Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Passover 5779
This essay is sponsored by Honey & Sol Neier and Claire & Sam Krumper in memory of Jack Levine.
Reclining through History: How Outmoded Cultural Norms become Religion
Someone attending a Passover Seder for the first time would likely be taken aback by the custom of reclining on one’s left side while drinking wine and eating matzah. To the uninitiated, it would appear that the Seder participants are slouching, exhibiting poor table manners, and needlessly risking stains to the tablecloth and their expensive holiday clothes. Yet the practice of reclining (הסבה), today an oddity, was once a cultural norm not specific to Passover. This essay is an historical overview of הסבה in the Jewish tradition and will attempt to explain how and why a mundane cultural norm was transformed into a Judaically meaningful custom that survived long after the mundane practice fell out of favor.
The Mishnah mandates that all Jewish men, even the poorest of the poor who rely on the communal charity plate for their daily sustenance, must eat at the Seder while in a reclining position (Mishnah Pesahim 10:1). The Mishnah’s novel point is that even people who by dint of their socioeconomic status would never recline at a meal, are, nonetheless, at the Seder, required to do so. In an otherwise socially stratified world, the celebration of Passover becomes an egalitarian island in time (at least for emancipated men).
Scholars have long known that the rabbinically mandated Seder must be understood in its original Greco-Roman context. Eating a formal meal while reclining on a couch and with foodstuffs brought to the diner on a movable table was standard practice for the upper classes in the first century CE Near East. That Jews did so as well ought not to be understood as their deliberately copying heathens. Rather, in matters having no bearing on religion, Jews simply were part of a larger society.
Can the practice of reclining be traced back to the Bible? When attempting to deceive his father and receive the blessings intended for Esau, Jacob said to Isaac “pray sit up and eat of my game (Genesis 27:19).” Scripture notes that after Joseph’s brothers threw him in a pit “then they sat down to a meal (37:25).” During the episode of the Golden Calf, the sinners “sat down to eat and drink (Exodus 32:6).” While David was in hiding, King Saul “sat down to partake of the meal… his usual place on the seat by the wall (I Samuel 20:24-25).” For the above Pentateuchal verses, Targum Onkelos replaced the Hebrew word for sitting י-ש-ב with the Aramaic אסחר, meaning “to recline.” Radak, commenting on the verse about King Saul, cited Targum as proof that in Biblical antiquity it was customary to recline at formal meals. He then added, almost parenthetically, that we find in rabbinic literature an indication that in the days of the sages it was still customary to recline. Radak’s misreading is apparent to the critical eye. Reclining was unknown in Biblical antiquity, and that is precisely why it is never mentioned in the early books of Scripture. The Aramaic translators, living centuries later and in an era when reclining was common practice, retrojected their experiences onto the distant past. Not surprisingly, it is only in the chronologically later books of Scripture describing events in the eastern provinces that we find the first references to reclining (see Ezekiel 23:41). The best-known example is in the Megillah. “Haman was lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined (Esther 7:8).”
By the rabbinic period, reclining had become such an established practice that it influenced halakhah. When a group of people sit down to eat, each person must recite his or her own pre-eating blessing. If, however, they recline as group then it is sufficient for one person to recite the pre-eating blessing on behalf of everyone assembled (Mishnah Berakhot 6:6). The act of reclining had the power to transform a meal from the informal consumption of food into a formal dinner unifying all its participants into a cohesive group.
Rabbinic literature offers an indication of what types of people reclined. The High Priest was served the mourner’s meal while reclining on a stool (Mishnah Sanhedrin 2:1). The king would be served his mourner’s meal while reclining on a couch (2:3). Not only did the ecclesiastical and political elites recline. So did the religio-intellectual elite. A story is told of Rabban Gamliel and the Elders who reclined for their holiday meal while on a mission to Rome (Tosefta Yom Tov 2:12). Rabbi Akiba and his colleagues who reclined on the Seder night in Bnei Brak comported themselves in a manner befitting their position and would have done the same even had it been a holiday other than Passover.
