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.