To Lean or Not to Lean, that is the Question
By Avi Lazerson
Amongst the various parts of the Passover Seder that stand out in most people's memories is the four cups of wine and of course the matzo. But most people may not be aware of another important part of the Seder and that is the 'leaning'.
In olden times (meaning in the times of the Talmud and before) the wealthy and noble class would recline while they ate, whereas simple poor people would eat while seated on the floor. Reclining is indicative of a person of leisure who has time to dine with out worrying an interruption that would cause him to get up. The importance of leaning at the Seder is explained that since we were slaves in Egypt and now we are free men, therefore we must act in accordance to our new status. Since it was the custom of noble men to eat while reclining on a sofa or on cushions, so today we are obligated to eat as noble men who recline.
According to Jewish tradition, the man of the house is required to recline while he drinks the four cups and eats the matzo. A son also is required to lean like the father. Whether the woman is to lean is dependent if she is considered important. If she is important, then she must lean too. Many say that our women are important; therefore she should lean while eating.
Reclining was done on the left side, not on the back and not on the right side. The reason is that there are two pipes in the throat, one for the air and one for the food. By leaning on the left side the wind pipe is not hampered by the food.
Now in those times eating was not done as we do with a knife and fork, but rather the food was prepared in the kitchen and brought in front of the individual diner on small personal trays (which took the place of our table) ready for the diner to eat using only his hands. Since the food was pre-prepared in the kitchen, it was possible to recline on the left side, using the left hand to support oneself and use the right hand to eat. If you try to do this today with our modern knives, forks and spoons, you will have quite a bit of difficulty.
Instead, most people put a small pillow on the back of their seat or else lean on the back rest of the adjacent chair while they eat, since the whole business of reclining is not comfortable for us while eating. Others may take a lawn chair to try to copy the act of reclining, but the problem here is that with out several mattresses, it is hard to reach the table and even with several mattresses, it is uncomfortable. Even if you try to sit on your chair and approximate leaning by using a foot stool and tilt your body on the left side you will still have an uncomfortable time.
There is another problem with this custom. In today's modern world no one eats when they recline. Kings, presidents, and wealthy people all sit in chairs so why should we recline while we try to enjoy the Passover Seder? After all if the whole purpose of reclining was to show that we are free men, even noble men, let us act like the noble and wealthy class of today! What do we gain by leaning and reclining while we eat?
The answer is that it is true that we do not approximate the wealthy and luxury class today when we lean, but there is one aspect of the Seder that we forgot to mention and that is that of the famous four questions.
The Four Questions are the standard opening of the Seder (after the kiddush over wine) in which the youngest child asks the father about things in the Seder that are different. The rest of the Haggadah comes to answer the child's questions. The reason for starting the Seder with the four questions is to stimulate the curiosity of the child since learning absorption is better when the child's curiosity is aroused to the point that he asks a question. For this reason we do several changes such as dipping a vegetable in salt water solely for the purpose of stimulating the young child.
Another important change mentioned in the Four Questions is reclining. Since one of the reasons that we recline is to stimulate the child to ask questions. So if the reason to recline is only because we must eat as nobility, today we would not recline. But since we must make many changes to stimulate the child, therefore as uncomfortable as it may be, we must continue to recline.
Good luck in balancing your food on your fork if you choose to eat the entire meal while reclining on your left side for that is considered meritorious. Whereas you may get gravy stains on your shirt or blouse, you will certainly enhance the Seder in the eyes of all and your children will not easily forget the great experience of a genuine Seder.
from the March Passover 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine