108a: Heseiba - b

  • Rav Ezra Bick

Last week we began the sugya on 108a concerning heseiba, reclining while performing some of the mitzvot of the seder. We learned the first part, which deals with WHEN to do heseiba; i.e., during which mitzvot (matza and two out of four cups of wine), and HOW to do heseiba (on the left side). Today we continue, and the topic is WHO is obligated to do heseiba.

We are on 108a, eleven lines from the bottom ("Isha eitzel ba'ala").

The webpage for the shiur is found at


I have added rudimentary punctuation to the typed Hebrew-English page on the website. One of the crucial elements of learning gemara is figuring out the different syntactical elements of the talmudic discussion - what is a question, what an answer, and what is an attempt at refutation. You should, when reading the gemara text, emphasize these points. Try reading it on your own, and then use the typed text to compare and correct yourselves. This is the most important reading skill you can develop in learning.

The typed text is at:



            Before beginning, I wish to remind you of the major conclusion of last week's shiur. Heseiba is an expression of freedom. This was clear from the discussion of the gemara concerning which of the cups of wine require heseiba. The arguments all revolved around the question which of the cups celebrate the freedom of Egypt (as well as the question whether we are expressing liberation - the process of the leaving slavery, or freedom, the resulting state). Apparently, heseiba is a form of eating that reflects leisure and aristocratic freedom. This will be very important for our discussion to day.

            Isha eitzel ba'ala lo ba'i heseiba


A woman before her husband does not require heseiba.

But if she is an important woman, she requires heseiba.

A son before his father requires heseiba.


            It is clear from the two possibilities concerning a married woman, as well as the question concerning a son before his father (even though the conclusion is that he requires heseiba), that heseiba in some way contradicts the patriarchal nature of the family. The Rashbam explains:


Isha eina tzricha heseiba

A woman does not require heseiba - because of the reverence of her husband, and she is subject to him. And in the Sheiltot of Rav Achai it is explained that it is not common for women to drink wine.


            The Rashbam cites two explanations for the exemption of (non-important) women from heseiba. The Ran has a different explanation, "because she serves her husband." All of these explanations are modified by the gemara with the stipulation that they do not apply to an "important woman." Since it is very unusual to find that there are different laws for "important" and non-important people, it is clear that the original exemption is not halakhic, in the manner that, for example, women are exempt from tefillin, but social. Heseiba is not an obligation in and of itself, but rather one of showing independence and freedom. It only has this meaning within a particular social order, and if, in that order, it is not appropriate, there is no reason to perform it. The society familiar to the Sages was indeed patriarchal, and reclining at a meal was inappropriate for married women. The Rashbam explains this as a question of status, while the Ran explains this as a matter of practicality - the woman is serving the meal. In any event, if the relationship does not conform to this model, the sages saw no reason to exempt women. An "important" woman is one who, according to the Rashbam, has a social status equal to her husband's, or, according to the Ran, does not serve the meals to him. In such a case, where reclining would have the symbolic meaning that the Sages are looking for, there is no difference between women and men.


            The Meiri's explanation of the status of women in regards to this halakha is illuminating:


A woman does not need to recline, as there is no freedom for a woman in the presence of her husband. But if she is an important woman, she is required to recline, as there is no servitude in her marriage relationship. Therefore, it would appear that if she is not in the presence of her husband, she is required to recline.


            The reason given by the Sheiltot, as quoted by the Rashbam, has the same nature. It differs only in that is based on the social acceptability of women to drink wine rather than to recline while eating. This presents a problem, as we have already seen that reclining is not particularly related to drinking wine. The first thing that the gemara obligated in heseiba was matza, and only subsequently did they discuss the wine. Apparently, according to the Sheiltot, although not only wine is drunk with heseiba, the original locus of heseiba is in drinking wine. This makes a lot of sense if we assume that drinking wine itself is an expression of freedom (as we shall see on 108b). Now the Talmud states explicitly that women are obligated to drink four cups of wine at the seder. The Sheiltot is nonetheless claiming that since customarily women do not drink socially, heseiba has no symbolic meaning for them even at the seder, when they are drinking according to the dictates of the seder ritual. Hence, they do not recline even when eating matza. Heseiba as an expression of freedom and nobility derives its meaning from the way in which men gather to drink wine, and this symbolism is not relevant for women of the common social classes.


            Here you may ask the obvious question. If heseiba derives its meaning from the social custom, and therefore did not apply to women, then today in Western customs, where heseiba is never practiced and would not be an expression of freedom and nobility, it should not be required at all. This, in fact, is the conclusion of many of the German Tosafot.


In these times, when free men are not accustomed to recline, one should sit in the usual manner. (Raavya, 525).


They were accustomed to sit on couches and recline to the left, but we, who are not accustomed to this manner, fulfill (the obligation) in our manner of eating, and one should tilt neither left not right. (Raavan 74b).


