The first cup of wine is drunk whilst reclining
This, they tell you, is because formal meals during the classical rabbinic period were conducted in the format of the classical world. Diners reclined on couches to take the Meal of Freedom, in the manner of the aristocracy of the time.
Nowadays we sit up to table for the Meal like usual, but we “recline” by leaning on our elbows on the table just like our mothers always told us not to. Sometimes with cushions, which knock over glasses and bang into one’s neighbour.
Ever since I was told this, I’ve wanted to conduct a seder reclining, with couches, but that is hard when you are always a guest at someone else’s seder.
This year, however, planning seder with Mar Gavriel, I said “I’ve always wanted to make seder on couches,” and he, being similarly geeky and eccentric, bounced and said “Me too!”
So we did. We dismantled the dining table and made couches from mattresses. We draped many drapes, found tiny tables, arranged cushions upon which to recline, and presented a seder in Ancient Greek style.
No Festivals were harmed during the taking of these photographs
At a certain point in the seder, the seder plate, with its various accoutrements, is removed from the table, as part of the ritual theatrics of the night. But the earliest sources do not say that the plate is removed, no, they say that the table is removed. And why? Because the earliest sources are speaking of the kind of incidental table which can be removed bodily from the room.
And so, since we had that kind of table…at the point where the gemara says “The table is removed,” we removed the table.
This sort of thing is deeply satisfying when you are a text geek. There is something delightful about living in a text-based religion and actually acting out parts of the foundational texts.
Of course, this is what Passover is about – those who eat matzah and bitter herbs are acting out the text. Those who eat the meal hastily, shod and girded of loin, are acting out the text. Every year we re-enact the journey of the first exodus to create annual resonances, marking the circling back of the year and forming the links in the chain of generations. These are resonances with the biblical text.
But we are not a biblical religion. Our authoritative text on one level is the Torah, and on one level it is good to resonate with that. But our authoritative text on another level is the Talmud, and as such, it is good to resonate with that also, where we can. Thus it is that the haggadah, the re-telling of the Exodus story, contains relatively little biblical narrative and a relatively great amount of Talmudic narrative. We resonate with our biblical ancestry and we resonate with our talmudic ancestry.
Text geeks delight in the closeness a close understanding of a text gives them with the ever-circling layers of rabbinic Judaism. Finding one’s Judaism in a text gives a text geek the sharp joy of recognition – “Yes, this is me! This is mine!” which the Pesach seder aims to stimulate by whatever means possible, even if only in the recognition of childhood tunes.
And thus it is that doing a seder where we really reclined on couches and really removed the table doesn’t make our seder cooler or more authentic than yours (except insofar as it does, obviously (joke)), but it acts out the Talmudic text in the act of acting out the Biblical text, and we can create that, and thus see ourselves not only coming out of Egypt but also reclining with the rabbis, resonating with the Jewish identity cycle and forging our link in our generation.