As we tell the Exodus story during the seder, we teach about our freedom not only verbally — through reciting the text of the Haggadah — but also actively, including reclining at key places. Women, who are obligated in the various aspects of the seder, do not recline in many Ashkenazic communities. Why would they refrain from this, alone among the obligations of the evening?

Women and Reclining

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As we tell the Exodus story during the seder, we teach about our freedom not only verbally — through reciting the text of the Haggadah — but also actively, including reclining at key places. Women, who are obligated in the various aspects of the seder, do not recline in many Ashkenazic communities. Why would they refrain from this, alone among the obligations of the evening?

I. Women’s Leniency

As we recently discussed (link), the Talmud exempts women from reclining except “important” women who are either independent or free from household chores. According to Tosafos, all women in their day — and certainly today — are “important”. Yet, they still do not recline in many communities, and as codified by the Rema in Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 472:4). Is this not a violation of the Talmudic ruling that “important” women must recline?

Rema bases the leniency for women on the Ra’avya’s ruling that reclining today is not a sign of freedom. In Mishnaic times, the wealthy elite reclined while eating. However, times have changed and reclining no longer demonstrates freedom. Yet, why do women rely on this Ra’avya and not men? Either all should lean or none. Why the gender distinction?

II. Two Aspects of Reclining

R. Mordechai Willig (Am Mordekhai, Seder Mo’ed 29:3) quotes an explanation of this widespread, codified practice which posits that there are two aspects to reclining. The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 20:19) notes the ambiguous language of Exodus 12:13. What is normally translated as “But God led the people about” can also be translated as “And God caused the nation to recline.” By reclining during the seder, we are commemorating this aspect of the Exodus story. Reclining is a remembrance of the miracle (zekher la-nes).

On the other hand, reclining is also a publicization of the miracle (pirsum ha-nes). By acting like free people, we are demonstrating to the world that we were taken out of Egypt. If God had not taken the Jews out of Egypt, we and our fathers and our fathers’ fathers would still be slaves and would be unable to recline at the seder.

III. Reclining Today

While authorities disagreed which of these two reasons — commemorating or publicizing the miracle — obligate us to recline, we act strictly and follow both. However, according to the second reason (pirsum ha-nes), reclining only serves to publicize the miracle if free people today recline. Since they do not, we need not recline. According to the first reason, however, reclining still fulfills the function of commemorating the miracle.

Women’s obligation in the commandments of the night come from the reason of “Af hein hayu be-oso ha-nes – they too were part of the same miracle.” R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains that this reason only applies to mitzvos that publicize a miracle, such as reading the megillah and lighting Chanukah candles, but not mitzvos that commemorate a miracle, such as sitting in a sukkah.

Therefore, it stands to reason that women are only obligated to recline because of the second reason (pirsum ha-nes) while men are obligated because of both. Since leaning only has meaning today according to the first reason (zekher la-nes) and not the second, men must lean but women need not.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

49 comments

  1. >While authorities disagreed which of these two reasons — commemorating or publicizing the miracle — obligate us to recline, we act strictly and follow both.

    What does that mean? How would it look different if we followed one or the other?

  2. You mean what’s the nafka minah? A woman is only obligated because of pirsum ha-nes. A poor person is only obligated because of zekher la-nes (because it’s not derekh cheirus when a poor person reclines — Tosafos, Pesachim 99b). We hold both are obligated, if not for the Ra’avya.

  3. The only woman’s obligation that is explicitly from “af hen …” is the 4 cups of wine. Matzah, the gemara derives from “veryone obligated in avoiding chametz is required to eat matzo” The psekim argue about the difference and the reach of “af hen ….” Among the explanations offered is “af hen ….” is limited to Rabbinic commands, and perhaps only those rabbinic commands of pirsumei nisa. or perhaps that it creates a rabbinic level of oblication on a biblical command.

    Women are fully obligated on a Biblical level in all the (biblical )mitzvot of the seder night. Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 21) suggests that this is because of these mitzvot emphasize the foundational events of our people which for for us miraculous proof of God’s existence, power and providence.

  4. Unfortunately, I’m not surprised that such tortured logic is used to exclude women for a religious practice that they are not excluded from. So, to connect this to the posting on MO, one aspect of MO AISI is that its emphasis is on including, rather than excluding women, and if it has to use tortured logic, it uses it for inclusionary purposes. And that’s why many women in MO homes who follow Ashkenazic minhag DO recline at the seder

  5. Mike S: R. Willig has 3 chapters on pirsumei nisa, full of rishonim and acharonim.

    Joseph: Even the MO have to try to understand the Rema, if nothing else then as part of Talmud Torah.

  6. So the nafka minah is that Gil (and Steve B) are not MO 🙂

  7. Somewhat off topic – where’s the image from?

  8. When women are not obligated to do something, it can be considered inappropriate for them to do so. Perhaps additional principles are applied to deem it inappropriate. Even if women need not recline, have reasons been introduced to discourage or forbid them from reclining?

  9. However many chapters R. Willig has on pirsumei nisa, it remains true that women’s obligation in matza and sippur yitziyat mitzraim (and the various mitzvot of korban pesach b’zman habayit) is d’oraita and not because of “af hen….”

  10. How much pseudo-lomdus is needed to exclude women from a nice minhag? What is the big deal? Women who want to lean can, women who don’t want to don’t have to.

  11. Lomdus aside, if you have the temerity to ask your wife if she feels liberated on Pesach, you will probably regret the answer. Truth is that women typically work very hard in preparing for Pesach. If they really reclined at the seder they would be prone to falling asleep. Of course, men usually don’t really recline. Leaning on a pillow stuffed in back of a dining room chair isn’t comfortable or a real sign of freedom or ease. It’s more of a reminder of ancient practice rather than a real fulfillment of the rabbinic injunction. We, however, do what we can, but there might not be a real need for working women to participate. On the other hand, we teach the children to ask about reclining with the language of ‘kulanu mesubim’. Are women not part of ‘kulanu’?

  12. “Rema bases the leniency for women on the Ra’avya’s ruling that reclining today is not a sign of freedom.” “Yet, why do women rely on this Ra’avya and not men? Either all should lean or none. Why the gender distinction?”

    although it is implied but not clearly stated:
    Both the Ra’avya (Chapter 525) and the Maharil (18:2) recognize the awkwardness and outdateness of this form of eating and instruct us to eat and drink in our standard manner – men and women-, but the Shulchan Arukh does not adopt their position and instead mandates standardized heseiba (see Orach Chayim 472).

  13. “On the other hand, reclining is also a publicization of the miracle (pirsum ha-nes). a very doubtful statement. reclinning per different gemeras – in pesachim regarding an ani, a student lifnei rabo, and women leads to a conclusion that there may be 2 issues operating (and not pirsunai nisah): reclining generates a personal act of cherut- freedom – or in a cherut less society (where reclining does not generate or show freedom) one can mandate reclining for a zacher to our ancestors that did experience freedom through reclining.

  14. Try looking at the issue from another perspective. When you sit down to the Seder, with your extended family – who is up and running around to bring things to the Seder table – the men or the women? If you brought in a serving person, who is doing all the running around, then all the men and women are at the Seder table, similar to what you see in the picture posted next to this blog. But if only the women are going to and fro – from table to kitchen, then the situation is probably closer to what Chazal mentioned. Therefore, it wasn’t that they are trying to prevent women from leaning – it’s just that they recognized that sitting as described in the picture, and being in charge of serving is hard and therefore they exempted women from this difficulty.
    When people take exemptions as an excuse to forbid something, THEN it becomes IMHO a problem, b/c the essence of most exemptions is usually to make life easier for someone, and no more than that.

  15. “While authorities disagreed which of these two reasons — commemorating or publicizing the miracle — obligate us to recline, we act strictly and follow both.”

    please point to a gemera or rishon that states this: maybe remembrance of yeziet mitzraim but not pirsunai the ness. also, is hallel not sung – shirah – on seder night as pirsunei haness? (its a question since i cannot look it up where i am) yet women are obligates at the seder?

  16. I’d like to note that the picture at the head of this posting – which shows individuals leaning on their stomachs – is problematic halakhically. The Talmud (Pesachim 108a) states that leaning Prakdan is invalid. It is a Mahloket haRishonim whether Prakdan is flat on one’s Stomach, or flat on one’s back, or either. Shulhan Arukh, OH, 472:3 rules that neither is proper and one should lean on ones left side.