Cultural norms change with time. It can be discerned from a careful reading of the Babylonian Talmud that, by the late third century, reclining was no longer a popular practice. The Talmud rules that for eating matzah one must recline, but that for eating bitter herbs one need not recline. Seemingly contradictory statements were attributed to Rav Nachman about whether one needs to recline while drinking wine. The contradiction was resolved by distinguishing between the first two cups of wine and the latter two cups. Which pair of cups necessitated reclining was itself debated between those who regard the beginning of the Seder as the primary moment of liberation and those who think that only at the conclusion of the Seder has emancipation been achieved. The Talmud rejects the validity of reclining done on one’s back or on one’s right side. It further noted that reclining on the right side is dangerous and can result in death by choking. The Talmud questions whether a woman reclines in the presence of her husband, a son in the presence of his father, and a student in the presence of his teacher. The answers are: Women are generally exempt, though important women must recline. A son reclines. A student must ask permission before reclining. Lastly, a waiter must recline while eating an olive’s-bulk of matzah, with failure to recline negating the validity of his act of eating (Pesahim 108a).
The Gemara addresses questions about which food items necessitate reclining, what is the proper method of reclining, and whether certain people in delicate social settings should recline. The fact that these questions are posed indicates that reclining was no longer a popular custom the contours of which would be familiar to anyone living in that culture. People continued to recline at the Seder only because they believed it to be halakhically necessary. The most compelling evidence from the Amoraic period that reclining was no longer normal is a passage in the Yerushalmi about whether one needs intent to fulfill the mitzvah when eating matzah. The Yerushalmi rules that even according to the view that Biblical commandments generally require intent, one who eats matzah while reclining is presumed to have had the requisite intent because his actions bespeak intent to fulfill the commandment (Yerushalmi Pesahim 37d). Why? Because, at that time, nobody reclined other than in fulfillment of his religious obligations.
Mishnah Pesahim 10:4 records an early version of the child’s מה נשתנה “Why is this night different from all other nights?” There are various recensions of this Mishnah, some with only three questions, others with four. The questions pertain to unleavened bread, bitter herbs, dipping, and the consumption of only roasted meat. None of the recensions has a question about reclining. Why not? Because when this section of the Haggadah was composed, reclining was still a cultural norm. To recline on the Seder night would not have piqued the curiosity of the child. The earliest record of a question about reclining is in the Seder Rav Amram Gaon, composed in the ninth century.
The preservation of an outmoded cultural norm in the context of ritual observance forced the sages to come up with specifically Jewish justifications for the practice. The most obvious symbolic meaning for הסבה suitable for Passover is that reclining is a manifestation of the Israelite transition from slavery to freedom. Rabbi Levi contrasted the behavior of slaves who eat while standing with the comportment of emancipated persons who can afford to leisurely recline while dining (Yerushalmi Pesahim 37b). A late Midrashic work, citing an halakhic concept more famously associated with Purim and Hanukah, regards reclining as a means by which to publicize the miraculous character of the Exodus פרסומי ניסא (Sekhel Tov Exodus 12).
A widely held understanding of הסבה is that on the Seder night Jews are supposed to behave in royal fashion (Rambam Commentary on Mishnah Pesahim 10:1). This notion is not explicitly found in the Talmud, though several Rishonim found support for it from related Talmudic passages. Scripture states: “And the LORD spoke unto Aaron, Behold, I also have given thee the charge of mine heave offerings of all the hallowed things of the children of Israel; unto thee have I given them by reason of the anointing למשחה (Numbers 18:8).” The Talmud teaches that priestly emoluments of meat must be eaten roasted and with mustard in royal fashion (Hullin 132b). The word למשחה, which alludes to the anointed status of Aaronid priests, is understood to mean that the consumption of priestly gifts must be done in a manner befitting the other category of anointed persons, kings. The Talmud elsewhere teaches that sacrificial meat must be eaten on a relatively -- but not entirely -- full stomach על השובע (Temurah 23a), consistent with royal behavior of not displaying gluttony. In this vein, the halakhists understood the requirement for all Israelites to eat the paschal lamb on a relatively full stomach; the annual rite must be performed in a regal manner (Mordechai Pesahim 611, Or Zarua 2:256).