Only in their (ancient) times, when they were accustomed to recline on other days during the year, then they were obligated to recline on Pesach, but we, who do not recline on other days of the year, should not do so on the night of Pesach, for what freedom is there in this? On the contrary, it looks like an illness! (Maharil 18b)


            Nonetheless, the Shulchan Arukh (472b) rules that heseiba is practiced today as well. The simplest way to explain this is that once the Sages enacted the obligation of heseiba, which was based on the manner of eating in their time, it acquires a symbolic meaning within Judaism, and no longer needs the prevailing custom to support the symbolic meaning. In other words, heseiba now has symbolic meaning within the ritual of the seder.




            As we saw, the gemara itself says that an "important woman" is required to recline. The Mordechai concludes that "All the women today are important, and they are required to recline." This obviously is a social comment, based on the status of women in his time (14th century Germany). Since the gemara has already stated that the exemption of women from heseiba is social, the Mordechai is merely following the direction of the Talmud.


The Rama, however, draws the opposite conclusion. "However, I have not seen women reclining in these times. It is possible that they are lenient based on the opinion of the Raavya, who wrote that nowadays there is no requirement of heseiba" (Darchei Moshe, 472,2). In other words, since according to the present manner of eating, heseiba does not express freedom, there is no relevance to the fact that all modern (17th century) women are "important." Men continue to follow the custom of seder eating from ancient times, but there is no corresponding ritual custom for women.


            Without getting into a lengthy discussion, I think this is a fascinating example of the interplay of symbol meaning and halakha and its dependence on the cultural framework within halakha. Of course, the Pesach seder is especially sensitive to these considerations, since, as we have seen, it is, to a great extent, a symbolic recreation of the ancient experience.




            Continuing on in the gemara.


Ibaye lehu

The question was raised: A disciple in the presence of his master - what (is the law of heseiba)?

"Come and hear" ("Ta shma" introduces a proof to answer a raised question):

Abaye said: When I was present in the house of my master, we would lean each on the knees of the other. When I came to the house of Rav Yosef, he said: You do not need to, for the reverence of your master should be like the reverence of heaven.

They brought (a refutation):

One should recline with everyone, even a disciple with his master.

That halakha is speaking of a carpenter's apprentice.


            The gemara distinguishes between discipleship in Torah and apprenticeship in a trade. The first is subject to the rule that the awe of one's teacher of Torah should be like the awe of heaven. The Rashbam (s.v. "kemora") quotes the source:


Like the awe of heaven - as is written, "You shall revere HaShem your God" - this comes to include sages in Torah (Pesachim 22b); the verse equated awe of one's teacher with the awe of heaven.


            So, we now have the following set of relationships.


Son in the presence of his father - reclines;

Student in the presence of his Torah master - does not recline;

Apprentice in the presence of his master - reclines.


            Tosafot asks the combination question. What about a son in the presence of his father, where he is also his teacher of Torah?


Tosafot s.v. "bifnei"

Before his master he does need to recline. It would appear that (before) his father who is also his master he does not need to recline, for it is not different than a different teacher. However, the normal father does presumably teach Torah to his son, as we find in Kiddushin (31a), that a son reveres his father more than his mother, for he teaches him Torah; and yet nonetheless, it says here that he should recline in the presence of his father.


            What is the relationship between the first part of the Tosafot and the second?




            Although the usual keywords that indicate a question are absent here, it is clear that Tosafot is questioning his own statement. If our gemara states categorically that a son should recline in the presence his father, and the normal father is, in fact, a teacher of Torah, this would indicate that in the combination case of father-teacher a son should recline. Tosafot points this out, but does not explicitly draw a conclusion. Suggest an answer to the question - if the mandatory reverence due one's teacher precludes heseiba, why should one recline in the presence of one's father who is also one's teacher?




            I am leaving this question in your hands, but will be happy to hear from anyone who would like to suggest or discuss his answer by email ([email protected])




            Continuing -


Ibaye lehu

The question was raised: A servant, what (is the law of heseiba)?

Ta Shema: R. Yehoshua b. Levi said: A servant who ate a kezayit of matza while reclining has fulfilled his obligation.

"While reclining has fulfilled;" reclining yes, not reclining no. 

This is a proof that he requires heseiba!


            The servant - basically, a waiter - who serves the meal customarily, stands, even as he eats. However, on Pesach night he must recline when eating matza.


            Before we saw the opinion of the Ran that the reason that a wife does not recline is because she is serving her husband. Does this not contradict the gemara here, which explicitly requires a servant to recline? Please suggest an answer.




            I think the answer is simple. A servant would not normally recline, or even sit down, while eating. However, to put it simply, that is because he is a servant! On Pesach night, every Jew is enjoined to show that he is free, a member of the aristocracy of God's people. Hence, when he eats matza, he should ignore his position of service. A wife however, at least according to the Ran, is not a servant. She serves the meals as part of her relationship with her husband within a marriage. The Ran does not think that this relationship contradicts freedom, as it is not a form, even a light form, of servitude. On the contrary, reclining is not the way that a wife shows freedom, just as standing and serving does not exhibit a state of subjugation. (You are free to disagree of course, but that is not part of our learning to understand the gemara and its commentaries.)


            We have finished the sugya of heseiba. From here we will continue, next week, and begin the sugya dealing with the four cups.