Women and the Pesach Seder
The Talmud states that women are obligated to eat matza at the Pesach seder, even though it is a time-bound positive commandment, from which women are generally exempt.
The Talmud states that women are obligated to eat matza at the Pesach seder, even though it is a time-bound positive commandment, from which women are generally exempt:
For Rabbi Eliezer said: “Women are obligated in [the commandment of] eating matza by Torah law, as it is stated: ‘You shall eat no leavened bread with it; [seven days shall you eat unleavened bread therewith]” (Devarim 16:3). Whoever is subject to “You shall eat no leavened bread” is subject to the [mitzva of] eating unleavened bread; and these women, since they are subject to [the injunction of] “You shall eat no leavened bread,” are [also] subject to “Arise, eat unleavened bread.” (Pesachim 43b)
The Gemara establishes that there is a connection between the prohibition of chametz and the obligation to eat matza. Women are forbidden to eat chametz, as they are bound by all the negative commandments. Therefore, they must also eat matza on the night of the seder. The prohibition of chametz and the commandment to eat matza constitute a single unit.
II. The Paschal Offering
The Gemara elsewhere addresses the question whether women are obligated to bring the Paschal offering (Pesachim 91b). According to Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yose, we slaughter a Paschal offering for a woman separately, whereas according to Rabbi Shimon we do not – she can join a group of men and participate in their Paschal offering. The Gemara connects Rabbi Yehuda’s view to the position that a woman is obligated to bring a Paschal offering. This is derived from the verse: “And if the household be too little for a lamb, let him and his neighbor next to his house take it according to the number of the souls; according to every man’s eating shall you make your count for the lamb” (Shemot 12:4). The neutral term “souls” includes both men and women. Indeed, the Rambam (Hilkhot Korban Pesach 1:1) rules that women are obligated in the Paschal offering just like men.
III. The Four Cups of Wine
The Gemara asserts that women are obligated to drink four cups of wine at the seder: “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: ‘Women are obligated in these four cups [of wine], for they too were included in that miracle’” (Pesachim 108a-b). The Gemara states this rule about another two rabbinic time-bound positive commandments – reading Megillat Esther on Purimand lighting candles on Chanuka. Rashi comments on the passage in Pesachim, explaining that by virtue of righteous women the people of Israel were redeemed from Egypt. But the Tosafot point out that this explanation is also brought with respect to megilla reading, and there the expression “they too” is inappropriate, as the miracle of Purim was performed principally through Esther; her participation was not a marginal addition, as “they too” seems to imply. The Tosafot therefore explain that in each of these three historical instances, the women of Israel were exposed to the same danger as their male counterparts.
The Posekim agree that women are also obligated in the mitzvato eat maror (bitter herbs) at the seder, but it is not clear why this should be so. The Arukh Ha-shulchan writes as follows:
Since [women] are obligated in matza, they are also obligated in the Paschal offering and in maror, as they are compared one to the other. As it is written: “They shall eat [the Paschal offering] with matzot and maror.” Even though the obligation to eat maror nowadays is [only] by Rabbinic law, nevertheless, whatever the Rabbis enacted, they enacted similar to Scriptural law. Accordingly, they are obligated in all the commandments of the night, as they are all one matter. And furthermore, it was by virtue of righteous women that our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt. Therefore, it is obvious that they are obligated in all the commandments of the night, as they are all only because of the redemption from Egypt. (Orach Chayyim 472:15)
The words of the Arukh Ha-shulchan contain several novelties. First, he argues that even the obligation of women regarding the Paschal offering – which the Gemara connects to the verse, “according to the number of the souls,” is connected to the analogy to the prohibition of chametz. According to him, after the Gemara learns that women are obligated in the mitzvaof eating matza, it expands this obligation to include the Paschal offering and maror as well.
What about the duty to eat maror nowadays, which is only rabbinic? The Arukh Ha-shulchan proposes two ways of understanding why women are obligated in maror today. First: “Whatever the Rabbis enacted, they enacted similar to Scriptural law.” That is to say, when the Rabbis instituted the mitzvaof maror, they established that its laws should be similar to the obligation of maror which was in force during the time of the Temple. Women, who were obligated in the mitzvaof maror when it was a Torah obligation, are also obligated in the mitzvanow that it is mandated by Rabbinic decree alone. Second, “they too were included in that miracle” – this rationale is relevant to all the rabbinic obligations on the night of the seder.