  17. Re SLB’s hypothesis as to why women were not required to lean. The mishna discusses the Shamash, who served the seder to others. I do not recall his being patur from hesebah.

  18. SLB – Just a thought – maybe get up and help bring things to the table.

  19. SLB – Just a thought – maybe get up and help bring things to the table.

  20. “Women, who are obligated in the various aspects of the seder, do not recline in many Ashkenazic communities”

    Which Ashkenazic communities say that women should recline?

  21. To be clear, no one says that women can’t lean. It’s a question of whether they must or may.

  22. ACP: Those communities (or families) that follow the instructions in the haggadot, and were never taught that women *don’t* recline. IOW, probably most, particularly among BTs. The red-and-yellow Goldberg haggadah doesn’t make a distinction, neither does the Artscroll Family Haggadah or most of the giveaway haggadot (Maxwell House, etc.)

    Gil, IH – interesting interplay in view of a R Brill lecture I was just listening to on “Varieties of Orthodoxy”. Agudist and MO have switched places in the past 50 years. Where MO used to be the religion of Rabbi Doctors and philosophy and ethics, vs. Agudist being about Torah and halacha, they’ve changed. MO calls itself Centrism now, and is all about Torah learning and being “halachic” rather than about doing lots of mitzvot, while the “engaged yeshivish” now put out lots of books of pop psychology (R Twerski), pop history (R Wein), self-help (Miriam Adahan), etc.

    “So the nafka mina is that Gil (and Steve B.) are not MO” – no, they’re Centrist, which even Harry the Centrist has trouble distinguishing from LW Yeshivish.

  23. “Women are fully obligated on a Biblical level in all the (biblical )mitzvot of the seder night. ”

    Also the Rabbinic mitzvot: Arba Kosot, Maror, and Hallel.

    “Even the MO have to try to understand the Rema, if nothing else then as part of Talmud Torah.”

    True. Even when we ignore him, as many of us do on Seder night when we recite Hallel in shul.

  24. R’Moshe Harari in MIkrai Kodesh Hilchot LeilHaseder brings the opinion of R Mordecai Eliyahu ZTZL that in his opinion even Ashkenaziot should do haseva since their ptur is mikoach haminhag and it is better for them to be yotzei kol hadaiot especially since the ReMA is of the opinion that they are stam chashuvot.

  25. >since their ptur is mikoach haminhag

    Thereby evincing an ignorance of, or total disregard for, the place of minhag in Ashkenazi culture and psika. We don’t have a well-edited Talmud that codifies our derech. But we do have minhag. Which, even for 19th-century machmirim like the Chayei Adam and Aruch haShulchan, overrides logical psak.

  26. For some additional context on the possible origins (and the role of women by implication) …

    “In Homer’s time men still feasted sitting, but gradually they slid from chairs to couches, taking as their ally relaxation and ease, leaning on their left arm whilst they were eating. In Biblical times, a similar development took place and has been traced by E. Baneth in his Commentary on the Mishnah Pesahim. Yet it is clear that those Biblical records which refer to reclining do so only in connection with royal circles and a degenerate aristocracy. The Haggadah, on the other hand, and its tannaitic sources reflect general social changes of the time and allow, nay, command extension of upper-class prerogatives even to the poorest in Israel. [Footnote: For reclining at ordinary meals in tannaitic times cf. Tosefta Berackhoth iv: 8 f]”.

    From: “The Influence of Symposia Literature on the Literary Form of the Pesah Haggadah” by Siegfried Stein in The Journal of Jewish Studies (1957) available at http://livelyseders.com/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/influenceofsymposialit.pdf

    This material (including sources) is also covered in Bokser’s “The Origins of the Seder”. I have not yet reviewed my Goldschmidt (acquired a few weeks ago in Israel), nor have I yet seen the new “A Passover Haggadah: Go Forth and Learn” by R. David Silber (http://www.jewishpub.org/product/9780827609259/a-passover-haggadah).

  27. >it is better for them to be yotzei kol hadaiot

    Why is it better for anyone to be yotzei le-khol ha-de’ot?

  28. “True. Even when we ignore him, as many of us do on Seder night when we recite Hallel in shul.”

