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Women at the Seder: A Passover Haggadah

Women at the Seder: A Passover Haggadah

by Joel B. Wolowelsky

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KTAV Publishing House, Inc.
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6.28(w) x 9.08(h) x 0.51(d)

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By Joel B. Wolowelsky


Copyright © 2005 Joel B. Wolowelsky
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-88125-869-5

Chapter One

Fast of the first-born

It would seem that first-born daughters should also have to fast on Erev Pesah, as they too were saved from the plague that killed all the first-born of Egypt. Some hold that opinion, but the general custom is that only the males fast (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 470). The reason is that the Jewish males were not saved out of their own merit, but because of God's grace. The Jewish females, however, were saved through their own merit - "It was through the merit of the righteous women of that generation that the Jews were saved from Egypt" (TB Sotah 11b) - and therefore need not fast (Ma'ase Rokeah).

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef maintains that nowadays we should follow the prevailing custom of their not fasting, especially since the males exempt themselves from fasting by attending a siyum or similar "festive" meal. Nonetheless, he adds, if without excessive effort the female first-born can attend such a meal, it is certainly most proper that she do so (Yabia Yosef 3:25).

The Seder Plate

The zero'a (meat) and egg on the seder plate are usually thought to remind us of the Paschal and Hagiga sacrifices, respectively. But some sevencenturies ago Rabbi Eleazer of Worms quoted Rav Shrira Gaon that they are reminders of the two leaders, Moses and Aaron, sent by God to the Jews when they were in Egypt. He then adds, there are those who add a fish item, the three foods thus commemorating Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, as the prophet Micah wrote, "I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam" (Micah 6:4). These three cooked items correspond to the three types of food that the people of Israel will eat in the Messianic times: fish, corresponding to the leviathan; the egg corresponding to ziz (an enormous bird); and meat, corresponding to shor ha-bar (behemoth) (Ma'ase Rokeah, number 59).

Fish at the seder has another association with the heroines of the Exodus. When the Jewish women would go to draw water, God arranged for small fish to fill up half their jugs. The women cooked the fish, which increased the husband's sexual potency; washed and fed their husbands in the field and encouraged them to have children - even in those hard times. Thus, says Rabbi Avira in introducing the story, "It was in the merit of the righteous women of that generation that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt" (BT Sota 11b).

Whether the seder plate be creatively redesigned to accommodate the fish, as Yael Levine suggests (All the Women Followed Her), or the fish is simply placed on a small dish somewhere on the table, it stimulates questions and provides an opportunity to relate the contributions of "the righteous women" to our past and future liberation.

Miriam's Cup

With the current focus on women's contributions to the historical Jewish community, some have expanded the traditional custom of sparking children's questions to include "Miriam's Cup" - a goblet of pure water placed on the table so that the story of "Miriam's Well" can be told in response to the question about its significance. The "well" was actually a rock that accompanied the Jews and miraculously flowed on demand during their forty years in the desert (Midrash Tanhuma Bemidbar 2).

Tkhines for Peysekh

Tkhines are a folk Yiddish literary form through which European women poured out their hearts to God when lighting candles each Friday or holiday night, on the Shabbat when the new month was announced, and at other special occasions. These two paragraphs were taken from, respectively, the Tkhine Mikro Koydesh (Lemberg) and the Shas Tkhine (Bilgoray), both published a century ago. They were selected and translated into English by Zelda Kahan Newman, using standard Yiddish transliteration. Avner Taler composed the Hebrew adaptation.

Sheheheyanu at Candle Lighting

Many poskim (e.g., R. Yaakov Emden, Responsum 10; R. Moshe Sternbukh, Haggadab Moadim u-Zemanim, p. 48) object to Sheheheyanu being said at candle lighting time instead of Kiddush. Others (e.g., Mishnah Berurah 263:5, n. 2; Arukh HaShulhan Yoreh De'ah 263:12) feel that one need not object forcefully to the practice; it is a longstanding custom and, while the blessing should relate to kedushat hayom, the holiness of the day itself (which begins only at night), the candles are usually lit very close to night.

On Shabbat, there are two customs regarding whether the blessing on the candles is said before or after lighting them (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 263:5, Ramo's gloss). Generally, a berakhah should be said before performing the mitzvah and many therefore light the candles after saying the blessing. (However, if one sees saying the blessing (rather than lighting the candles) as constituting early acceptance of Shabbat, one can light the candles after saying the blessing only if she made a specific declaration that Shabbat not begin until after the candles are lit.) Those who say the berakhah after lighting the candles consider the act over which they are saying the blessing to be deriving pleasure from the light of the candles. They therefore cover their eyes after lighting the candles so as not to benefit from their light until after the blessing is said.

Rabbanit Baila Falk, wife of the author of the Drishah, maintained that on holidays, when lighting the candles is permitted, there is no reason to say the blessing after the kindling and it therefore should be said before the kindling (end of introduction to the Drishah). Magen Avraham (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 263:5, n. 12) dismisses her ruling, quoting R. Eliezer's aphorism that "there is no wisdom among women" (TB Yoma 66b). Dagul Merevava (ibid.) rules that the law is in accordance with her position.