The Arukh Ha-shulchan implies that these two rationales apply to other mitzvot of the Seder night as well, such as the four cups. Apart from the consideration that “they too were included in that miracle,” he mentions that all the commandments of the night are “one matter.” If women are obligated to eat matza, they are obligated in all the mitzvot performed that night. The Rabbis enacted these mitzvot as part of a comprehensive system of commandments to be observed on the night of the seder, and anyone who is obligated to eat matza, etc., is also obligated in these rabbinic commandments. There might have been room to distinguish between maror –fundamentally a Torah obligation that is no longer applicable – and the four cups – a rabbinic obligation at its core. Perhaps the analogy to matza applies to maror, but it is difficult to include a fundamentally rabbinic mitzvawith the rest of the mitzvot, such that they all be considered “one matter.” In any event, the Arukh Ha-shulchan does not make this distinction.
V. Relating the Story of the Exodus from Egypt
The mitzvaof sippur yetziat Mitzrayim,relating the story of the exodus from Egypt, finds expression in the recitation of the Haggada. This mitzva is incumbent upon women, but it is not clear whether their obligation is by Torah law or by rabbinic enactment. The Sefer Ha-chinukh (commandment no. 21) writes that women are obligated in this mitzvaby Torah law. The Minchat Chinukh expresses his surprise:
“This applies to males and females, etc.” In my opinion, this is a great novelty. Why should this mitzvaapply to women, seeing that it is a time-bound positive commandment, from which women are exempt? … Rambam (Hilkhot Avoda Zara 12:3) lists the time-bound positive commandments in which women are obligated: kiddush, matza, the Paschal offering, rejoicing on the Festivals, and hakhel. But he does not count this. From where then does [the Chinukh] derive that women are obligated in this mitzva? He learns that the reason is that they too were included in that miracle, as with megilla reading and the four cups. But the Tosafot already proved in several places that this only creates a rabbinic obligation…
Women are certainly obligated by rabbinic law, as they are obligated in the four cups and in Hallel on the night of the seder. (Minchat Chinukh, commandment 21 )
The Minchat Chinukh argues that the Rambam does not mention that women are obligated in the mitzvaof telling the story of the exodus from Egypt. What is more, in Hilkhot Avoda Zara (chap. 12), where the Rambam notes the six time-bound positive commandments to which women are subject by Torah law, he does not mention this mitzva. It should be noted, on the other hand, that at the end of his listing of the positive commandments in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot, the Rambam mentions those commandments from which women are exempt. He implies that women are not exempt from the mitzvaof telling the story of the exodus from Egypt (mitzva no. 157). While this may seem like a contradiction, it is certainly possible that the Rambam changed his position on this point.
The Minchat Chinukh argues that, in any case, it is obvious that women are obligated in the mitzvaof telling the story of the exodus at least by rabbinic decree, just as they are obligated to drink the four cups of wine. It should be noted that theoretically one could have argued that women are not at all obligated in the mitzvaof telling the story of the exodus. Thus far, we have seen mitzvot that are incumbent upon both men and women by Torah law, e.g., eating matza (as both men and women are prohibited from eating chametz); and we have also seen mitzvot in which both men and women are obligated by rabbinic decree, e.g., the four cups (as “they too were included in that miracle”). It may be that the factor of “they too were included in that miracle” is only relevant to mitzvot that are fundamentally rabbinic in origin, and not to mitzvot in which men are obligated by Torah law. If this is the case, there is room to say that the mitzvaof telling the story of the exodus falls into neither of the two categories described above, and therefore women are entirely exempt. As stated, however, not even the Minchat Chinukh raises such a possibility.
