A woman in her husband’s presence is not required to recline. But if she is a woman of importance she must recline. A son in his father's presence is required to recline. They [the rabbis] asked: What is the law concerning a disciple in his teacher’s presence? Come and learn: Abaye said, “When we were at the master’s [Rabbah bar Nachmani] academy, we would lean on each other's knees. When we came to R. Yosef’s academy he said to us, ‘You do not need to [recline, because] a student’s reverence for his teacher should be as great as his reverence for God.’” They challenged [the view that a student does not recline in the presence of his teacher from the following baraita]: A person reclines in the presence of everyone, even a student in the presence of his teacher. What was the baraita about? It concerned a carpenter’s apprentice. They asked: What is the law concerning a servant? Come and learn: R. Yehoshua b. Levi said, “A servant who ate an olive’s volume of matzah while reclining has fulfilled the obligation. If he reclined, yes [he fulfilled the obligation], but if he did not recline, no [he did not fulfilled the obligation]. Learn from this that he [the servant] is required to recline. Learn from this.
Mishnah Pesachim 10:1 (see TMT #100) stipulates that everyone, even the least likely member of the community to have the means—a poor person— eats reclining on Passover night. Reclining, the posture of kings and aristocrats, enacts one’s freedom. However, according to the social mores of the period, one sits in the presence of a superior only with permission and after the superior is seated.
The Gemara considers four categories of people who, in the presence of someone who has authority over them, might be exempt from reclining: (A) women; (B) sons; (C) students; (D) servants.
(A) Women: Although the mishnah presumed that all are obligated to recline, the Gemara says that a woman in her husband’s presence is not required to recline unless she is considered prominent in her own right. This restriction is the invention of the Babylonian rabbis.
(B) Sons: Given a father’s authority over his son, the Gemara asks if a son ought to recline in the presence of his father. Unsurprisingly, the answer is yes. The son reclines because, like all Jews, he was redeemed from Egypt. Yet weren’t all women also redeemed from Egypt?
(C) Disciples: In the rabbinic value system, one owes one’s teacher even greater deference for teaching him Torah than one’s father, who gave him life. The Gemara reports, and then rejects, powerful anecdotal evidence: Abaye, who headed the academy at Pumbedita, recounts that when Rabbah bar Nachmani was the head, students adopted an intermediary posture, neither sitting upright nor fully reclining, by leaning on one another’s knees, thus paying respect to their teacher but only partially fulfilled the Mishnah’s requirement to recline. When R. Yosef succeeded Rabbah, he exempted the students from the obligation to recline on the basis of R. Elazar b. Shamua’s teaching that “a student’s reverence for his teacher should be as great as his reverence for God” (Pirkei Avot 4:15). The views of both Rabbah and R. Yosef are challenged with an earlier teaching that affirms that everyone reclines, even a student in the presence of his teacher—explicitly noting that here “teacher” refers to one who instructs him in a secular skill, such as carpentry, here applied to the master who teaches his student Torah. Yet somehow the ruling does not mitigate the previous exemption of women who are not deemed “important.”
(D) Servants: Finally, the Gemara asks about a servant. There is an irony here since the servant who must wait on others at the Passover seder is—at least optically—like a slave. Does such a person cease working long enough to sit and recline during the seder nonetheless? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Yet somehow a woman in the presence of her husband does not unless she is “important.”
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- The Gemara, unlike Mishnah, treats women differently from men with regard to the obligation to recline. Psychologist Steven Pinker has written that “some [social] categories really are social constructions: they exist only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist” (Blank Slate, 2002). Do you think this passage reflects an example of the Rabbis’ social construction of gender?
- The assumption that women, unlike sons, students, and servants, are inferior or subservient to men who have authority over them reflects either overt or implicit bias. In some regards, the latter is more difficult to overcome than the former because we are either unaware or in denial. Consider this: On February 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution declared that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Yet while no one questioned that women were citizens, it was another half century before the 19th Amendment granted women suffrage (on May 21, 1919). Where else do you see implicit bias?
- Commentators trip over one another in their attempts to explain the Gemara’s treatment of women in the matter of reclining. Today this sounds minimally like a halakhic gaffe and maximally like misogyny. For example, the Rashbam (grandson of Rashi) explained that a woman is apprehensive in her husband’s presence and subservient to him. Rabbi Moses Isserles, who wrote an Ashkenazic gloss to the Shulchan Arukh (O.H. 472) remarks that “women nowadays are all important.” Rashbam’s explanation seeks to justify the Gemara; Isserles’ gloss seeks a work-around. Do you think it best to deal with such problems in the tradition as Rashbam did, as Isserles did, or to confront such inequities head on by rejecting for our time and our understanding of God, Torah, and Jewish tradition?