She Leans Toward Liberation: Commentary on Beginning Passover 5784

By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary


The child of Sephardic Jews, Judah P. Benjamin—who would one day serve in the Confederacy’s Cabinet during the American Civil War—probably eyed the matzah on his seder plate and heard the same symbol-heavy Aramaic preface to the Passover tale recited by Jews around the world:


.הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם

.כָּל דִּכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכוֹל

.כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח

.הָשַׁתָּא הָכָא. לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל

.הָשַׁתָּא עַבְדֵּי. לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין

This is the impoverished bread that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

All those who are subdued should come and eat.

All those in need should come and enjoy the paschal sacrifice.

This year, we are here. Next year, may we be in the land of Israel.

This year, we are slaves. Next year, may we be free people.

            What did these words—composed nearly a millennium before his time—evoke to Benjamin, who grew up to become not only a slaveowner but a defender of the institution of slavery?

At its literal level, this talk of “impoverished bread” was innocuous at best and irrelevant at worst. Despite being immigrants, the Benjamins, who had left England and eventually enjoyed their liberty as free people in the Carolinas. The land of Israel and the paschal sacrifice were off the table for the Benjamin family, who sought to blend in with American society. Despite the religious traditionalism that motivated Judah’s grandfather to perform personally his grandson’s circumcision, Judah’s father actively sought a less particularistic expression of Judaism and co-founded the first Reform congregation in the United States. Though the shortened services and the English liturgy that replaced Hebrew words appealed to the Benjamin family in Charleston, Judah’s own Jewish practice—or lack thereof—got Judah expelled from the Jewish community his own father had built. Judah was finally completely freed. In his adulthood, Judah would fight alongside white Christian men for the right to enslave others.

Technically, the Confederate State’s Secretary of State violated the seder’s “impoverished bread” speech no more than any other Jew who never made it to Israel or ate a sacrificed lamb—which is why technically correct is so rarely good enough.

The seder, like so much of Jewish life, carries a history of imbalance that does not sit well with modern Jews who seek equitable living. Jewish American slaveowners in the 18th and 19th centuries undoubtedly enlisted those whom they had enslaved to prepare, to serve, and to clean up this festive meal. In many better scenarios, (paid) servants have often filled that role—not participating in the seder but supporting the seder. But paid servants have often exceeded the budget of communities, families, and friends who break unleavened bread. Prep, service, and takedown of a seder necessitate an extraordinary amount of domestic labor—often (though not always) falling on women. When the Mishnah—edited around 225 C.E.—states “מזגו לו כוס” (mazegu lo khos, “they diluted for him a cup [of wine]”), it is clear that our sages of old imagined Jewish men being served at the seder by people who were not free men (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:2, 10:4, and 10:7). Paid servants and those of us who willingly volunteer to be in charge of a meal with no service fee are not enslaved. But is this freedom?

The truest act of freedom for the earliest rabbis who designed the seder came from their understanding of a the symposium in the Greco-Roman culture in the land of Israel around the turn from B.C.E. to C.E.. The rabbis imagined how relaxed the bodies were of the philosophers, politicians, and poets who dined at these lofty meals. The rabbis followed the common assumption that a properly developed human being was a righty—based on the random commonality that so many people’s right hand is their dominant hand, an observation that led Latin-speakers to use the word sinister to mean “evil” or “left.” These fully emancipated individuals would employ their left hand for nothing nobler than keeping their balance, but the right hand would do all the work of providing the pleasure of delectable foods. The rabbis considered the Greco-Roman image of a free man lying on the triclinium while devouring grapes with his right hand and leaning on his left and deemed it picture-perfect.


Image of individual lying on red couch, leaning on left arm while right hand holds grapes close to face. Illustrated by author.


The Mishnah therefore declared that, at the seder, the emancipated Jew “לֹא יֹאכַל עַד שֶׁיָּסֵב” (lo yokhal ad sheyyasev, “should not eat until reclining”). Writings legislating the laws of Passover have, for centuries, thus dictated that a Jew at a seder (regardless of being a lefty or a righty) must lean left (see, for example, the 14th century Arba’ah Turim, Orach Chayyim 472)—to do as the Romans (used to) do.

When the Mishnah described leaning at the seder, the rabbis specified that leaning would be performed by the free man drinking his ritual cups of wine (Mishnah, Pesachim, 10:2, 10:4, and 10:7). Over time, the question arose whether other people participating in the seder could be expected to lean when drinking wine. The Babylonian Talmud records that “הבן אצל אביו בעי הסבה” (“a son, alongside his father, must lean”) (Pesachim 118a); he was, after all, being trained to become, like his father, a free man. On the same page of the Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshu’a ben Levi, who lived in the land of Israel around the time that the Mishnah was being edited, taught that, by eating just enough matzah and leaning properly, servants can (temporarily) achieve liberation on the eve of the seder:


.השמש שאכל כזית מצה? כשהוא מיסב, יצא מיסב. אין לא מיסב, לא

[Does a] servant who has eaten an olive’s worth of matzah [fulfill an obligation]? When he has leaned [while eating that matzah], he has exited [that sense of duty] through leaning. If [he] was not learning [while eating that matzah], he has not.


This same sage would go on to argue that “נשים חייבות בארבעה כוסות הללו שאף הן היו באותו הנס” (“women are obligated [to drink] these four cups of wine, for they too were [participants] in that [same] miracle [of leaving Egypt”) (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 118a–b). However, neither he nor any other authority in the Babylonian Talmud itself would argue that leaning would be an appropriate action for women. Where was women’s liberation?

Despite many traditional teachings that have long exempted women from Jewish religious responsibilities that devolve upon men (see, for example, Mishnah, Kiddush 1:7), rarely in Jewish history did anyone claim that culinary activity kept women away from participating in Jewish ritual. Rabbenu Mano’ach, in 13th century Provence, France, however, offered in his Sefer HaMenuchah (ספר המנוחה, “Book of Comfort”) his unfiltered perception of the uncomfortable roles women usually played at the seder:


אשה אינה צריכה הסיבה לפי שכפופה לבעלה ואימתו עליה ואין דרכה להסב ואם אשה חשובה היא כלומר שאין לה בעל והיא גברת הבית צריכה הסיבה א”נ שהיא חשובה בפני ה’ אשה יראת השם בת גדולי הדור כוללת שבחי אשת חיל וזאת האשה אם נמנע מציאותה אע”פ שיש לה בעל צריכה הסיבה א”נ יש לפרש אינה צריכה הסיבה לפי שהיא טרודה בתיקון המאכל והכנתו פטרוה מהסבה כמו שפטרוה ממצות עשה שהזמן גרמא אבל אשה חשובה שיש לה עבדים ושפחות הטורדים בעניני המאכל והיא יושבת בקתדרה צריכה הסיבה

A woman does not need to lean [while drinking wine at the seder], for she is bowed to her husband, and fear of him is upon her. It is not her way [as a norm] to lean [while drinking]. But if she were an ishah chashuvah [אשה חשובה, “important woman”]—which is to say, that she did not have a husband and she were the master of a home—she would need to lean. Also, if she were an ishah chashuvah before God—a woman who fears [God’s sacred] name—or [if she were] the daughter of great [rabbinic masters] of the generation [and she were] amassing the praises worthy of “a woman of valor” (Proverbs 31:10)[, she would lean while drinking wine]. Or if the [gendered] reality of a certain woman were set aside—even if she had a husband—she would need to lean [while drinking wine at the seder]. But it is also is worthy to comment that, [in general,] a woman does not need to lean [while drinking wine], for she is preoccupied with preparing a meal, and preparing it exempts her from leaning (just as this [concern for food preparation] exempts any woman from any mitzvah that must be performed within a specified timeframe). However, an ishah chashuvah who has servants and maidservants who angst over the matters of the meal while she sits in a comfortable chair is required to lean. (Sefer HaMenuchah on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Chametz UMatzah 7:8.)


Who gets to be an ishah chashuvah? Which women can participate in full at the seder? Is an ishah chashuvah always wealthy or related to men with a strong Jewish education? Could an ishah chashuvah just be any pious woman—in Rabbenu Mano’ach’s words, someone “who fears [God’s sacred] name” (“יראת השם,” yere’at hashem)? Although the worldview he inherited placed women in the kitchen, Rabbenu Mano’ach suggested that there must have been a better place—and a better position—for women at the seder.

In the 18th century, Rabbi Shelomoh Shalem—a native of Adrianople who moved to Amsterdam to published several books, including his Lev Shalem (לב שלם, “Whole Heart”)—reevaluated the status of women at the seder, comparing it to the case of a student before his (rabbinic) mentor:


.ולי נראה דצריך היסבה דומיא דשמש וכן בשבויות ישראליות או שפחות שקונה ואח”כ מתגיירות כולן יש להם דין שמש דבעו היסבה

It is seemly to me that a student [before his master] must lean [when drinking wine at the seder]; this is similar to the case of a servant [who must lean when drinking wine]. And so too, Jewish women in captivity and maidservants [whom a Jewish man] purchases who subsequently convert to Judaism all have the legal status of a servant, [all] being required to lean. (Lev Shalem on Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Chametz UMatzah 7:8.)


Due to his many travels, Rabbi Shalem may have been more familiar with the Jerusalem Talmud than many of his European contemporaries; many rabbis preferred the more widely printed and better-preserved Babylonian Talmud. In his same comment, Rabbi Shalem cites the Jerusalem Talmud offering one rabbinic opinion that obligated women to lean while drinking wine. One version of this Talmudic passage reads as follows:


.ר’ סימון בשם ר’ יהושע בן לוי אותו כזית שאדם יוצא בו בפסח צריך לאוכלו מיסב. ר’ יוסי בעא קומי ר’ סימון אפי’ עבד לפני רבו אפילו אשה לפני בעלה א”ל כר’ ע”כ שמעתי

Rabbi Simon in the name of Rabbi Yehoshu’a ben Levi [said], “A human must lean when eating anything that is an olive’s worth that a person would eat on Passover.” Rabbi Yosey asked Rabbi Simon, “Even a slave in front of his master? Even a woman in front of her husband?” He said to him [in response], “Like this rabbi [has] thus far [stated] I heard!” (Jerusalem Talmud, Pesachim 10:1.)


Rather than full-out attacking the sages who preceded him yet disagreed with the conclusion in the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Shalem concluded his own comments by stating “וצ״ע” (short for וצריך עיון—vetzarikh iyyun, “so this matter needs to be looked into”). We can understand, however, what Rabbi Shalem presumed we would find if we looked a little closer.

Hosting a seder is a tall order, and any party might find itself challenged to delegate equitably any seder’s prep, serving, and cleaning (to say nothing of the leading or the fun or the discussion that we should add to spice up our festive meals). That the domestic labor of hosting a seder should de facto fall on only servants or women alone may resonate with some traditional teachings, but the greater symphony of Jewish tradition produces lessons that implore greater harmony. The enslaved should become free when they eat matzah or drink wine, and so should people of any gender or any age. We are all chashuvim (חשובים, “important”) in God’s accounting of the universe. Neither money nor genetics paves the path to freedom. The path to freedom stems from the belief that we all can live more freely than we do today—even if it means adopting practices beyond what we are accustomed.

The way to get Passover right is not to submit ourselves or others to undue burdens—and we have not done Passover right if we find ourselves acting as taskmasters when the seder has ended. That “impoverished bread” should enrich us—each of us—and teach us that the path to freedom begins by giving, by granting freedom to others.



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