In the Midrash, the Passover-royalty connection is tied explicitly to the practice of reclining. Scripture states: “But God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness by the Red Sea (Exodus 13:18).” The word ויסב, meaning that God turned the journeying Israelites in a different direction and led them on a circuitous path, is homiletically interpreted to mean that God caused the Israelites to journey through the desert while reclining on couches like kings (Numbers Rabbah 1:2). A loose reading of the Hebrew text, as is the style of Aggadah, allowed the homilist to transform the image of the escaping former slaves from that of a ragtag bunch trudging through the desert to aristocrats being transported while leisurely relaxing on sedan chairs. A late Midrash work asserts that Exodus 13:18 is a Scriptural basis for the practice of reclining at the Seder (Midrash Aggadah Exodus 13).
The symbolic explanation for הסבה neatly explains why we recline for matzah but not for the bitter herbs. Matzah reminds us of the haste with which the Israelites departed Egypt, while the bitter herbs remind of the oppressive nature of the centuries of servitude. Yet if the symbolic explanation for הסבה is actually a later Amoraic accretion, there must be some non-symbolic explanation for why certain of the Seder foods and beverages were consumed while reclining and others were not. The answer is found in the rabbinic description of banquet format and etiquette (Tosefta Berakhot 4:8). Similar to a contemporary wedding with its smorgasbord in the small hall followed by the main course in the large ballroom, the classical era banquet began with an hors d’oeuvre hour in the antechamber followed by the main course in the dining hall. During the hors d’oeuvre hour, one sat upright on chairs; during the main course, one reclined on a couch. Accordingly, the salad courses, which during the Seder included both Karpas and Marror as well as the first two cups of wine, were had while seated upright. The bread, meat course, and final two cups of wine were consumed while reclining. Whereas the Talmud struggled to find a symbolic distinction between the first and second pair of wine cups, the non-symbolic approach presents an irrefutable practical distinction.
[Reclining is not the only Seder custom that began as a cultural norm or that served a functional, mundane purpose and was only later infused with particularly Judaic meaning. At first, charoset was nothing more than a condiment used to blunt the potentially health-hazardous flavor of the bitter herbs (Pesahim 115b). The consensus Tannaitic view was that charoset was not a mitzvah, meaning that its purpose was areligious. Rabbi Elazar bar Zadok dissented and regarded charoset as a mitzvah item. The Amoraim advanced a range of theories about the symbolic value of charoset. It is a memorial to the apple tree under which Israelite women gave birth in Egypt, or to the straw and clay used to make bricks for Pharaoh’s storehouses, or to the blood of the plagues (Yerushalmi Pesahim 37d, Pesahim 116a). In Tannaitic and early Amoraic times, the two cooked foods on the Seder plate were no more than menu items for dinner. Whereas a weekday meal consists of one cooked food, a joyous holiday feast necessitates the presence of a second cooked portion (see Mishnah Ta’anit 4:7). Only in the late third century did the Amoraim begin to infuse those foodstuffs with symbolic significance, one food item being a memorial to the Hagigah sacrifice and the other to the Paschal Lamb (Pesahim 114b). At first, there was no symbolic significance to the requirement of drinking four cups of wine at the Seder. The intent of the enactment merely was to require people to imbibe more than they ordinarily would. Four cups on Passover eve is just one more than the three had at other holiday meals (Kiddush, beverage while eating, Grace after Meals). In the Amoraic period the sages offered several explanations that gave the four cups Judaic meaning. The cups correspond to the four expression of redemption, the four cups of Pharaoh in the butler’s dream, the four imperial kingdoms that will rule over Israel, the four cups of retribution the heathens will drink at the apocalypse, and the four cups of consolation God will serve to Israel in the messianic period (Yerushalmi Pesahim 37c).]
