On today’s daf we return to the Mishnah’s statement that even a poor person should recline at the Seder. The discussion then continues and asks how to recline and who specifically (women, servants, students) is required to recline. But let’s take a step back – what is this reclining הסבה and why do we do it at the Seder?
In today’s western world, most of us experience reclining at the Seder when we tell our kids to bring pillows from the bedrooms and put them on the chairs. While this is comfortable and makes the meal feel different, it is hardly the reclining that the Mishnah is referring to. Some of the more daring among us might conduct part of the Seder on the floor, on cushions like Beduin, but this is not what we are talking about either. Reclining was a class-specific way to eat a meal and it ties into the larger picture of what the Seder is emulating, as well as transforming.
In ancient Greece men got together for what was known as a symposium. This was an evening fueled by lots of wine, where philosophy and poetry were discussed. The most famous symposium was the one written about by Plato, where various notables like Socrates gave speeches on Eros, the god of love and lust. Symposia were all male affairs, some were very serious and some involving wild partying as well as prostitutes along with the poetry. The amount and dilution of the wine was in accordance with the plan for the evening. A formal setting like this, with breaks for drinking and speeches, was the model for our Seder. However, the rabbis made sure to transform the drunken festival into an evening filled with meaning, where even the wine was part of the story.
Women entertaining at a symposium
National Archaeological Museum, CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons
By the time we come to Rome, the symposium had changed. Now women as well as men were guests and food was added to the mix. However, as in Greece, only important, i.e., wealthy and free, men and women were participants. When the Mishnah tells us that even the poor Jews must recline, it is telling us that all Jews are free and all Jews are important. The Ashkenazi rabbis in the Middle Ages went one step further and announced that all female Jews are considered נשים חשובות important women, and therefore have the right to recline.
The (important) participants and the (unimportant) slave
Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
How was this reclining done? A Roman living room was called a triclinium, from the word tri, three, and klinai, a couch to recline on. Three sides of the room were devoted to couches and one was left empty to allow the servers access to the guests. Sometimes couches held more than one person. Which couch you were placed on indicated your social status, as it did in the rabbis’ world. Berachot 46 discusses who gets the middle couch if people of unequal status are dining together. The rabbis were familiar with this word and Hebraicized it to traklin טרקלין. A famous statement in Pirkei Avot (4:16) tells us that this world is the entrance hall (prozdor) to the next world and if you prepare yourself in the hall, you may then enter the grand traklin.
Dr. Keren Kirshenbaum, in her comprehensive work about furniture in the Mishnah, discusses the couch/bed, called a מיטה in rabbinic literature. In most households, it was used for both sleeping and reclining and was one of the most important and fanciest pieces of furniture in the home. It could be adorned with anything from ivory to metal or colored glass inlays. Pliny the Elder even writes about beds made out of solid gold and silver. We also have archaeological evidence of much plainer but very functional beds. In Pompeii where everything was covered by the volcanic eruption in the first century CE, archaeologists discovered cement beds that inclined at one end, for a type of a headrest. Not movable but hard to break. We also have many pictures of couches like this – on sarcophagi, Greek urns and other places.
Reproduction of a kline
Walters Art Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The standard, simple bed consisted of a rectangular frame with ropes stretched across to hold up the cushions or mattress to sit on. Some beds had sides and a fancy headrest as well. The rabbis clearly imagined their own beds when they wrote about how the Israelites took the Paschal lamb on the tenth of Nisan and tied it to כרעי המטה, the ropes of the bed.
And how did you eat? Reclining on your left side, servants brought small tables to each diner who ate from them with his right hand. When the Haggadah talks about taking away the table, we interpret that to mean removing the Seder plate. But really, they took away the table between courses! While this method of dining looks to us uncomfortable at best and indigestion producing at worst, for the rabbis tis was the classic way to show that all Jews were free, important sons and daughters to God.
Have we found any couches or tables in archaeology of the Land of Israel? When the Jewish Quarter was excavated after the Six-Day War, the head archaeologist Professor Nahman Avigad was excited to discover not just houses but furniture from Second Temple times. The Herodion Quarter, a first century CE cluster of houses of kohanim, was one of the few places where you could get a picture of how ordinary, albeit very wealthy, people lived. The low, small tables are exactly what one would picture as being placed next to the couches; the fact that they were made of stone attests to their owners being kohanim who were very worried about purity. As you can see, the room was also set up as a tricliniums . Mosaic floors delineated where the spaces for the couches would go.
The triclinium in the Herodion Quarter
Proa 500, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Up north, a few centuries later in Zippori, a much more elaborately decorated triclinium was found. Here the floors were decorated not just with simple geometric designs as in Jerusalem but with two extraordinary mosaics. One is a portrait of a beautiful woman, known today as the Mona Lisa of the Galilee. Was she the owner of the house? The rest of the floor was decorated with scenes from the bacchanalia, the wine festival of the god Dionysus. A fitting scene for a symposium, if not for a Seder.
The triclinium in Zippori
Heritage Conservation Outside The City Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons