mean something little or small – such as in the phrase דבר מה [something inconsequential] or מה בכך [of no consequence]. Ma can also be simply an exclamation, indicating something surprising or different. The challenge when reading מה in a sentence is deciding which ma you have in front of you.
Perhaps the most familiar use of the word מה comes in the Hagada. For many of us, it was the first sentence they learned in Hebrew as young children. מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות? – usually translated as, ‘Why is this night different than all other nights’?
There are several problems with this translation. The word מה doesn’t mean ‘how’ it means ‘what’! Furthermore, in Rabbinic literature this passage is known as ארבע קושיות – “the for questions”. But what follows aren’t questions – they are answers! מה קורה כאן – What’s going on here?
The commentators suggest that this is a problem of mistranslation. The word מה here is to be understood as an exclamation. It should be translated as, ‘How different this night is from all other nights!’ Following it are four different reasons for the surprise. We only eat Matza, we recline, we eat bitter herbs etc …
The phrase has now become part of the Jewish psyche. A few thousand years after the Hagada, the modern Hebrew poet Natan Alterman, writing about the Jezreel Valley, writes מה לילה מליל . ‘How different this night is from other nights!’? It’s a piece of poetry – playing on our familiarity with the hagadah.
It is a beautiful poem and I particularly like the rendition by Arik Einstein. Click on the link below to hear. On that note, I will finish my post today.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner