Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tzav (Shabbat ha-Gadol) 5762/ March 23, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Tzav (Shabbat ha-Gadol) 5762/ March 23, 2002

Must Women Recline at the Seder?

Dr. Yaakov Gartner
The Naftal-Yaffe Dept. of Talmud

A strikingly unique feature of the Seder is the practice of reclining while eating the matzah and drinking the four cups of wine. The origin of this obligation lies in Tractate Pesahim of the Mishnah: "Even a poor person in Israel may not eat until he reclines" (10.1). The rationale for this requirement is given in the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesahim 10.1; 37b): "Rabbi Levi said: Since it is the way of slaves to eat standing, here we eat reclining to show that we were released from bondage and are free." In other words, the Sages wanted the participants at the Seder to demonstrate their freedom by eating in a reclining position.

In what way does reclining express freedom as opposed to bondage? Various scholars have observed that eating while reclining was not unique to the Seder meal. In the time of the Mishnah it was customary for Jews and non-Jews alike to partake of their festive meals reclining, in accordance with Greco-Roman custom,[1] whereas slaves did not, as is explained in the Jerusalem Talmud, "Since it is the way of slaves to eat standing." Therefore eating in this position expressed freedom.

Must women, too, recline at the Seder table? An explicit answer to this question is given in the Talmud (Pesahim 108a): "A woman (at her husband's table)[2] need not recline; but if she is an important woman, she must recline." Thus the question whether or not a woman must eat reclining depended on her status. Apparently most women did not eat reclining, but a woman who was considered important did.

Let us try to understand the rationale behind this halakhah. Since women are obliged to drink four cups of wine, "for they, too, were present at this miraculous event" (Pes. 108b), why exempt them from reclining? Three explanations have been offered:

1) "For she is in awe of her husband, to whom she is subordinate" (Rashbam on Tractate Pesahim, loc. sit.).

2) "Since it is not customary for women to serve wine" (She'iltot de Rav Aha Gaon, no. 77).

3) "She is not obliged to recline since she is busy preparing and serving the food" (Rabbenu Manoah, in his commentary on Maimonides, Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah 7.8).

According to Rashbam, women do not recline because eating that way is not appropriate in terms of the accepted behavior of women in front of their husbands. Rav Aha exempted women from reclining because eating in that manner was not customary, the reason apparently being that it did not behoove a wife to do so. And while the explanation given by Rabbenu Manoah pertains to married women, his interpretation does not associate this halakhah with the proper behavior of a wife towards her husband; rather, he views it as a practical matter; the housewife is occupied with the food for the feast, and therefore she was exempted by the Sages from reclining.

The differences between these interpretations have practical ramifications. According to the first and the third interpretations, a woman who is not married or not busy with serving the food must recline. According to the second interpretation, women in general do not recline because such behavior is considered unbecoming to them.

We must also clarify who was considered an "important woman" and why such a woman is obligated to recline. In their commentaries on Tractate Pesahim, Rashi and Rashbam did not remark on this halakhah,[3] but Rabbenu Manoah, loc. sit., gave the following definitions: 1) "A woman who has no husband and is the woman of the house," in other words, a widow who manages the affairs of the house in the absence of a male head of household. 2) "A woman who is important for her handiwork," in other words, a wealthy woman successful in her business endeavors. 3) "A pious woman, daughter of a great leader of the times," in other words, a woman who is admired because of her upstanding moral and religious personality and her distinguished lineage.

Rabbenu Manoah, who interpreted in line with Rashbam, "A woman need not recline, for since she is subordinate to her husband, he casts his awe over her, and it is not her custom to recline," was of the opinion that it is customary for an important woman to recline since she has no husband, or because her husband is not strict about her reclining in his presence due to her wealth or high place.[4] Indeed, Rabbi Eliezer b. R. Judah (Sefer ha-Rokeah, p. 152, par. 283) interpreted as follows: "In her husband's house a woman need not recline, but if she is an important woman and her husband is not strict with her, she must recline." According to the interpretation that exempts women because they are busy with the meal, an important woman would not be occupied with such things. Finally, according to the view that exempts women because it is not customary for them to serve wine, it was customary for an important woman to recline.

In this regard, the remarks of M. Ish-Shalom should be noted:[5] "Indeed, it was the custom of the Romans as well to eat reclining; but the women did not eat reclining for reasons of modesty, except for important women whose clothing covered their legs entirely." Presumably over the years, since the time this halakhah was established in the Talmud, women did not recline, except for a minority who were considered "important women" by one or another definition of the term.

