Shiur #10: Heseiba and Cherut

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Talmudic Methodology
Yeshivat Har Etzion



By Rav Moshe Taragin



The Pesach Seder experience challenges us not merely to recall the past events of our departure from Egypt or to capture in ritual the various memories of that great day; as the mishna (Pesachim 10:5) teaches, each Jew must recreate the imminent sense of liberation and imagine himself or herself as undergoing the same process of emancipation.  The Torah gives us several mitzvot to help us reenact the Exodus, Yetziat Mitzrayim, and Chazal complement these mitzvot with several ideas of their own.  One feature which Chazal knit into the fabric of the Seder is the mitzva of heseiba, reclining. 


Presumably this practice elicits a personal attitude of cherut, sovereignty and freedom.  By reclining during eating, a person demonstrates - to oneself as well as to others - his or her newfound state of liberty.  In fact, the Rambam prefaces his description of heseiba with the aforementioned directive to recreate the Exodus experience.  Evidently, heseiba undoes the rigid and controlled dining environment, displaying as well as generating autonomy.


If this were true, we might question the continuing relevance of heseiba.  Most modern cultures do not view this form of eating as luxurious or royal; indeed, at a very practical level, many actually struggle to dine in this unorthodox fashion.  In fact, some medieval commentators already regard heseiba as irrelevant and allow or even encourage its suspension.  Both the Ra'avya (Chapter 525) and the Maharil (18:2) recognize the awkwardness of this form of eating and instruct us to eat and drink in our standard manner, but the Shulchan Arukh does not adopt their position and instead mandates standardized heseiba (see Orach Chayim 472).  It appears that this debate, regarding a situation wherein heseiba may not necessarily convey liberty, is already found in the Gemara itself.


The first mishna of the tenth chapter of Pesachim describes the prohibitions of working and eating on erev Pesach.  A certain degree of withdrawal creates both emotional anticipation and physical hunger to enhance one's eagerness for the Seder.  The mishna concludes by declaring “even a poor person (ani) must not eat (after a certain time on erev Pesach) until he has eaten with heseiba."  There are several interpretations of this statement.  Tosafot claim that one might have excluded an impoverished person form heseiba since he cannot truly experience freedom; thus, the mishna intends to discredit this idea and demand heseiba from rich and poor alike.  Is this mishna outlining heseiba even for those who will not taste freedom?  Or should we read the mishna as assuring us that even disadvantaged people can and should strive to taste freedom?  The differing readings of the mishna would yield different impressions of a case of heseiba which cannot stimulate cherut. 


A second example concerns women, who, according to the Gemara (108a), are excused from heseiba in the presence of their husbands.  Would this not indicate that heseiba is only applicable if it creates a sense of independence, which may not emerge in the presence of a woman's husband (at least in past social settings)?  Should this gemara not exonerate us from heseiba in the modern context, since we too may not sense liberty through reclining?


Several authorities offer different reasons to excuse women form heseiba; interestingly, it is not necessarily because women are incapable of experiencing cherut through heseiba.  For example, the Or Zarua cites an opinion which exempts women since it would be disrespectful to their husbands.  Even though a woman might not experience cherut, she would still be obligated if not for the 'insult' to her husband; concerned with this slight, Chazal never extend heseiba to women.  Other opinions (see Rabbeinu Manoach in his commentary to the Rambam) exclude her since she is busy supplying the meal.  It seems that her exclusion is based upon some more important value superseding the mitzva, rather than suspending the concept in the absence of cherut.  The fact that the gemara demands heseiba from an isha chashuva – a notable woman — merely reinforces the uncertainty.  Is she an exception because she is capable of sensing cherut, which is a precondition for an obligation of heseiba?  Or is she included within the heseiba experience because her demeanor will not insult her husband? 


Just as the mishna regarding an ani may be read in two different ways, so may this gemara; the question of non-cherut heseiba is not categorically solved by either of these sources.


The following gemara addresses a situation of a student in the presence of his rabbi.  The gemara seems to present a dispute between Abbayei and his fellow students, on the one hand, who recline when they visit their rabbi, Rav; and Rav Yosef, on the other, who informs his students that it is unnecessary to do so.  Rav's position is less revealing because presumably his students are able to achieve cherut in his presence; in fact, the same gemara obligates a child to perform heseiba in his father's presence, as the Rashbam explains, because the child is not that subservient to the parent.  Rav's students are of a similar mentality and are able to experience freedom and therefore recline. 


Rav Yosef's admonition is intriguing.  When instructing his students, he does not claim that they SHOULD NOT recline out of respect to his station; instead, he tells them that THEY ARE NOT OBLIGATED, which implies that their submissive attitude may prevent the achievement of cherut and that they are therefore excused from heseiba.  In Tur Orach Chayim 472, the Bet Yosef claims that if a rabbi exercises mechila and waives his honor – thereby absolving his students of the mitzva towards his master — they are obligated to recline.  Apparently, he reads Rav Yosef's admonition as stemming from their mitzva to honor him; once this mitzva is cancelled, they are as obligated as every man in heseiba.  Were the heseiba exemption based upon their inability to taste freedom in the presence of their rabbi, they might be absolved of heseiba even if their rabbi condones it; even if their halakhic obligation is suspended, they may still naturally feel uncomfortable in his presence.  Of course, the counterclaim can always be raised: once the mitzva of honor has dissolved, the mentality of the students changes, and they are now rendered capable of actually sensing the perspective of cherut. 


An interesting dispute among the Rishonim may shed some light on the basis of Rav Yosef's exemption.  This dispute lies between those Rishonim who extend the exemption to ANY rabbi and those who limit it to a rav muvhak - the individual who has taught a person the majority of his Torah knowledge.  If the exemption is based upon the formal obligation to honor one's rabbi, it would extend to all rabbis; indeed, in Hilkhot Talmud Torah (5:6), when the Rambam cites the prohibition to recline in the presence of a rabbi, he seems to apply this issur to all rabbis.  If however, the clash between heseiba and the presence of a rabbi is not halakhic but existential (that cherut is not unachievable) it may only apply in the presence of a rav muvhak, whose company truly limits the freedom of his student's behavior. 



The next shiur will, Iy"H, expand the discussion of heseiba which does not induce cherut.