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When the Rabbis Got Together for Shabbat Dinner, Drama—and Law—Ensued

In the Talmud, examples of real-life rabbinic behavior and the intensely personal nature of lawmaking

Adam Kirsch
October 08, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)

Literary criticAdam Kirschis readinga page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Reading Tractate Pesachim over the last few weeks, I have learned a good deal about the proper way to register for, perform, and eat the Pesach sacrifice—a part of the Passover holiday that has been null and void since the destruction of the Temple. But I keep waiting to learn about the centerpiece of the holiday for Jews now, the Passover Seder. One might expect that the Seder would be the first thing that the tractate on Passover would discuss. But the ordering of the Talmud is always unpredictable, and it was only in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, in the final chapter of Pesachim, that the rabbis began to talk about the Seder rituals.

Even so, most of this week’s reading managed to stay far away from the concrete details of Passover. The mishna on Pesachim 99b begins with a brief sentence about eating on the day of the Seder: “On the eve of Passover, adjacent to mincha time, a person may not eat until dark.” These few words are the springboard for eight full pages of Gemara, in which the rabbis talk primarily not about Passover at all, but about Shabbat. In the process, the text gives several examples of real-life rabbinic behavior, dramatizing the intensely personal nature of Talmudic lawmaking.

The Talmud as we have it is a collection of books, but for the rabbis themselves, the law was learned orally, face to face, passed on from teacher to student. This method naturally gave rise to a lot of uncertainty, and a great deal of the Gemara consists of weighing contradictory sources against one another, trying to reconcile them or to decide which one should be followed. On Pesachim 100a, for instance, the Amoraim discuss the matter of whether it is permitted to eat on Friday afternoon after mincha, and they cite a baraita that contains two opinions. Rabbi Yehuda says no: One should refrain from eating on Friday afternoon, in order to build up an appetite for the Shabbat meal, which must be eaten with gusto. Rabbi Yosei, on the other hand, permits eating until it gets dark.

Now Mar Zutra raises a question: “Who will say to us that this version of the baraita is accurate?” How do we know that this is really what Yehuda and Yosei said? The answer shows how the transmission of laws worked in practice. Apparently, there were individuals who specialized in memorizing the laws, serving as walking, talking law-books. Thus we learn that “the tanna who recited mishnayot” once repeated this baraita in the presence of Rav Pinchas, and Pinchas did not challenge him. This means that the way the tanna recited it must have been generally accepted, and so the baraita can stand as an authoritative source. There was, we can see, a kind of check-and-balance system at work: If Pinchas had raised an objection to the way the reciter stated the law, it would have lost its authoritative status.

The dispute between Yehuda and Yosei gives rise to another revealing anecdote. Another matter on which they disagreed had to do with the right way to eat the Shabbat meal. If you began eating before sunset on Friday, and then Shabbat started while you were in the middle of dinner, do you need to stop the meal and say Shabbat prayers, or can you keep going and say them when dinner is over? Yehuda says you have to interrupt the meal; Yosei, more lenient, says you do not.

This disagreement came to life when Yehuda, Yosei, and Shimon ben Gamliel were all eating together one Friday afternoon. Shabbat began, and Shimon asked Yosei whether they should keep eating or stop and say prayers, as Yehuda advised. This question annoyed Yosei, since it implicitly challenged the authority of his own ruling, and he responded with what seems like rudeness: “Each and every day you cherish my statements before those of Rabbi Yehuda, and now you cherish the statement of Rabbi Yehuda before me?” This retort seems to confirm what Pirkei Avot says about the touchiness of the rabbis: “Warm yourself by the fire of the sages, but take care that you don’t get burned by their coals. Their bite is the bite of a fox; their sting is a scorpion stinging; and their hiss is a viper hiss. Indeed, all their words are like coals of fire.”

Shimon ben Gamliel deferred to Yosei and decided not to interrupt the meal. His reason is telling: He was afraid that, if he stopped the meal to say Shabbat prayers, his students would witness it and would take it as a binding precedent. In this way, the rabbis’ actions might “establish the halakha for generations,” making Jews think that Rabbi Yehuda’s view was the correct one. Instead, to show that Yosei’s view was binding, “they did not move from there until they established the halakha in accordance with Rabbi Yosei.” What this episode shows is that the personal behavior of the rabbis was no less important than their official teachings in establishing Jewish law. If a great sage did it, it must be legal.

The rabbis go on to discuss in great detail several matters that have nothing to do with Passover, the ostensible subject of the mishna. These include whether kiddush must be recited at the site of one’s Shabbat meal or if it can be said earlier in synagogue; whether interrupting your meal requires you to say blessings a second time, when you resume eating; whether it is permitted to say kiddush over beer instead of wine; and the correct order of the havdalah blessings, a question on which every rabbi seems to have a different opinion. Along the way, we learn the principle that Shabbat should be welcomed as early as possible, by saying the Shabbat prayers right away on Friday night, and extended as long as possible, by delaying the havdalah prayers on Saturday night. All these laws would have fit quite naturally into Tractate Shabbat, but we find them in Pesachim instead—just one example of why it takes true mastery of the Talmud to be able to actually use it as a guide to Jewish practice.

Finally, on Pesachim 108a, the Gemara returns to the subject of Passover. During the Seder, the mishna says, Jews must eat while reclining on the left side. This is one of the most famous Seder rules—it’s the fourth of the four questions—yet I have never been to a Seder at which anyone actually reclines. The reason is simple: Talmudic-era Jews sat on couches, which made reclining easy, while we use chairs, which make it basically impossible. Still, if we were really committed to the rules, we would find a way to recline, as Abaye relates that he did in a difficult situation: “When we were in the house of my Master, Rabba, there was not enough room for everyone to recline on Passover, so we reclined on each other’s knees.”

Reclining, the Gemara makes clear, is a sign of wealth and leisure and therefore a concrete demonstration that we are no longer slaves in Egypt. Like everything else in the Talmud, it must be done just so: “Lying on one’s back is not called reclining,” and “reclining to the right is not called reclining.” For some reason, the rabbis believed that leaning to the right makes it easier to choke on your food. Only reclining to the left is sufficiently graceful.

Then there is the question of exactly when during the Seder one has to recline. According to the rabbis, you must recline while eating matzo, while you should not recline while eating maror (this rule is not explained, only stated). And what about the four cups of wine? Here there is, again as usual in the Talmud, a division of opinion. “Some say that the first two cups require reclining, as it is now that the freedom begins”: The first two cups are drunk during the early part of the Seder when we are recounting the Exodus from Egypt, so they should be drunk in a way that displays our freedom. The last two cups, which are drunk after the meal, do not require reclining. Other sources, however, hold the reverse, and so the Gemara decides to cover all its bases: “Now that it was stated so and it was stated so, both these sets of cups and those require reclining.”

All this talk of reclining leads to one more question about rabbinic etiquette. Ordinarily, a social inferior or dependent would never recline in the presence of his superior: an apprentice before his employer, a son before his father. This rule is suspended on Passover, when everyone must recline—even, the Talmud specifies, the waiter who is serving the meal (for of course it is assumed that substantial men like the rabbis would employ servants). The only exception is the student, whose teacher is a Torah sage and so deserving of the highest respect. “The fear of your teacher is like the fear of Heaven,” as Rav Yosef says, and so a student should not recline in his teacher’s presence. Passover may be different from all other nights, but it’s not so different that the rabbis will forget the deference due to them.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.