Changing Passover Customs

A look at some Pesach customs throughout history.

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Reprinted with permission from A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah, published by the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Who Pours the Wine?

On Pesach the Rabbis asked us to play a double role--remembering our slave status by eating the bread of poverty and bitter herbs, yet reiterating the freed status that we achieved on this very night in Egypt. How does one behave in a style befitting a free being?

The Rabbis took their cues from Greco-Roman citizens, a privileged minority whose freedom and dignity were displayed in their participation in elegant symposia [meals that featured intellectual discussion]. Aristocratic diningmeant reclining on cushioned couches, sipping excellent wines with hors d'ouevres dipped in appetizing sauces eaten from one's finest silver and ceramic dishes while conducting a leisurely intellectual exchange of views according to a well-known format set by the host. (The term "school" derives from the Greek word for leisure, "schole").

On seder night, the Rabbis require this format from even the poorest Jews. Practically speaking, this means that the community tzedakah [charity] fund must provide at least four cups of wine for needy men and women. All must be able to celebrate their freedom with the same basic material comforts, because "all Israel are regarded as children of kings." For that reason it is customary that someone else pour your wine for you, just as aristocrats are served while reclining.

However, we must note the vigorous dissent from this custom by Rabbi Y. M. Epstein (Poland, 19th century). He feared it would lead to what a contemporary might call blatant sexism or the exploitation of women to pour wine for the men:

"It is haughty and arrogant to order one's wife to serve him wine. After all, he is no more obligated to drink wine than she. Therefore, we ask that everyone pour for him or herself."

Why Recline?

One of the four questions is "Why on seder night must we eat reclining, while on all other nights we may eat either reclining or sitting up?" Clearly the question presupposes a social world in which, as in the Greco-Roman nobility, meals were often taken while the guests reclined on their left arms on couches, leaving their right hand free to dip and taste. At each couch was a small table with individual portions, like today's seder plate.

However, since the European Middle Ages, it is no longer the way of nobility to recline. In fact, eating while reclining on pillows is the way of the sick. Avi HaEzri led the Ashkenazi tradition in declaring the commandment to recline obsolete and no longer binding (Rabbi Eliezer Ben Joel, 12th century, Germany).

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Rabbi David Golinkin

Rabbi David Golinkin, Ph.D., is president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish law, and he heads the Va'ad Halakhah (committee on Jewish law) of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.

Noam Zion

Noam Zion is the Director of Shalom Hartman Institute's Resource Center for Jewish Continuity. He specializes in teaching Jewish Holidays, Bible and Art, and has edited several educational books for the Shalom Hartman Institute.