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Halakhot of Pesach -
Lesson 17

The Connection Between Reclining and Freedom

Rav Moshe Taragin
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The Pesach Seder experience challenges us not merely to recall the events of our departure from Egypt or to capture in ritual the various memories of that great day; as the mishna (Pesachim 10:5) teaches, each Jew must recreate the imminent sense of liberation and imagine himself or herself as undergoing the same process of emancipation.  The Torah gives us several mitzvot to help us reenact the Exodus, Yetziat Mitzrayim, and Chazal complement these mitzvot with several ideas of their own.  One feature which Chazal knit into the fabric of the Seder is the mitzva of heseiba, reclining. 


Presumably, this practice evokes a personal attitude of cherut, sovereignty and freedom.  By reclining during eating, a person demonstrates - to oneself as well as to others - his or her newfound state of liberty.  In fact, the Rambam prefaces his description of heseiba with the aforementioned directive to recreate the Exodus experience.  Evidently, heseiba undoes the rigid and controlled dining environment, displaying as well as generating autonomy.


If this were true, we might question the continuing relevance of heseiba.  Most modern cultures do not view this form of eating as luxurious or royal; indeed, at a very practical level, many actually struggle to dine in this unorthodox fashion.  In fact, some medieval commentators already regard heseiba as irrelevant and allow or even encourage its suspension.  Both the Ra'avya (Chapter 525) and the Maharil (18:2) recognize the awkwardness of this form of eating and instruct us to eat and drink in our standard manner, but the Shulchan Arukh does not adopt their position and instead mandates standardized heseiba (see Orach Chayim 472).  It appears that this debate, regarding a situation wherein heseiba may not necessarily convey liberty, is already found in the Gemara itself.


The first mishna of the tenth chapter of Pesachim describes the prohibitions of working and eating on erev Pesach.  A certain degree of withdrawal creates both emotional anticipation and physical hunger to enhance one's eagerness for the Seder.  The mishna concludes by declaring that “even a poor person (ani) must not eat [after a certain time on erev Pesach] until he has eaten with heseiba."  There are several interpretations of this statement.  Tosafot claim that one might have excluded an impoverished person from heseiba since he cannot truly experience freedom; thus, the mishna intends to discredit this idea and demand heseiba from rich and poor alike.  Is this mishna mandating heseiba even for those who will not taste freedom?  Or should we read the mishna as assuring us that even disadvantaged people can and should strive to taste freedom?  The differing readings of the mishna would yield different impressions of a case of heseiba which cannot stimulate cherut. 


A second example concerns women, who, according to the Gemara (108a), are excused from heseiba in the presence of their husbands.  Would this not indicate that heseiba is only applicable if it creates a sense of independence, which may not emerge in the presence of a woman's husband (at least in past social settings)?  Should this gemara not exempt us from heseiba in the modern context, since we too may not sense liberty through reclining?


Several authorities offer different reasons to excuse women from heseiba; interestingly, these reasons do not assert that women are incapable of experiencing cherut through heseiba.  For example, the Or Zarua cites an opinion which exempts women since reclining would be disrespectful to their husbands.  A woman would have been obligated if not for the 'insult' to her husband; concerned with this slight, Chazal never extend the obligation of heseiba to women.  Other opinions (see Rabbeinu Manoach in his commentary to the Rambam) exclude her since she is busy supplying the meal.  It seems that her exclusion is based upon some more important value superseding the mitzva, rather than suspending heseiba in the absence of cherut.  The fact that the gemara demands heseiba from an isha chashuva – a notable woman – merely reinforces the uncertainty.  Is she an exception because she is capable of sensing cherut, which is a precondition for an obligation of heseiba?  Or is she included within the heseiba experience because her demeanor will not insult her husband? 


Just as the mishna regarding an ani may be read in two different ways, so may this gemara; the question of heseiba without cherut is not categorically solved by either of these sources.


The following gemara addresses a situation of a student in the presence of his rabbi.  The gemara seems to present a dispute: Abbayei and his fellow students, on the one hand, recline when they visit their rabbi, Rav; Rav Yosef, on the other hand, informs his students that it is unnecessary to do so.  Rav's position is less revealing because presumably his students are able to achieve cherut in his presence; in fact, the same gemara obligates a child to perform heseiba in his father's presence, as the Rashbam explains, because the child is not that subservient to the parent.  Rav's students are of a similar mentality and are able to experience freedom and therefore recline. 


Rav Yosef's admonition is intriguing.  When instructing his students, he does not claim that they should not recline out of respect to his station; instead, he tells them that they are not obligated, which implies that their submissive attitude may prevent the achievement of cherut and that they are therefore excused from heseiba.  The Bet Yosef (Orach Chayim 472) claims that if a rabbi exercises mechila and waives his honor – thereby absolving his students of the mitzva of honoring their master – they are obligated to recline.  Apparently, he reads Rav Yosef's admonition as stemming from their mitzva to honor him; once this mitzva is cancelled, they are as obligated as every man in heseiba.  Were the heseiba exemption based upon their inability to taste freedom in the presence of their rabbi, they might be absolved of heseiba even if their rabbi condones it; even if their halakhic obligation is suspended, they may still naturally feel uncomfortable in his presence.  Of course, the counterclaim can always be raised: once the mitzva of honor has dissolved, the mentality of the students changes, and they are now rendered capable of actually sensing the perspective of cherut. 


An interesting dispute among the Rishonim may shed some light on the basis of Rav Yosef's exemption.  This dispute lies between those Rishonim who extend the exemption to any rabbi and those who limit it to a rav muvhak - the individual who has taught a person the majority of his Torah knowledge.  If the exemption is based upon the formal obligation to honor one's rabbi, it would extend to all of one’s rabbis; indeed, in Hilkhot Talmud Torah (5:6), when the Rambam cites the prohibition to recline in the presence of a rabbi, he seems to apply this prohibition to all rabbis.  If however, the clash between heseiba and the presence of a rabbi is not halakhic but existential (i.e., cherut is unattainable), it may only apply in the presence of a rav muvhak, whose company truly limits the freedom of his student's behavior. 


            Until now, we have examined cases of heseiba which may not generate cherut.  Perhaps modern-day heseiba does not generate actual experience of freedom but – at least according to the Shulchan Arukh — it is still mandated.  We might explain this phenomenon of cherut-less heseiba in three ways. 


First, we may acknowledge the actual establishment of heseiba as a takkana (enactment) of Chazal.  Once they institutionalize it as part of the Seder ritual, it cannot be waived even if it no longer expresses cherut.  We do not have much record of an actual takkana; the mishna (10:1) merely states in passing that even a poor person must perform heseiba.  This mishna and the ensuing gemara detail the application of heseiba, but no gemara ever articulates, in so many words, that one is obligated to recline while eating at the Seder, which would have indicated an actual legislation. 


            A second solution may be to claim that even if our own eating habits do not favor heseiba as a comfortable position, we are still enjoined to sit that way and attune ourselves to latent cherut, which may no longer be common but is still accessible.  True, our natural behavior does not include heseiba; nevertheless, though it may demand greater imaginative effort to draw a sense of freedom from a reclined eating posture nowadays, we are still required to do so.


            Yet another approach would attribute heseiba to an entirely different source.  The beginning of Beshalach describes the initial departure from Egypt and the start of the desert journey.  The verse (Shemot 13:18) states: "Va-yasev E-lokim et ha-am derekh ha-midbar Yam Suf," which literally means that God redirected (the same root and conjugation as heseiba) the people on a detour through the desert, in the direction of the Red Sea.  This more easterly route, as opposed to the straight northern route, was primarily intended to avoid the militant Philistines who threatened to launch a war for which the people were not yet prepared.  Chazal, however, discern in this verse an allusion to the royal treatment which our nation began to receive at that point.  On their road to election at Sinai, the Chosen People benefited from divine escorts (the pillar of fire and clouds of glory) and God provided feasts, including meals eaten while reclining.  The reclining position is stunning evidence of the lightning-fast liberation that the Jews enjoyed after two centuries of bondage.  The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 20:18) concludes that, for this reason, we are instructed to perform heseiba as well. 


