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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Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Tzav (Shabbat ha-Gadol) 5762/ March 23,
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
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,
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
Must women, too, recline at the Seder table? An explicit
answer to this question is given in the Talmud (Pesahim
woman (at her husband's table)
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
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.
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
but Rabbenu Manoah,
., 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
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.
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
In this regard, the remarks of M. Ish-Shalom should be
"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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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,
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
was continued by important
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."
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
1895, pp. 16-17; D. Goldsmith, Seder Haggadah shel Pesah al pi Minhag
, Jerusalem - Tel Aviv 1948, p. 6; Y. Tavori,
, 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.
Presented as a
parenthetical remark, even though these words appear in printed editions,
because they are omitted in the manuscripts and the Rishonim
, p. 164, n. 1.
Rashi, on Avodah
25b, s.v. ikka beynayhu
, interpreted this as meaning
"close to the royalty."
It is worth noting the
interesting remark made by R. Moshe Feinstein in Igrot Moshe
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."
See reference in Note 1
above, p. 17.
37d; Rabbenu Yeroham, 42d. This view does not appear in the
Tosafot printed in the Talmud.
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
and early 13th
"Ma'amad ha-Ishah be-Kehilot Ashkenaz ve-Tsarfat be-Yemei
, 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
York 1969, pp. 294-305.
Cf. the remarks by
, cited above, shortly before note 4. One of the great
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
R. Eliezer b. R. Joel
ha-Levy, one of the great Ashkenazi rabbis of the 12th
See R. Mordechai Yoffe,
, 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
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
R. Hayyim Joseph David
Azulai (Hida), Birkhei Yosef
, 372.3; R. Hayyim Yaakov Sofer, Kaf
, 372.26; R. Hayyim David ha-Levy (Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv), Mekor
, 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
, II, p. 120: "It is customary among in this