    Where do Ashkenazim ignore the Rema? In Toronto, most shuls daven Nusach Sfard and so due to the Chassidishe influence, say Hallel before Hallel. I only know that shuls and batei medrash in Toronto that say Hallel in Toronto do so after Aleinu so that those without the minhag leave. How is that not following the Rema? Because one is Ashkenazi by birth one who comes from a Chassidishe background has to follow the Rema? You do know we don’t follow the opinion of the Rema lock stock and barrel.

    On this topic, the Sefer Halichos Bas Yisroel has an extensive footnote on this, including the view of RSZA, which I just sawy the other day, and if I recall correctly he says that men are to lean m’ikar hadin while women don’t lean since today they would lean m’minhag.

  29. Hirhurim: To be clear, no one says that women can’t lean. It’s a question of whether they must or may.

    The gemara itself does not say that women can’t lean only that they are not required to in order to fulfill the mitzvah. But note that the question is posed specifically about a woman in the presence of her husband and her exemption depends upon the power relation with her husband (per Rashi). An important woman must lean because of her status vis a vis her husband is different. It has nothing to do with who is serving the food.

    MDJ:Re SLB’s hypothesis as to why women were not required to lean. The mishna discusses the Shamash, who served the seder to others. I do not recall his being patur from hesebah.

    Absolutely: near the bottom of BT Pes. 108a this is asked explicitly and the gemara concludes that a shamash must fulfill his obligation to eat matza while leaning.

  30. MJ:
    Then SLB’s theory will not work. Though it would still be good for the men to help serve, as Anonymous2 pointed out.

  31. Coincidentally, from the Voz Is Neias piece “The Minhag Of No Matzah On Pesach” that Gil posted:

    “Interestingly, women and boys under bar-mitzvah have historically not kept this minhag even in families where the men of the house would refrain from eating Matzah. The women of the house would actually wash and then the Seudah would commence. The Rebbe said that he remembers in his home, his father Rav Yoizef Friedlander, the previous Liska Rebbe ZT”L (of the first Chassidic Rebbeim in Boro Park) would make it a point of waiting until his Rebbetzin washed and ate her Matzah before continuing his seudah. Perhaps says the Rebbe, that symbolically, while not going into the halachic ramifications, the traditional washing on Matzah is being fulfilled in the household through the women.”

  32. I had the pleasure of being invited to the seder of a choshuve rov many times in the 1980s. He would bring a sofa to the seder table, and when it came time to lean, he would stretch out on the sofa.

    I’ve often thought that he was the only person I’ve ever seen actually do hesebah. Most of us just twist our bodies in our chairs in an uncomfortable way. That’s certainly not what the Mishnah had in mind when it said that even the poorest of Jews must lean. It meant that we should do something princely and luxurious.

  33. Nebech on the MO for posts such as the many above.

  34. “I had the pleasure of being invited to the seder of a choshuve rov many times in the 1980s. He would bring a sofa to the seder table, and when it came time to lean, he would stretch out on the sofa.”

    My Bubbie a”h told me that in the alte haim, her father hy”d would have the beds brought to the table for haseibah. Of course, she didn’t tell me whether she personally performed haseibah or not 🙂

  35. “why is it better for anyone to be yotzei lchol ha-de’ot”

    S. – you know very well this is not a novel approach. Brachos 39b and shabbos 61a both say regarding the opinions there – “yerei shamoyim yotzei yedei shneihem”.
    So does sh”a regarding shnayim mikra. The question is when to apply it.

  36. Yasher Koach to R Gil for a wonderful post and Kudos for his defense of the same in the face of many who, Lshitasam, view the demands of feminism as trumping Lomdus.

    Like it or not, many Rishonim and Acharonim view Ah Hen Hayu Boso HaNes as a sevara that works only a rabbinic level, and which has no impact on a Mitzvah Min HaTorah. This is based on the Hekesh in the Talmud in Pesachim that equates those who are prohibited from eating Chametz with the Mitzvas Aseh of Acilas Matzah, thus imposing the same Torah obligation on men and women.

    (FWIW, R Willig has a wonderful explanation why women are only obligated in Shmias HaMegillah, as opposed to Krias HaMegillah, based on the view of the Avznei Nezer that the reading at night is because of Af Hen Hayu Boso HaNes, and men being Chayav in the morning because th Kriah in the morning is a Kiyum in the Milchemes Mchiyas Amalek, which women are exempt from.)

