Spring Leaning: Halachot of Leaning at the Seder

Yesterday I gave a Shabbat Hagadol Derasha on the Halachot of leaning at the Seder. Here are the sources. I want to highlight here a few points based on the sources, with gratitude to those in attendance whose comments and participation (and enthusiasm) made these insights possible. The source numbers below refer to the source sheet linked to above, but you can also read this post on its own without using the source sheet.

1) The ambivalence felt by the Ra’aviah (Source 8) and others (See sources 11 and 13) for leaning given the absence of leaning in our most recent millennia is dealt with implicitly by the Rambam (Source 6) in an interesting way. A careful read of the Rambam reveals that there are perhaps two different aspects to leaning – tzvei dinim, in Brisker terminology – one of which is indeed precluded by the rarity of leaning today but the other of which might still be present even in contemporary society.
In Halachot 6-7, the Rambam discusses leaning objectively, as a result of one’s imitating his ancestors (see, for example, Sources 1 and 2). In Halacha 8, the Rambam again discusses leaning, but this time as a comparison between regular people, who in earlier times would have leaned every day of the year (see Sources 3 and 4), and poor people who would never have leaned except on Pesach. In order for the wealthy folks to have had any meaning in their leaning which, after all, they did every day of the year, they would need to see the poor people around them leaning as well, thus qualitatively changing the leaning of the wealthy people from an “everyday leaning” to a special “Pesach leaning.” This is the subjective, realist aspect of leaning that would not apply to us today, because poor people today do not raise their status in society by imitating the wealthy who do not lean anyway. The objective, history-driven aspect of leaning, however (Rambam’s Halachot 6-7), does not change because the historical antecedent to which it relates does not change either. Someone at the Shiur correctly compared this aspect of leaning to eating Matzah, which we do simply to commemorate the hasty exodus from Egypt but with no intent of acting in a way consistent with contemporary norms. (The Ra’aviah, of course, felt that leaning is a subjective, society-driven directive, like the Rambam’s Halacha 8.)

2) Someone at the Shiur noted a further נפקא מינה (practical implication) between these two aspects of leaning. The Gemara (Source 35) is clear that leaning must be done on the left side, and it gives two reasons for this: לא שמיה הסיבה – leaning on the right side is not considered leaning; and שמא יקדים קנה לוושט – there might be a medical danger involved in leaning on the right side. (The doctors in the audience yesterday, mirroring another group of doctors in an audience I was in last week when another Rabbi was discussing leaning, were divided on the medical veracity of this theory.) As my young protégé in the audience pointed out, if we can define our leaning as a historical marker without the meaning inherent in a more literal or absolutist definition of leaning, perhaps there is room to be more lenient regarding the precise way in which one leans – left, right, forward, or backward. Interesting.

3) Many in the audience noted the irony that fathers would be assumed to allow their sons to lean in their presence (Source 30), but husbands are so unlikely to grant their wives permission to lean that they are not even given the opportunity to do so (beginning of Source 15). Fathers are always mochel, teachers are allowed to be mochel (Source 29), but אימת הבעל is so strong that husbands never will?! Hard to believe. The Bach (Source 24) notes this irony as well, and uses it as a basis to change the text of our Gemara to that of the Rif (Source 16) – and even, by the way, of the Rashbam himself (see the Dibur HaMatchil in Source 15) – to cut out the words “אצל בעלה,” thus making a woman’s exemption a product of women’s own reticence to lean or drink on a normal basis rather than a result of her husband’s intimidation. The Bach (Source 24) assumes that the students of the Rashbam added the words אצל בעלה (which the Rif and Rashbam never had) to the Gemara to make their Rebbi’s interpretation tighter. Pretty sinister, no? Overall, this reading of women’s exemption (that of the Rif [Source 16]) is probably tighter than the Rashbam (Source 15), but it still leaves open the problem, expressed by an audience member, that tonight this woman is drinking, so why should she be any different? Who cares how often she drinks or leans the rest of the year? She’s drinking tonight!

4) The Mishnah Berurah (Source 36), like the Magen Avraham before him, assumes that the Shulchan Aruch’s use of the phrase “אינו צריך” to describe a student’s leaning in the presence of his teacher is imprecise and should really be something like “אסור.” There is, of course, a tremendous נפקא מינה between a student’s being not obligated to lean and being forbidden to do so. The problem with the Mishnah Berurah’s contention is that is negates the original source of the Shulchan Aruch, the Gemara in Source 25, in which Rav Yosef adjures his leaning students that “לא צריכתו” – they do not need to lean in his presence. Rav Yosef, too, could have used a stronger phraseology but chose a lighter one, thus implying that his students’ leaning was unnecessary but permitted. I am not sure how the Mishnah Berurah would respond to that. In any case, the argument of the Teshuvot V’Hanhagot (Source 33), that our leaning is different enough from Talmudic leaning as to allow students to lean in front of their teachers, is compelling except that it raises the question of women in our time. Even without resorting to the argument of the Bach (Source 24) that our Gemara’s text is incorrect and should not have the words “אצל בעלה,” or resorting to the Rama’s contention (in Source 18) that all women today are considered important and therefore should lean, can’t we just say that women today can lean anyway because the kind of leaning that husbands once objected to is no longer practiced by women or anybody else? Even with the words “אצל בעלה” (and ignoring the version of the Rif [Source 16] and the She’iltos [Source 15]), contemporary husbands, like contemporary teachers, would not object to the kind of watered-down “leaning” that takes place today on pillows. Would the Teshuvot V’Hanhagot go that far? Why not? Unclear.

There is plenty more in the sources – ואידך זיל גמור, as they say – but those are a few highlights.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach.

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