Wining, Dining, and Reclining
Would you please discuss the mitzvah of reclining at the Seder meal?
While partaking of the four cups of wine, and the matza at the beginning of the meal, and the korech “sandwich” (of matza, maror, and charoset), and the afikomen matza at the end of the meal, one must do so in a reclining position. This may be done on a couch, or even while sitting and leaning on the arm of a chair, on another chair, or even on another person.
One reason for this is because this is how royalty of old ate, and on this night Jews are to conduct themselves as aristocracy. Additionally, Rambam explains that each person must regard himself as if he just came out of the slavery of Egypt, so when he feasts on this night he must do so in a reclining position in the manner of free men.
One must recline on his left side and eat and drink with his right hand. One reason for this is that leaning on the left ensures that the food and drink will go down the “food” pipe and not the windpipe. Also, it enables one to handle and partake of these mitzvot with the right hand. Even left-handed people recline to the left.
Although a son would not normally recline in his father’s presence, as a sign of respect, on this occasion he does recline at his father’s table since his father forgoes his own honor in lieu of this special night and its mitzvot. A disciple before his foremost rabbi does not recline while dining at his rabbi’s table unless his rabbi gives him leave to do so. Among Sefardic Jews the general custom is for women to recline. Among Ashkenazim, however, while all women are considered as queens and princesses, the customary decorum is not to recline.
One does not recline while eating the karpas or the maror since these foods are intended to recall the “bitter times” of exile which preceded redemption. However, if one does not recline while partaking of the mitzvah wine and matza, he must drink or eat again. The custom is to be lenient regarding one who forgets to lean while drinking the third and fourth cups of wine. One who forgets to lean for the afikomen does not repeat eating it since the afikomen can’t be eaten twice.
Even though it is not normally common for us to recline at a meal nowadays, our Sages nevertheless decreed this custom of reclining at the Seder in order to emphatically recall the miraculous redemption from slavery to freedom. Similarly, even though it is compulsory to lean only for the four cups of wine, the matza and the afikomen, it is nevertheless praiseworthy to recline throughout the entire Seder (except for during the karpas and maror, as above) in order to emphasize these themes of royalty and liberation.
Some commentators maintain that the mitzvah of reclining at the Seder includes commemorating the occasion by wining, dining and reclining in the company of many other participants. When noble and distinguished people hold a banquet they do so with much ceremony and in the presence of a large number of guests. So too, we are to celebrate this momentous occasion in this way. This also parallels the way in which the Seder was celebrated in ancient times when the actual sacrificial Passover lamb was eaten together in large groups, which magnified the joy in, thanks for, and praise of,