            This source for heseiba may justify its performance in a modern cherut-less context.  We do not - through our heseiba - seek to generate cherut.  However, we do commemorate the original experience of our ancestors with an experience that is historically evocative, albeit personally outdated.  Just as they reclined, we must, even if it does not trigger cherut. 


            The question of how to justify modern-day heseiba and the source and reason for heseiba may relate in a fascinating fashion to a separate structural question.  The Brisker Rav examines whether Chazal instituted heseiba as a style of eating, or merely as an added element.  Namely, did they restructure the manner in which we are meant to eat, demanding not merely ingestion but reclining?  Or did they merely demand that in addition to eating and drinking we are instructed to recline? 


            Rav Velvel addresses several interesting consequences of this structural issue.  Both the Rambam and the Me'iri extend heseiba beyond the four cups of wine and matza; the Rambam advocates heseiba for the entire meal, while the Me'iri extends it even further, suggesting it as the posture for the entire evening - even for the non-eating narrative sections of the Haggada.  These expansions of heseiba clearly indicate that it was included as an add-on, rather than being inserted in an attempt to redefine the preferred manner of eating.  Had the latter been the case, it could not possibly extend beyond the halakhically ordained food, nor could it have applied to phases of the Seder that do not include eating. 


            Tosafot (Pesachim 108a) pose a question which the Brisker Rav associates with his query: if a person mistakenly eats matza or drinks a cup of wine without heseiba, would he at least have fulfilled the eating aspect of the mitzva (without succeeding at heseiba), or would he be forced to eat a second portion of matza or drink a second cup of wine?  Presumably, if heseiba were an add-on, its non-performance should not hamstring the base mitzva of matza or wine.  However, if Chazal restructured the mitzva of eating to include a certain posture, we may claim that in the absence of this newly required element, the act of eating itself remains deficient. 


            Perhaps the question of eating maror while reclining may be affected by the Brisker Rav's question.  The Gemara (108a) clearly states that maror does not require heseiba, since it is eaten in memory of suffering and should not be accompanied by symbols of freedom.  Would heseiba actually 'ruin' the experience of maror, perhaps requiring a second attempt at eating maror properly?  The Bet Yosef specifically claims that heseiba does not disqualify one's eating maror – implying that a legitimate question may have been raised regarding the detrimental impact of heseiba upon maror.  The Tur (O.C. 475) cites a question in the name of his brother, Rabbeinu Yechi'el: should Korekh, the matza-and-maror sandwich, be eaten while reclining?  As Korekh includes matza, which alone warrants heseiba, presumably the entire question is based upon the potential deleterious impact of heseiba upon maror.  Perhaps he is concerned that a reclining position may spoil the experience of maror. 


            The potential harmful impact of heseiba upon maror may indicate that heseiba forms an integral element of the act of eating.  Had it merely served as a subsidiary accompaniment, it would not hamper the basic act of eating maror.  Certainly, maror would not be disqualified by someone who listens to upbeat music while eating; even though he may compromise the spirit of the experience, the fundamental activity is unaffected.  However, if heseiba reconfigures the type of eating, it may preclude the fulfillment of the mitzva of maror, which cannot be eaten in an ecstatic fashion.


It is intriguing to consider the correlation between the source of heseiba and the Brisker Rav's question regarding its structural dynamic.  Assuming Chazal merely introduced heseiba to induce cherut, we can easily imagine its remaining external to the actual activity of eating.  Chazal demanded that while we eat, we should engage in postures which generate and reflect liberty.  Alternatively, we can easily envision a heseiba which becomes incorporated into the act of eating.  If heseiba were instituted in memory of the original festive meal which God afforded us, it would likely constitute an essential component of our eating.  Just as the original generation experienced a distinctly redemptive form of se'uda, so may we be instructed to recreate that form of eating.  Quite possibly, the question of source is related to the issue of function. 


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