Seder night. Everything in sight is scrubbed clean and shiny; delicious aromas waft in from the kitchen. The smiling family members are gathered around the set table, all of them reclining against a pillow on their chairs. Or are they? We know that men have an obligation to recline at the seder table, but do women have this obligation as well?
The Gemara says, “Isha etzel ba’alah lo ba’i hasebah, v’im isha chashuva hi tzricha hasebah” (Pesachim, 108a) – a woman next to her husband is not required to recline, but if she is an important woman she must recline. Many Rishonim ask, who qualifies as an “isha chashuva”? Which women are obligated to recline and which are not? Three explanations are offered, exemplified by the Kesef Mishna, the Sheiltos d’Rav Achai (an early gaon), and Tosfos.
Rav Yosef Cairo in the Kesef Mishna, his gloss on Rambam (Hilchos Chametz u’Matzah, 7:8) gives three definitions of an isha chashuva. It can be an unmarried woman who is the head of her house; a woman who comes from an important family, is an eishes chayil and yiras Hashem; or a woman with servants who need not busy herself with preparing food and running the house.
The Kesef Mishna’s definition is a practical one. A factor in the life of the isha chashuva makes it feasible, and therefore mandatory, for her to recline at the seder table – in contradistinction to women who, for practical reasons, are unable to, and therefore are not required to recline. As a matter of practical halacha, Rav Yosef Cairo maintains this distinction when he rules in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim, 472:4) that the isha chashuva must recline and all other women are exempt.
The Sheiltos on the other hand proffers a sociological rationale. He says “lav darcha d’nashei l’mizgah” – it is simply not the way of women to recline. Nevertheless, he maintains that an isha chashuva must recline, though he does not provide criteria for inclusion in this category.
Tosfos in Pesachim takes a novel approach and says, “d’kulhu nashim didan chashuvos ninhu v’tzrichos hashebah” – all of our women are important and are required to recline. Unlike the aforementioned poskim who differentiate between types of women based on philosophical, sociological or practical factors, Tosfos asserts that all women in the Jewish community are important to us, should be viewed respectfully – and therefore are all obligated to recline at the seder table.
The Ramah (Ashkenazic glosses to the Shulchan Aruch) rules, based on this Tosfos, that all women are considered chashuvos; therefore all women have an obligation to recline at the seder. However, he proceeds to say something surprising (see also Darchei Moshe), noting that while all women are obligated to do so, the women of his community do not recline. Attempting to reconcile this seeming contradiction, he postulates that perhaps all the women were accustomed to be lenient (“nohagu lihakel”) based on the Ra’avyah’s assertation (siman 525) that since it is no longer the custom of b’nei chorin to recline on a sofa-type seat while eating, the act of reclining no longer symbolizes freedom. The Ra’avyah therefore believes that everyone should sit upright at the seder.
It’s fascinating to realize that the Ramah was so perturbed by the disconnect between his understanding of correct halachic practice and the reality he witnessed around him that he postulated a highly improbable sociological phenomenon. Although no men relied on the Ra’avyah, the Ramah suggests that all women must have known about this singular, obscure, lenient opinion and relied on it.
While we can conclude that there is valid halachic basis for both opinions on whether or not women are obligated to recline, I would encourage readers, when they make their personal decisions this year, to keep in mind what the act of reclining at the seder symbolizes in the context of our community.