During the Passover seder we celebrate our freedom from bondage. Granted, not every Jew is completely free from all forms of oppression, but on the night of the seder, we are to act as if we are.
One of the ways that we do this is by reclining at ritually significant parts of the meal, namely when we eat matzah for the first time and when we drink the four cups of wine. This reflects the culture of the ancient world in which the wealthy and notable reclined while eating (and according to more recent research, the less well-off as well from time to time). The rabbis incorporated this practice into the seder and expected participants to recline, regardless of their actual socio-economic status, as the Mishnah teaches:
Even the poorest of all Jews should not eat until he reclines.
On Passover, we are all free, we are all wealthy, and we all recline — except for those who don’t. At this point in the Daf Yomi cycle, it should be no surprise that there are exceptions to the rule.
Abaye said: When we were in the house of my master, Rabba, we reclined on each other’s knees. When we came to the house of Rav Yosef, he said to us: “You need not recline, as the fear of your teacher is like the fear of Heaven.”
Abaye recalls that students reclined at seders that were held in Rabba’s house, reporting that they had to lay on each other’s knees, perhaps because it was too crowded to spread out — or perhaps because the tone at this home was one of friendship and intimacy. But when attending a seder at Rav Yosef’s home, this practice was not accepted because a student was expected to feel the fear of their teacher as they do the fear of Heaven. Given how the rabbis felt about God, this makes for quite a radical statement! But Rav Yosef didn’t just say this about himself; he also related that when he heard his mother’s footsteps approaching, he would stand up to welcome her as a “Divine Presence” (Kiddushin 31b).
The Gemara objects, citing a beraita that all seder attendees recline, even students, no matter who is present (directly challenging the practice at Rav Yosef’s home). Then, to render the beraita compatible with Rav Yosef’s practice, the Gemara narrows the definition of student in this case to craftsman’s apprentices (who should not feel obligated to stand in the presence of their masters) and not to rabbis and their students.
So, if you’re keeping score, the rabbis require everyone to recline at the seder as a sign of their freedom, except for their own students who must show deference to their teachers at all times.
Correct, everyone must recline except for students — oh, and also married women. As the Gemara teaches:
A woman who is with her husband is not required to recline, but if she is an important woman, she is required to recline.
Just as students should not recline before their teachers, the rabbis assert that women should not recline in the presence of their husbands. That is, unless they are important and have a social status of their own — which was not the case for almost all women in rabbinic times.
This is not to say that the rabbis excluded women from the seder. Indeed, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that women are obligated to drink four cups of wine on Passover because they too were liberated from Egypt. There is no trace of irony in the assertion that while women are included (indeed, obligated!) in the celebration of freedom from slavery, they should not recline before their husbands, to whom they are subservient.
The rabbis of the Talmud have significant influence on how we live Judaism today. Significant, but not absolute. In some places where they had blind spots, we see more clearly. Judaism today is far more inclusive and egalitarian than it has ever been.
And we can still do better. Our awareness that the rabbis pushed some people away from the seder table should inspire us to ask if we have done the same. Let’s examine our own practice and identify our own blind spots. Doing so will help us take another step toward ensuring that everyone is granted the dignity to join in the celebration of our freedom — and to enjoy that freedom to the fullest.