Heard this week from a stewardess on a Southwest flight at the end of her initial announcements: “So ladies and gentlemen, sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. Or, if you don’t want to, lean forward and be tense.”
I thought of her words in relation to the Passover Seder where we are commanded to lean at various intervals while we eat to show that we are royalty of sorts. Leaning while dining in the ancient world was aristocratic.
Alberto Angela, in his book A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome, has a detailed description of wealthy Romans at a banquet. These meals often lasted 6-8 hours. If you were a member of the aristocracy, you may have been invited to such an event 2-3 times a week. They ate lying on low coaches on the floor, “propped up on their elbow resting on a pillow. They hold onto their plates with their left hand, while the right is used to bring food to the mouth. The dinner companions lie next to one another, shoeless, with their bare feet washed.” Washing the feet of guests was the job of slaves when guests arrived.
Angela asks if this posture was not uncomfortable and difficult for digestion and mentions research that suggests it was indeed helpful for digestion. He concludes that upper-class Romans were used to such dining. “For them, it’s a sign of elegance and superiority, a general rule of etiquette to be followed rigorously at official or important banquets.” Initially wives sat down on chairs next to their husbands who were leaning.
This last fun fact makes it’s way to the Talmud. In BT Pesahim [108a], the Talmudic tract that deals with the laws and prohibitions of Passover, questions whether or not women should lean at the table. “A woman participating [in the Seder] with her husband is not required to recline." However, if she is a woman of esteem, she is required to recline. If it is a sign of freedom, women who have to make and serve the meal do not experience this emotion. Women of the time may have felt under duress for the duration of the Seder making sure that all the men were properly fed and all the ritual parts of the meal were tended to by someone.
Women who were held in high esteem do recline; to be an esteemed woman meant different things to different rabbinic commentators. Some saw this as an aspect of family status, wealth, personal scholarly achievement, or a woman who did have a husband and, therefore, had more independence. She didn’t have to answer to anyone at the meal.
Women are commanded to eat matza, drink four cups of wine and refrain from leavened products on Passover [BT Pesahim 43b]. Various rabbinic commentaries discuss the parts of the Seder that women must be present for if they have to leave the table for some reason.
By the time the sixteenth century rolled around, Rabbi Moses Isserles of Cracow questioned this view in the Talmud: “All women of our time,” he claimed, “are considered to be esteemed.” As it turns out, many women even then did not recline out of habit. Rabbi Isserles extended a pass to them because of an early legalist who suggested that no one reclines today because it is a not a sign of affluence for men or women. In other words, we have kept the ancient posture but thrown the furniture away. Some people today do conduct the story part of the evening in the living room on the floor, where reclining is more natural.
Most families still have the custom to recline at the Seder as a nod to tradition and perhaps as an attempt to recreate the emotional freedom of old. The slave sits stooped on a bench, eats a small meal quickly and returns to his tasks. The free person can afford to take his or her time and luxuriate in the food and the company.
Passover is not free from tension for many men and women today. There is a lot of preparation and anxiety that takes away the feelings of inner freedom that we are commanded to experience this season. By the time the hosts of a Seder get to the meal, they may find their faces in the soup. But it’s time to follow what the airlines have told us all along.
Sit back, relax and enjoy the flight!
Shabbat Shalom and a Joyous Passover