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The Freedom to Express Freedom (the mitzvah of Haseiba at the Seder)

Nissan 5782 | April 2022

Do the women of your household drink the wine and eat the matza at the Seder while doing haseiba – reclining to their left? Do they partake in this practice, or do they have a hard time connecting with the process? Perhaps they deliberately do haseiba to prove that all women today are considered ‘important women’?

What is the place of women with regard to the mitzvah of haseiba at the Seder?

According to the Gemara in Pesachim 108b, haseiba is an expression of freedom. The Gemara deliberates whether the Seder is an event that reflects freedom from beginning to end – which would require haseiba while drinking the first two cups of wine; or whether the process of the Seder is a shift from slavery to redemption, and the freedom is celebrated specifically in the latter two cups of wine.

The practical halakhic conclusion is that haseiba is performed for all four cups of wine, which places the entire Seder in the context of freedom – even while remembering the negative experiences of bitterness and slavery.

While haseiba is an expression of freedom, the Rabbis recognized two-and-a-half situations in which haseiba is not possible, or one is exempt – since the experience of freedom which is expressed in haseiba contradicts the element of reverence in these given circumstances. The first situation involves a student at the Seder of his Rabbi. In this case, the student does not practice haseiba, since ‘his reverence toward his rabbi should be treated as his reverence toward God.’ Ironically, haseiba, when practiced by the Rabbi (or anyone else) – seems to be in conflict with expressing reverence towards God. The experience of freedom at the Seder seemingly ‘displaces’ the element of awe or reverence toward God. Some inferred from this that there is no haseiba when the Seder is conducted in the Beit Hamikdash, since the reverence toward God is more present in that place (this is the ‘half case’ referred to above). Therefore, the experience of reverence that emanates from the Temple displaces haseiba, despite the sense of freedom.

Another case raised by the Gemara relates to women: “A woman [with her husband] does not require haseiba, and if she is an important woman – she is required to perform haseiba.” Some (but not all) later versions of the text relate the exemption of women to marriage. The exemption of women from haseiba is formulated in a similar manner to the exemption of a student sitting with his Rabbi. While some Rishonim link the exemption to marriage, others assume it is related to the status of women in society at the time of the Gemara, since most women were not accustomed to haseiba in general. It is possible that at this time, women would not have expressed their freedom by reclining while they eat. Regardless, in relation to women, the Gemara seems to acknowledge the existence of different realities: women whose relationship with their husband is similar to that of a student and his Rabbi, as opposed to an ‘important’ woman who does not experience such subservience. Despite these positions among some of the Rishonim, the exemption does not relate to the responsibilities of serving food, as evidenced by the fact that the shamash who is in charge of serving food is required to perform haseiba while he drinks the four cups of wine and eats matza.

Two important developments occurred in the Tosafist era: on the one hand, the Mordechai defined all women as ‘important women’ who are required to perform haseiba; on the other hand, the Raavia stated that haseiba is no longer an expression of freedom – in fact, eating while reclining is usually an indication that one is ill. The Shulhan Arukh cited the formulation in the Gemara, and states that a woman is exempt from haseiba unless she in an ‘important woman.’ But the Rema stated that although all women today are considered important women, they are all exempt from haseiba, based on the Raavia’s reasoning – that haseiba is not an indication of freedom.

This dilemma seems an interesting reflection of the timeless experience of the Seder: we celebrate yetziat mizraim, which occurred at one point in time, through symbolic gestures of freedom taken from another point in time (namely, the Rabbinic era). In the Rabbinic era, women might have expressed their freedom differently (if at all) – but today, women need to debate whether to adopt an expression of freedom from an era in which women expressed their freedom to a lesser degree, in order to celebrate the freedom they were provided many centuries earlier. Some women might feel they want to be part of that experience, and be full participants in the traditional Seder customs, while others might prefer to express their freedom in another manner, more befitting of our own time.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.