One of the central themes of Passover is the idea that the liberation from Egypt has transformed all Jews--even those who are outwardly subjected to poverty or oppression--into free persons.
In order to give tangible expression to this fact, the ancient Rabbis modelled the seder after the formal banquets of the Roman nobility. At such occasions, the participants would recline luxuriously on their couches, enjoying the convivial conversation and nibbling on the hôrs d'oeuvres and delicacies arrayed before them.
A vestige of that practice is the custom of "leaning" on cushions around the table at our contemporary sedarim.
In connection with this practice, the Talmud states: "A women is not required to recline. However if she is an important woman, then she must recline."
The traditional commentators and codifiers offer varying explanations as to why women should have been excluded from this expression of liberty.
A quick survey of these explanations can provide us with some instructive insights into the social and religious positions of women in different historical settings.
One of the earliest post-Talmudic codes, an eighth-century collection of discourses known as the She'iltot, observed matter-of-factly that women were not accustomed to reclining at secular banquets. He does not provide us with a reason for this situation; perhaps the posture was considered immodest. In any case, since for women reclining did not serve as an expression of freedom on other occasions, it presumably followed that there would be no purpose served in requiring them to do so at the seder.
As we progress farther into the Middle Ages, attitudes and perspectives undergo some interesting changes. Several Talmudic commentators now understand the women's exemption from reclining to be an extension of a wife's general subordination to her husband.
For instance, Rashi's grandson Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (known as "Rashbam"), writing in twelfth-century France, explained: "This is because a wife should be in awe of her husband and subject to his authority." A later French scholar, Rabbi Samuel of Falaise, concluded that it would be disrespectful for a wife to display authority or independence while in the presence of her husband.
Most authorities reasoned that if the exemption is understood to derive from the woman's relationship to her spouse, it followed that it would be in force only if he were actually present at the time. From this premise they went on to conclude that unmarried, widowed or divorced women would be fully subject to the obligation to recline at the seder.
Some interpreters, such as the 14th century Rabbi Manoah of Narbonne, formulated this position in more pragmatic and utilitarian terms: The Rabbis exempted women from the requirement of reclining in order to allow them to devote their undivided attention to the preparation and serving of the food.
The differing rationales that were suggested to explain the women's exclusion from the obligation gave rise in turn to divergent definitions of the quality of "importance" that, according to the Talmud, would obligate women to recline at the seder.
Thus, those commentators who focused on the wife's being occupied in the kitchen would explain that an important woman is one who does not need to do her own housework, but can delegate the labour to servants (the sources do not contemplate the possibility of the husband cooking or serving the food).
Alternatively, Rabbi Eleazer Rokeah commented that if the key consideration is a wife's subordination to her husband, then the "important" woman would be one whose spouse is liberated enough not to object to her reclining.
There were some authorities who approached the concept of "importance" according to religious, rather than social, criteria. Thus, according to Rabbi Manoah a woman who was the pious daughter of a distinguished scholarly family, embodying all the qualities of the Bible's "woman of valour"--"though no such paragon could actually exist--such a woman would be obliged to recline even if she were married"!
At any rate, the issue became moot when the majority of French and German Jewish authorities declared simply and categorically that "all our women are considered important, and they are therefore subject to the obligation to recline." This obligation was understood to apply equally to married and unmarried women, whether or not their husbands were present.
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