The requirement of haseibah, or reclining, during the Pesach seder is a rather interesting one. More often than not it results in people leaning in a way that is awkward and strange, and not at all representative of the royalty that it is supposed to commemorate1. Indeed, it is the opinion of Ra’avyah in his Avi Ezri that there is no longer a requirement to recline during the seder as it is no longer seen as an expression of royalty2. Normative halachic practice does not follow this da’as yachid, but one should be aware that such an opinion does exist. Needless to say, we are still left with the rather strange practice of reclining during our sedarim.
Perhaps, though, the haseibah of the seder is meant to be a little strange. In describing the roundabout desert route through which God led the Jews out of Egypt, the Torah uses the word “וַיַּסֵּב” (Exodus 13:18). The similarities between this word and the word for reclining, “הסיבה”, are intruiging. Indeed, the Midrash picks up on this detail and explains that while this word in context simply just means “[And God] led…”, it also possesses a secondary meaning of “reclining.” According to this midrash, God instructed the newly freed Jews to recline whenever they ate during their journey through the desert3.
If this sounds to you like something of a strange midrash, that’s because it is. Let’s see, however, if we can shed some light on it.
Why Not Fight Back?
There is a rather well-known idea of the Ibn Ezra (14:13) in response to the question of why the Jews did not fight back against the Egyptians at the splitting of the sea. Surely the entirety of the Jewish nation vastly outnumbered whatever army Pharaoh had sent to recapture them. If the Jews had chosen to do battle there would certainly be casualties, but they would have unquestionably emerged victorious in the end. Yet, the Ibn Ezra explains that this was simply not a viable or possible scenario for the Jews were of a slave mentality. They were so beaten and mentally broken that they saw themselves as slaves and nothing more. The thought to fight back did not even cross their minds!; and if it did, the notion was shut-down as absolutely impossible instantly4. To be sure, the newly freed Jewish nation was equally terrified at the prospect of overthrowing the Philistines despite the fact that the Jews outnumbered them as well. The reality, however, was that the Jewish nation simply did not believe that they were a mighty people; they were not in touch with their potential.
As such, God decided to take the Jews on an indirect route so as to avoid any imminent conflict, and to deal with the issue over the long sojourn through the desert. These two points form two sides of the same coin. God was going to avoid any immediate conflict, but also work towards restoring the morale of his people so that they would be ready to be the mighty nation that they were destined to be when the time finally would come. The indefinite avoidance of conflict was no real solution. If this time they were not ready, next time they would be. Thus, the Jewish nation was instructed to act as if they were royalty. They were to recline when they ate as if they were a mighty and powerful people. They were to act like royalty even if they did not yet feel that they were royalty. This was the point of the haseibah of the desert. To quote the popular adage, God told the Jewish people to “fake it until you make it.” If they were ever going to amount to more than nothing they had to stop acting like nothing. In time, through various similar methods, God would break their slave mentality and restore the Jewish nation to feeling once more like normal, capable humans.
The Unusual Reclining
To quote an idea of R. Avigdor Nebenzahl once shown to me by R. Moshe Benovitz, there is something appealing about the fact that the reclining at our sedarim nowadays feels awkward to us. In a sense, this is because we do not live fully “royal” lives. The reclining at the seder is meant to feel unusual to us. We often presume that we emulate a reclining that was at one time natural and normal, but, in a way, the awkward reclining of the present is more akin to the original reclining of the Jewish people in the desert. Haseibah at the seder is meant to be a shock to the system; it is meant to stand out and be unusual. That is the very point. It is an act in which we pretend to be the royalty that we do not quite live like on a daily basis. It is mean to call attention to itself, to cause us to wonder why acting like the royal and mighty nation that we are seems so strange at times.
There are times when we must act in a way that we do not feel is completely natural; to play the part of something or someone greater in an effort to better ourselves. Doing this is important sometimes, and it is a vital aspect of the avodah of the Pesach seder.
2. This opinion is also quoted in the Mishnah Berurah in its explanation of why, if you accidentally drank the cup of wine without reclining, you do not repeat.↩
3. The commentary of the Ba’al Ha’Turim quotes this interpretation on the spot as well.↩
4. In more recent years, there are shelves and shelves of scholarly works attempting to grapple with the same question in reference to black slavery — and the utter lack of any significant slave revolts — in pre-Civil War America .↩