A turning point in the entire subject of women reclining at the Seder took place in Franco-Germany during the time of the Tosafists. We read in the Tosafists[6] that "all our women are important and are obliged to recline." This appears to have been quite a revolutionary view on the question of whether a woman must recline. In contrast to the Talmud, which only permitted an important woman to recline while all others were exempt from reclining, in Franco-Germany for some reason all the women were considered "important."

The sources are not explicit and do not suggest a reason for this change, so we must look for the historical and sociological circumstances that can account for this particular attitude towards women. Several scholars have investigated the change in the status of women in early Franco-Germany. For example, the Mishnah in Ketubot 5.5 says: "These are the tasks that a wife performs for her husband: she does the grinding, baking and laundering, she cooks, and nurses her children." In contrast, later R. Barukh ruled as follows: "Now it is not customary for our women to do the grinding and laundering, for they are not forced to."[7] This ruling reflects the reality of their lives - a society in which gentile servants did the housework under the direction of the mistress of the house.

Various sources from the same period indicate that women were also engaged in negotiating, agriculture, crafts, trade, lending and tax assessing. This represents a departure from the custom of earlier generations in which women's activities were limited in scope. A factor contributing to this development was the desire of many women to assume the burden of supporting the family in order to allow their husbands to devote themselves exclusively to studying Torah.[8] If the reason for a woman not to recline at the Seder was subordination to her husband, as interpreted by Rashbam, then thanks to the distinguished status of women in Ashkenazi society in that era their husbands no longer minded if their wives reclined.[9]

This change in the status of women at the Seder apparently did not take place throughout the entire Ashkenazi Jewish community, but was limited to the region of the Tosafists, who considered all their women "important" and hence obliged to recline. We do not know precisely which Tosafists were involved or where they lived. The Rosh (R. Asher ben Jehiel) and his son, R. Jacob ben Asher ("Baal ha-Turim," 14th century) did not mention this opinion, nor was it cited in Sefer ha-Agur (15th century). It was in fact the Sephardic rabbi, R. Joseph Caro, who noted the Tosafists' opinion, in Beit Yosef, his commentary on the Tur (Orah Hayyim 472, s.v. ishah hashuvah), in accord with the writings of the Mordechai and Rabbenu Yeruham. But in the Shulhan Arukh, where R. Caro ruled on this halakhah, he did not mention their opinion.

It was R. Moses Isserles (Rema) who referred to the ruling of the Tosafists in his glosses on the Shulhan Arukh (272.4), writing as follows: "All our women are considered important, but it is not their custom to recline because they follow Raavyah[10] who said that in our time one does not recline." To understand the background of Rema's remark we must look at Darkhei Moshe, his commentary on the Tur, where he related to what had been said by Beit Yosef, commenting as follows: "Indeed, at the present time I have not seen that women recline; perhaps they were inclined to take a lenient approach in accordance with Raavyah, who wrote that these days one does not recline."

This remark sheds light on the problem as perceived by Rema. On the one hand he was aware of the opinion of the Tosafists, that all their women were considered important and obliged to recline at the Seder. On the other hand, the women in Poland, where Rema lived, did not generally recline, as noted above, that not all the Ashkenazi Jews accepted the ruling of the Tosafists. Rema resolved this difficulty by assuming that the women relied on the view of Raavyah, who held that at the present time, when it is not customary to eat reclining throughout the year, there is no obligation even on men to recline on the night of the Seder. The interesting point in Rema's gloss on the Shulhan Arukh is that this assumption of accepting the Raavyah's reasoning now became a fact to explain the reason for the women's practice.

At this point in the evolution of the practice we witness an edifying development. The Ashkenazi Jews continued their practice of women not reclining, following the ruling of Rema,[11] whereas the ruling of the Tosafists was adopted precisely in the Sephardic communities. R. Hayyim Benvenisti, rabbi of Izmir, who was active approximately two generations after R. Joseph Caro, wrote in his commentary on the Passover Haggadah, Pesah Me'ubin (Lakewood, 1997, p. 116): "Important women must recline; and Rabbi Yeroham has written that all our women are important and must recline; likewise in the Mordechai, and this is the practice among Sephardim."

Here we see an interesting development. The Sephardim adopted the view of the Tosafists, and also related to their wives as important women; but they did not accept the view of Rema, that women rely on the opinion of Raavyah as justification not to recline. This line of thought[12] was continued by important Sephardic posekim through the generations.

In the light of our discussion we can now understand the context in which Ha-Seder ha-Arukh (Jerusalem 1991, p. 226), a popular work on the laws and customs pertaining to the Seder, ruled: "Actually we have two different customs: among the Sephardic Jews, women recline; and among the Ashkenazi Jews women do not."