Rambam codified the law of הסבה in accordance with the guidelines set down in the Talmud, adding only that one who reclines for the entirety of the meal is considered praiseworthy (Hilkhot Hametz u’Matzah 7:8). One can detect in Rambam’s formulation an awareness that although the halakhah developed such that הסבה became associated with ritually obligatory food items, in its essence הסבה is not about specific foodstuffs but is a manner of comportment appropriate for the entire evening.
The medieval Ashkenazi decisors recognized that dining practices had evolved over the centuries and that, at least in one respect, halakhah needed to evolve as well. Whereas the Mishnah rule that a pre-eating blessing recited by one person on behalf of an assembled group is effective only if everyone reclines, Tosafot ruled that it is sufficient for everyone to be seated at the same table (Tosafot Berakhot 42a). This explains how at our contemporary Sabbath meals the head of the household is able to make the Ha-Motzi blessing on behalf of all present.
If halakhah does take into account changing cultural patterns, is it still necessary to recline at the Seder? Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan (12th century Germany) ruled that because reclining is no longer done as a mundane table habit, it is no longer necessary to perform הסבה at the Seder (Ra’avan Pesahim). His grandson, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel Ha-Levy, too, ruled that reclining at the Seder was no longer necessary (Ra’avya Pesahim 525). Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin (early 15th century Germany) commented that because of the evolution in dining habits, reclining no longer is a display of freedom; rather, reclining gives the negative appearance that one has a stomach ailment (Maharil Haggadah). Other halakhists were loath to do away with reclining. Rabbi Meir ben Yekutiel of Rothenberg (late 13th century) dismissed Ra’avya’s leniency as “one man’s opinion” דעת יחידא (Hagahot Maimoniyot Hametz u”Matzah 7:7).
Rabbi Yosef Karo ruled that הסבה is still mandatory and that he who eats matzah or drinks wine without reclining has to repeat the act of consumption in the appropriate physical position (Shulhan Arukh Orach Chaim 472:7). Rabbi Moses Isserles (Rema) noted that because reclining is no longer a cultural norm, if one forgot to recline it is acceptable to rely on Ra’avya’s lenient ruling post factum, thereby obviating the need for repeat eating or drinking.
Rema also cited Ra’avya’s ruling in addressing whether women must recline. The Talmud, consistent with what is known about Greco-Roman culture, ruled that women need not recline. In first century CE it become popular for aristocratic women unbeholden to a husband to recline at formal banquets. Halakhah recognized this cultural change and ruled that “important” women must recline. Despite his assertion that Ashkenazi Jewry regard all of their womenfolk as “important,” Rema noted that in fact women do not recline at the Seder. In his commentary on the Tur, Rema acknowledged that he did not know why women do not recline, but he found support for the non-practice from Ra’avya’s leniency (Darkei Moshe Orach Chaim 472). In his glosses to the Shulhan Arukh, however, Rema expressly claims that women rely upon the Ra’avya. An honest assessment of the matter would concede that the women simply behaved as they did without any thought about halakhic legitimacy. They never reclined, not excluding on Passover. The Rema, ever the halakhist trying to justify existing practice and avoid besmirching his constituents, found an earlier authority upon whom to rely.
Why did הסבה survive? More broadly, why do any outmoded cultural norms become permanently encrusted in the fabric of Jewish religious observance? I would argue that the codification of the Oral Law played a major role. So long as halakhah was transmitted orally, incidental details of passing significance could be dropped without anyone’s taking much notice. However, once a practice is mentioned in a canonical work, it is difficult to remove it from the living experience of Judaism. Why did late third century Amoraim recline? Because the Mishnah said so.
As we recline at the Seder let us feel emancipated, take comfort in the durability of Judaic practices, and be inspired by the ability of our greatest teachers to give timeless meaning to our ancient rites.