In my childhood no-one was ever allowed to lounge or lean whilst we ate. We had to sit nicely and eat properly. That was the way, the only way, of behaving at the table. And now came the Haggadah and told us something different. Was there really anyone who ate whilst leaning?
After a few years, when I became passionately interested in history, I learnt the answer. The Mah Nishtanah question which had bothered me derived from Roman times, when the upper classes reclined on three-legged divans as they ate. I even saw these couches in films like “Ben Hur”.
What the Haggadah was doing was to transport us to the world of the free people who were not coerced or dragooned into unwilling compliance with the rules set by taskmasters.
Then I learnt a further thing. This question about leaning was not in the original Mah Nishtanah at all. The Seder-table questions all had to do with foods, things we ate to show how free we were. There was no mention of leaning, but there was a question about meat. “On all other night,” it told us, we could eat meat cooked whatever way, “but on this night only roast meat”.
All very well in the time of the Temple, when the Biblical command set out in the 12th chapter of Exodus could be carried out and the roasted paschal lamb was integral to the festival. But when the Temple was destroyed and sacrifices were suspended, this passage became a problem. A problem exacerbated with the rise of Christianity, which posited that the sacrifice of the lamb was fulfilled in Jesus. Judaism now had to face new circumstances and inserted a question about leaning to replace the one about roast meat.
The Talmud provided a halachic framework for the leaning question: “When eating matzah we have to recline. We recline on the left side. A woman need not recline but an important woman should. A pupil should not recline in the presence of his teacher as a mark of respect”.
Some later authorities said that reclining could be dispensed with because in later ages sitting upright was a sign of independence and freedom. Others added that eating whilst reclining even gives the impression that one is unwell. However, the Shulchan Aruch says that leaning is a practice that must be followed.
Back to my childhood memories. It became the custom for us to spend the second Seder night at the home of my teacher, the late Dr Samuel Billigheimer, in Westbury Street, St. Kilda. Actually I spent many a Shabbat afternoon at his table, but for second Seder they invited our whole family. Dr Billigheimer did as many observant people do: he sat in a fine chair at the head of the table with a large cushion behind his back. A pupil should try to emulate his teacher, and this became my practice too.
If only I could emulate the true piety and great poetry of his exceptional mind and soul…