[1] See R. Pelaslier, Hayei Yom be-Yavan be-Tekufat Pericles, Tel Aviv 1967, p. 132; F. R. Cowell, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, London 1961, pp. 25, 79; M. Ish-Shalom, Meir Ayin al Seder ve-Haggadah shel Pesah, Vienna 1895, pp. 16-17; D. Goldsmith, Seder Haggadah shel Pesah al pi Minhag Ashkenaz u-Sefarad, Jerusalem - Tel Aviv 1948, p. 6; Y. Tavori, Pesah Dorot, Tel Aviv 1996, pp. 61-62; Ts. Peleg, Ofi ha-Seuda ha-Yehudit u-Minhageha be-Tekufat ha-Mishnah ve-ha-Talmud, Doctoral Dissertation, Bar Ilan University 1996, pp. 42-47.
[2] Presented as a parenthetical remark, even though these words appear in printed editions, because they are omitted in the manuscripts and the Rishonim. Cf. Dikdukei Soferim, Pesahim, p. 164, n. 1.
[3] Rashi, on Avodah Zarah 25b, s.v. ikka beynayhu, interpreted this as meaning "close to the royalty."
[4] It is worth noting the interesting remark made by R. Moshe Feinstein in Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim 5.20: The Bayit Haddash [a commentary on the Tur; Y.G.] challenges Rashbam regarding the interpretation itself that it is for reason of fear of her husband, for, asks the BaH, even an important woman should be in fear of her husband. His question is not comprehensible; for is it a commandment and the will of the Sages that her husband cast fear upon her regarding things that do not concern him, especially if this fear prevents fullfilment of a mitzva? Nor is it a good thing for a husband to be strict with his wife, for as we see it has been several centuries since husbands have been strict with their wives."
[5] See reference in Note 1 above, p. 17.
[6] Cf. Mordechai, Pesahim 37d; Rabbenu Yeroham, 42d. This view does not appear in the Tosafot printed in the Talmud.
[7] Mordechai, Ketubot 182. The reference is apparently to Rabbi Barukh b. R. Samuel of Mainz, one of the great posekim of his time, active in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.
[8] Z. Falk, "Ma'amad ha-Ishah be-Kehilot Ashkenaz ve-Tsarfat be-Yemei ha-Beinayim," Sinai, 49 (1961), pp. 361-367. L. Finkelstein, Jewish Self-Government in the Middle Ages, New York 1964, pp. 277-279; also cf. I. Agus, The Heroic Age of Franco-German Jewry, New York 1969, pp. 294-305.
[9] Cf. the remarks by Rokeah, cited above, shortly before note 4. One of the great posekim of our time gave an interesting explanation of why the Tosafists ruled that "our women are important." R. Moshe Feinstein (n. 4, above) wrote: "It is not to the point to understand this as meaning that all their women actually became important, so that their husbands had to honor them because of the ways of the world. Rather, it must have been due to their having recognized in the course of time that men have no reason to feel superior to their women; and the women recognized that their husbands had great need of them. The small number of important women that existed in all generations were those who recognized that their husbands had need of them, just as they had need of their husbands, and also realized that their husbands were aware of this."
[10] R. Eliezer b. R. Joel ha-Levy, one of the great Ashkenazi rabbis of the 12th century.
[11] See R. Mordechai Yoffe, Levush ha-Hur, 372.4; R. Moses of Premishl, Matteh Moshe, end of par. 520; R. Solomon Ganzfried, Kitzur Shulhan Arukh, 119.2; R. Israel Meir Cohen, Mishnah Berurah, 372.12: "She need not recline, for ordinarily women never recline." The approach taken by R. Yehiel Michael Epstein is interesting in several respects. In Arukh ha-Shulhan (372.6) he wrote: "In my humble opinion, it is hard to concur (with Rema); for if so, why did the men not cite Raavyah in order to refrain from reclining? Moreover, it is the opinion of only one rabbi. Rather, it appears that they relied on the queries and R. Alfasi according to their approach [that it is not customary for women to recline - Y. G.]; and important women are not numerous, and even if a women is important, she does not insist on being treated as such."
[12] R. Hayyim Joseph David Azulai (Hida), Birkhei Yosef, 372.3; R. Hayyim Yaakov Sofer, Kaf Hayyim, 372.26; R. Hayyim David ha-Levy (Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv), Mekor Hayyim, IV, p. 95, par. 8. In note 14 he remarks, "As the rabbis said, 'An important woman must recline,' and as Rema said, 'All our women are important.'" R. Ovadiah Yosef, Hazon Ovadiah, II, p. 120: "It is customary among in this regard."