The Minchat Chinukh considers it obvious that women are obligated to recite Hallel on the night of the seder (by rabbinic decree). He refers to the Tosafot in Sukka:
The implication here is that women are exempt from Hallel on Sukkot and Shavuot, the reason being that it is a time-bound positive commandment. Even though with respect to Hallel on the night of the seder, the Gemara in Arvei Pesachim (108a) implies that [women] are obligated in the four cups, and presumably the four cups were only instituted so that Hallel and the Haggada should be recited over them – the Hallel of Pesach is different, as it comes for the miracle, and they too were included in that miracle. But here it is not recited over a miracle. (Tosafot, Sukka 38a)
The Tosafot assert that if women are obligated in the mitzvaof the four cups, they are apparently also obligated in the Hallel that is recited on the night of the seder, for “presumably the four cups were only instituted so that Hallel and the Haggada should be recited over them.” Why should women be obligated in the Hallel recited on the night of the seder but not in the Hallel recited on Sukkot and Shavuot? The Tosafot explain that the Hallel recited on the night of the seder is exceptional, “as it comes for the miracle, and they too were included in that miracle.”
What is the meaning of the distinction between the Hallel recited on Sukkot and the Hallel recited on the night of the seder? R. Yitzchak Soloveitchik (Chiddushei Maran Riz Ha-Levi, Hilkhot Chanuka 3:6) distinguishes between the Hallel recited on all the various occasions, which is recited as a “reading,” and the Hallel recited on the night of the seder, which is recited as a “song.” Hallel is usually recited as part of the prayer service. But on the night of the seder, it is an excited response to deliverance from affliction. “In each and every generation a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt” (Pesachim 116b). A person who has just left Egypt responds to the salvation of his people from slavery by singing Hallel. Therefore, on the night of the seder, Hallel is recited at night, a phenomenon not found on any other occasion. And, therefore, women are exempt from the Hallel recited on the various holidays, but they are obligated in the Hallel recited on the night of the seder, as it is a show of thanksgiving for the miracle, and “they too were included in that miracle.”
The ruling of the Shulchan Arukh is straightforward: “Women too are obligated in the four cups and in all the commandments that apply that night” (Orach Chayyim 472:14). Indeed, thus far we have seen that women are obligated in all the mitzvot related to the seder. The only question is whether they are obligated by Torah law or by rabbinic decree. There is, however, one rabbinic commandment regarding which the role of women is unclear, namely, the mitzvaof reclining.
The Gemara in Pesachim (108a) states: “A woman in her husband’s [house] need not recline, but if she is a woman of importance she must recline.” The words “in her husband’s [house]” did not appear in the texts available to the Rishonim, and therefore it is reasonable to assume that we are dealing with an addition that was inserted into the Gemara, and that comprises sort of an explanation: When is a woman exempt from reclining? When she is in her husband’s house.
The Rosh writes that we find among the Rishonim two different explanations of this law, and that there is a practical difference between them:
A woman need not recline. The Rashbam explains: “Because of reverence for her husband, to whom she is beholden.” According to this, a widow or a divorcee must recline. The She’iltot De-Rav Achai writes that it is not the manner of women to recline. According to this, a widow and a divorcee are also [exempt], but as for an important woman, it is her manner to recline. (Rosh, Pesachim, chap. 10, no. 20)
The Rashbam explains that a woman does not recline because she is beholden to her husband. The She’iltot writes that it is not the manner of a woman to recline. The practical difference is whether or not a single woman must recline. They both agree (following the Gemara) that an important woman must recline, but for different reasons: The Rashbam would say that an important woman feels free and is not subject to her husband, whereas the She’iltot would argue that it is the way of an important woman, in contrast to other women, to recline.
The Me’iri follows the Rashbam, adding another halakhic ramification:
A woman need not recline, because a woman is not free in the presence of her husband. But if she is an important woman, she must recline, as there is nothing servile in her marriage. [As for an ordinary woman,] when she is not in her husband’s presence, it would seem that she must recline. (Meiri, Pesachim 108a)
The Meiri argues that a woman is exempt from reclining because “a woman is not free in the presence of her husband.” In light of this, he reaches the conclusion that a woman’s exemption from reclining only applies when she is in her husband’s presence. This is similar to a parallel statement from the same passage in Pesachim, which posits that a disciple in his teacher’s presence is exempt from reclining because of his reverence for his teacher.
