By: Rabbi Aaron Alexander Assistant Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
There is an image of the modern Passover Seder that has always felt a bit peculiar to me. As each person at the table is about to drink from their first cup (out of four) of wine or grape juice, a mass leaning to the left takes place. If you were to look at the scene from above the image might be one of dominoes that began to fall, but were suspended between the horizontal and vertical.
This practice, reclining to the left while drinking wine and eating the first matzah during the Seder, occurs at tables throughout the world, partly as an imitation of the way in which kings and royalty would enjoy their meals, but more significantly, as an attempt to physically represent ourselves as having escaped bondage for a life of freedom.
Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) states it best in his Mishnah Torah:
"In each and every generation individuals are obligated to present themselves at this moment as if they, themselves, left slavery in Egypt... And based on this God commanded in the Torah: 'Remember that you were a slave... [Deut 5:15]' i.e., as if you, yourself, were a slave and escaped slavery for freedom and redemption. Therefore, when one feasts on this night [of the Seder] one needs to eat and drink while reclining, in the manner of a free person." (Laws of Hametz and Matzah 7:6-7)
Ideally, during our Seders, we are spread out across the floor, lounging on pillows like the royalty of antiquity, and when the time for wine--a luxury-arrives, we experience the freedom to enjoy it in a way that is different and unusual, and an expression of what our dreams for a nightly event with our families and/or friends could be: a meal of unlimited time, exciting and engaging conversation, plush chairs and couches to relax on, delicious food, and a relaxing environment.
And yet, the modern image of reclining described above does not seem to capture what the tradition intended with this practice. Remember what it feels like to try and drink while slightly bent to the left? Not so easy. Is it more comfortable than simply drinking while upright? Not really. Is there a better chance you will spill some red wine on your Yom Tov clothing? Yes! The way we recline today can feel a little awkward and uncomfortable, not luxurious, like the rabbis intended.
Two medieval German rabbis also raised issue with this practice. Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan (1090-1170) and his grandson, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel HaLevi (d. 1225), both claimed that the obligation for reclining during the Seder no longer exists precisely because it is no longer a common practice for free people to eat their meals while reclining on pillows across the floor. Even dignitaries in their time (and ours) would most often eat at a table, not on the floor. Imitating them simply means doing what we already do. According to this opinion free people are blessed, as we are, to enjoy meals at a table, sitting upright. To force reclining, or move to the floor, would not capture the luxury that the rabbis intended free Jews to experience.
But mainstream Jewish law neglected to accept their sociological reasoning. Later rabbis saw something more important in the wider picture of the Seder, namely, the necessity to differentiate it from other nights and meals of the year. We recline to the left, or even move to the floor and lounge to the left, because it forces us to change our routine and imagine ourselves as kings and queens, princes and princesses, enjoying a royal banquet. Even if it feels slightly awkward, it is different, and thus, special.
I believe there is another way to understand the paradox of leaning uncomfortably to experience comfort. Think back to the domino image I presented in the first paragraph. Another interpretation of the scene presents itself. During the moment of reclining each and every person is not just leaning to the left, but leaning toward the person sitting next to them. A large part of what makes the Seder experience so meaningful is warm feeling we get from being so close to our families, members of our communities, and the strangers in need that we invite to our tables. How natural it seems that in the most vivid moments of reliving slavery to freedom we do not sit upright, distanced from each other, but rather we physically move towards the people with whom we surround ourselves.
It is interesting to note that even those who are left-handed, and normally eat with their left hands, must lean to the left, even though leaning to their right would be more natural and comfortable. The practical reason for this is medical. The rabbis were afraid that leaning towards the right would provide a greater chance that food could get lodged in the windpipe. Another reason, I believe, is related to our discussion above. If those who are right-handed lean to the left, and those who are left-handed lean to the right, then we have no longer created a situation where each person at the table is reclining toward their neighbor.
This Saturday night, the first night of Passover, we are offered the opportunity to be a part of an ancient communal commandment that caters to all of our senses. We eat, drink, pray, talk, learn, and ultimately strengthen our bonds towards one another. Take hold of that chance-move your chairs even closer to one another-and when you recline while enjoying your wine or grape juice and matzah, enjoy the gift of feeling the physical and spiritual support from your community around the table.
Hag Kasher V'Sameach!