[Mishnah:] Even the poorest Jew may not eat except while reclining. [Gemara:] It was said: Matzah [must be eaten] reclining. Bitter herbs need not [be eaten] reclining. [Concerning drinking the four cups of] wine: It was stated in Rav Nachman’s name that reclining is required, and it was stated in Rav Nachman’s name that reclining is not required. There is no disagreement here. One [statement] refers to the first two cups, and the other statement refers to the last two cups. Some explain it this way, but some explain it the opposite way. Some explain it this way: The first two cups require reclining because it is now that freedom begins. The last two cups do not require reclining because what happened, happened. And some explain it the opposite way: On the contrary! The last two cups require reclining [because] at that time there is freedom. The first two cups do not requiring reclining because at that time one is [still] reciting, “We were slaves [of Pharaoh in Egypt].”
When the traditions of the Passover seder began to take shape after the Destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.), the Rabbis turned first to Torah for clues as to how Jews should celebrate the festival even though they could no longer sacrifice a paschal lamb. Torah speaks of a meal featuring unleavened bread, bitter herbs, at which the story of the Exodus is recounted. Naturally, these figure prominently in the seder. The Rabbis also turned to the Greco-Roman culture in which they lived and borrowed the model of the symposium to serve as a framework for the Passover seder. The symposium was an elegant banquet at which guests recline on couches, enjoy many courses and delicacies (with lots of vegetables and lots of dipping), sip numerous glasses of wine, and engage in extended intellectual conversations. In the course of time, the traditions of the Rabbis were folded into the framework of the symposium, and more and more customs were added. The four cups of wine recall God’s fourfold promise of redemption: “I will bring you forth…I will deliver you…I will redeem you…I will take you” (Exodus 6:5,6) How appropriate to recall God’s promises of redemption that have been fulfilled, as we eat a leisurely meal and recline on cushions.
The Mishnah instructs everyone—even the poor—to recline at the Passover meal. But when? The Gemara tells us to recline while eating matzah, presumably because our people ate the unleavened bread after they had been freed from Egypt. For maror (bitter herbs), however, we need not recline, presumably because the purpose of maror is to recall the bitterness of slavery prior to freedom. Gemara then recalls a ruling in Rav Nachman’s name in two different ways: we should recline while drinking wine, and we should not recline while drinking wine. Which is correct? The Gemara finds a way to affirm both rulings: The first version of Rav Nachman’s ruling is applied to the two cups of wine we drink before the main meal, and the other version of the ruling to the two cups of wine drunk after the main meal. But even here, there is disagreement concerning whether reclining applies to the first, or last, two cups of wine. Rationales are given for each.
The argument for reclining for the first two cups only is based on the present situation of the people at the seder: The celebrants are free people and demonstrate their freedom with the very first cup of wine by reclining. Having fulfilled the obligation to lean for the first two cups, they no longer need to do so for the second two cups. The seder, from this perspective, is about standing in freedom and looking back to remember that we were slaves intil God redeemed us.
The explanation for not reclining for the first two cups but reclining for the latter two cups presumes that we are not merely retelling the story of our redemption from slavery—we are actually re-enacting our ancestors’ redemption in such a way that we experience redemption, as well. We say, “Once we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…” with the intent of crawling inside the experience of slavery in our minds as best we can. To lean while drinking the required cups of wine at the same time that we are trying to imagine ourselves enslaved is counterproductive. By the time the main meal is served, however, we have told the entire story, sung Dayenu and half of Hallel, and are prepared to eat and think like royalty. Following dinner, we recline in order to more fully experience our freedom.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- What is at stake in the two views of whether we recline for the first two or last two cups of wine? Which view is more meaningful to you? Why?
- Many people bring pillows to the seder table to fulfill the tradition of leaning while drinking wine. Others find the pillows and leaning uncomfortable, raising an interesting question: If the tradition does not evoke the comforts of freedom for you, should you continue to do it? Is the tradition absolute, or a culturally determined expression of freedom? Rabbi Eliezer ben Joel ha-Levi of Bonn (12th century) said that only the sick recline while eating. In Avi ha-Ezri he wrote that reclining was no long obligatory because doing so is what sick people do and hence delivers the wrong message.
- Another tradition was added to the four cups of wine: Not only are we free on seder night, but we are royalty. Hence someone should serve us by pouring our wine. Here’s a curiosity from Jewish history: Noting that in his day men often ordered their wives to serve them wine at the seder, ironically making women play the part of a slave on seder night, the 19th century Polish halakhist, Rabbi Y. M. Epstein, author of Arukh haShulchan, instructed people to pour their own wine: “It is haughty and arrogant to order one’s wife to serve him wine. After all, he is no more obligated to drink wine than she. Therefore, we ask that everyone pour for him or herself.” How is it done at your seder? How would you like to do it? Could people pour for one another in some manner that allows everyone to both serve and be served?