A third explanation appears, among other places, in the words of Rabbeinu Manoach in his commentary on the Rambam:
If she is an important woman – that is, if she has no husband and she is the mistress of the house, she must recline. Alternatively, if she is important with respect to her handiwork, a God-fearing woman, the daughter of the great Torah scholars of the generation, and she has the praises of a woman of valor, this woman… even if she has a husband, she must recline. Alternatively, you can explain: “She need not recline” – since she is busy with cooking and preparing the food, they exempted her from reclining, just as they exempted her from time-bound positive commandments. But an important woman, who has male servants and maidservants who take care of food matters and she sits idle – she must recline. (Rabbeinu Manoach, Hilkhot Chametz U-matza 7:5)
Rabbeinu Manoach understands that a woman’s exemption is connected to the extent of her obligation to her husband. In light of this, he proposes two possible explanations of the expression “important woman”: (1) a woman who has no husband and (2) an impressive woman, in practical or spiritual terms, who does not nullify herself with respect to her husband.
But then Rabbeinu Manoach proposes another explanation: A woman’s exemption is connected to the fact that she is busy preparing the food. Consequently, an “important woman” is one who need not involve herself in preparing and serving the food, as she has servants who do that in her place. In light of this novel explanation, it is clear that such a woman would be obligated to recline.
The Mordechai cites, in the name of the Tosafot, a novel position with important practical ramifications in this context: “If she is an important woman, she must recline. The Tosafot explain that all of our women are important and they are required to recline” (Addendum to Arvei Pesachim). It follows that, due to changing societal norms, a woman’s exemption from reclining may no longer be relevant. If a woman’s exemption from reclining resulted from her “subjugation” to her husband, then it may be that women today should recline because they are no longer regarded as being subject to their husbands. If their exemption resulted from the need to prepare the meal, we can say that today a woman’s involvement in preparing the meal no longer requires that she be absent from the meal itself.
The Shulchan Arukh and the Rema rule:
A woman need not recline, unless she is an important woman.
Rema: All of our women are considered important (Mordechai); but they are not accustomed to recline, as they rely on the words of the Ra’avya, who writes that today there is no need [for anyone] to recline. (Orach Chayyim 472:4)
There is room to discuss whether, in the time of the Mordechai, women actually reclined, or perhaps even then they were not accustomed to do so. In any event, it is clear that in the time of the Rema – as today – many women were not accustomed to recline. But in light of the Mordechai’s ruling that all of our women are considered important, it is difficult to understand why women are not particular about reclining.
In this context, the Rema mentions the Ra’avya, who maintains that in our time, nobody is required to recline – neither men nor women. Why? In the days of Chazal,reclining represented the normal way of sitting at a distinguished meal, but in our day that is no longer the case. The Rema argues that women are not accustomed to recline, even though they are all considered important women, because they rely on the Ra’avya, who exempts everybody from reclining in our time. The Rema’s explanation seems very forced, as the Ra’avya does not distinguish between women and men; why then should only women rely on his position?
The Vilna Gaon, in his commentary, mentions the rationale of the She’iltot, that the Gemara exempts woman from reclining because they are not accustomed to recline all year long. According to this, it can be argued that today, even important women are not accustomed to recline all year long, and therefore they should not recline at the seder. This might be the basis for distinguishing between men and women. Regarding men, it was established that they are obligated to recline. According to most Posekim (except for the Ra’avya), this is a binding law that does not depend on one’s personal custom. But as for women, it was established from the outset that their obligation depends on their custom (for, unlike men, already then most women were not accustomed to recline). As a result, a woman’s obligation to recline depends on the custom of each generation.
In practice, many women today are not accustomed to recline. But there are different customs regarding the matter, and some women indeed recline at the seder, just as men do.
(Translated by David Strauss)
 This is only true for Pesach Rishon, the 15th day of Nissan, and not for Pesach Sheni, the 15thday of Iyyar.
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This article was reposted with permission from the VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion. It is part of a series “Women and Mitzvot“.