    IMO, it is prima facie incorrect to view such Chilukim and Halachic categories as Zecer HaNes and Pirsum HaNes as “tortured logic”, “pseudo lomdus”, when in fact, they are very important elements of classifying Halachic principles.

  37. Just curious-R Gil mentioned that Hasebah for women revolves around considerations of “must or may”, as opposed to Mutar or Assur. Would those who advocate that women should recline also take the same position that men should wear a four cornered garment so that they can fullfil the Mitzah of Tzitis?

  38. There is still a requirement to eat the matzah and drink the kosot “derech cheirut.” Whether or not leaning fulfills that today, if a member of the family is eating matza or drinking wine while walking around serving or clearing (something I have observed on several occasions), that is surely not derech cheirut.

    Steve, the logic is perhps not tortured, but the tzvei dinim in haseba, deriving a halakhic distinction based on a homily, is not the way halakhic practices are established. So R. Willig’s vort might be a clever justification, but the chance that it is the reasoning behind the Rema’s ruling is farfetched.

  39. Just curious-R Gil mentioned that Hasebah for women revolves around considerations of “must or may”, as opposed to Mutar or Assur. Would those who advocate that women should recline also take the same position that men should wear a four cornered garment so that they can fullfil the Mitzah of Tzitis

    What? Did you mean “women should wear”?

  40. >IMO, it is prima facie incorrect to view such Chilukim and Halachic categories as Zecer HaNes and Pirsum HaNes as “tortured logic”, “pseudo lomdus”, when in fact, they are very important elements of classifying Halachic principles.

    You know what’s also a classic element of rabbinic discourse? Dismissing chilukim as tortured logic.

  41. “You know what’s also a classic element of rabbinic discourse? Dismissing chilukim as tortured logic.”

    The same rabbis who dismissed other rabbis’ chilukim made plenty of chilukim of their own, you know.

  42. >The same rabbis who dismissed other rabbis’ chilukim made plenty of chilukim of their own, you know.

    I know (ironic, huh?), but that’s not the point. Steve was defending a particular lomdus on the grounds that chilukim and so forth are part of halachic analysis. That doesn’t make this particular lomdus any good.

  43. MJ wrote in part:

    “Whether or not leaning fulfills that today, if a member of the family is eating matza or drinking wine while walking around serving or clearing (something I have observed on several occasions), that is surely not derech cheirut”

    There is an easy solution for this situation-make sure that everyone is eating matza and drinking wine at the same time.

  44. MJ wrote:

    “Steve, the logic is perhps not tortured, but the tzvei dinim in haseba, deriving a halakhic distinction based on a homily, is not the way halakhic practices are established”

    WADR, a Hekesh that equates the obligations of men and women both to eat Matzah and prohibits both genders from eating Chametz as well as distinctions rooted in the definitions of Pirsum HaNes and Lzcer HaNes are IMO hardly a “homily”, but rather IMO the Alef Bes of how Halachic practices are developed in TSBP. If you want to see more about the strenghth of a Hekesh vs a Gzerah Shaveh , etc, I would suggest the entries in the ET as spending some considerable time with the Peschicha HaKolleles of the Pri Megadim.

  45. What gives Gil the right to employ the 13 middot of R. Yishmael? Can he make a gezera shava too?

    Rather, I don’t think he was trying to make a hekesh. He is not a Tanna, nor does he think he is.

  46. Anonymous-see R Willig’s sefer. R Willig was pointing out that the Talmudic passages in question work from and are explicated by a Hekesh. That was precisely R Gil’s point.

  47. MJ wrote:

    “Just curious-R Gil mentioned that Hasebah for women revolves around considerations of “must or may”, as opposed to Mutar or Assur. Would those who advocate that women should recline also take the same position that men should wear a four cornered garment so that they can fullfil the Mitzah of Tzitis

    What? Did you mean “women should wear”?”

    MJ-WADR, my intent was that I wondered whether the rabbinic or male advocates of women reclining at the Seder would take such a stance with respect to the observance of Tzitis by men.

  48. I stumbled onto this excerpt from Safrai’s Hagadat Chazal on Erev Pesach: http://www.kolech.com/show.asp?id=18876

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