Those following her ruling should say Sheheheyanu after the candles are lit (if they do not defer saying it until Kiddush is said), as it relates to the kedushat hayom, which begins with the lighting (Haggadah Mo'adim u-Zemanim, p. 48). On Shabbat, one can light candles without accepting Shabbat early by making an explicit tenai (condition) at the time of lighting. This cannot be done if Sheheheyanu is said, as there is no kedushat hayom if the holiday has not begun.

Like Rachel and Leah

Siddurim generally mention the four Matriarchs in the blessing for a daughter, but Rabbi Yehudah Herzl Henkin (Kolekh no. 9) points out that this formulation is first found in 19th-century siddurim and is not exactly parallel to the son's blessing, which is based on the verse, "By this you shall bless Israel, saying 'God make you like Ephraim and like Menasseh" (Genesis 48:20). He suggests the blessing for daughters should also be based on a biblical verse: "All the people that were in the gate, and all the elders, said, 'We are witnesses. The Lord make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel'" (Ruth 4:11).


In the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 105b), Rabbi Nahman bar Yitzhak teaches the obligation to recite Kiddush applies as soon as Shabbat or Yom Toy begins. He says: "I am neither a sage nor a preacher nor a great scholar, but I study the traditions in my possession and organize the halakhot, and this is why they teach in the beit midrash according to my opinion." R. Nachman stresses that his answer is not the result of any complex thought process or erudite innovation, but rather is based on a longstanding tradition with which he is familiar. This message symbolically elucidates the meaning of the Kiddush. The Kiddush is a kind of coronation; we crown the current day by citing God's involvement in history. Through reciting the Kiddush, a Jew links the current sanctified day with the entire course of the history of the Jewish people (Malka Puterkovsky, A Celebration of the Haggadah, The Women's Beit Midrash).

The obligation to say Kiddush each Friday night is at a biblical level for both men and women, even though Kiddush is a time-bound commandment from which women are generally exempt. Inasmuch as they share a common obligation, men can fulfill their obligation in Kiddush by hearing a woman say it (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 271:2). However, the nature of the obligation of Kiddush on a holiday is a matter of some dispute. Rambam (Maimonides) writes that Kiddush on the eve of a holiday is the same as that on Friday night, as all the holidays are considered "Shabbatot laShem" (Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Shabbat 29:18), echoing the Midrash (Mehilta Yitro 7). Nonetheless, many authorities consider this an asmakhta, that is, a rhetorical "proof" for a rabbinic decision. While the majority of Rishonim seem to hold that it is a Torah obligation, the majority of Aharonim hold that it is rabbinic (R. Ovadiah Yosef, Hazon Ovadiah 1:2).

This dispute impacts on the question of a woman's obligation in Kiddush at the seder. Women are not excused from any Shabbat obligation, even if it is time-bound; such would not necessarily be the case for holiday time-bound mitzvot. Two main reasons are suggested for their being obligated from the Torah if the men are. First, the fact that the holidays are "Shabbatot laShera" means that the rules of Shabbat apply here too. Second, paralleling the reasoning in Shabbat mitzvot, women are obligated in Kiddush and matzah even though they are time-bound obligations because they are obliged in the prohibitions of hametz on that night. On the other hand, if the obligation for men is rabbinic, women would also be obligated either because the exemption from time-bound mitzvot applies only to Torah obligations, not rabbinic ones, or because the rabbinic obligation in the four cups of wine encompasses Kiddush.

People can remain quiet and fulfill their own obligation to say a blessing by listening to the blessing said by another individual who shares that obligation, but not by one who has a lesser obligation or none at all Thus, in general, everyone can fulfill their obligation to say Kiddush by listening to one person say it. But what if that person had already said Kiddush and therefore no longer shares an obligation with the others? Under the principle of arevut (mutual responsibility) that person retains a status as one under the obligation simply by virtue of the fact that the others have not yet discharged theirs. R. Akiva Eiger (Responsum 7) rules that there is no distinction at all between men and women regarding arevut.

Rabbi Eiger was the son of Moshe and Gittel Guens, but he and his children were known publicly by his mother's maiden name. Her father was Rabbi Akiva Eiger, ray of Pressburg in his day.

The time of our freedom

Slaves have no appreciation of time; they live only in the present. But when we became free, we immediately began to experience time, to be able to recapture the past and plan for the future. For this reason Passover is called Zeman Herutainu. It was not only the time of our freedom, but its freedom gave us an appreciation of time (Marisa Savitsky, Yeshivat Ramaz Likrat Shabbat Haggadah).

Sheheheyanu at Kiddush

If a woman who said Sheheheyanu at candle lighting time says Kiddush herself, she should not repeat the blessing. Some authorities hold that she should not even answer amen to the Sheheheyanu blessing said by another person during Kiddush, as it would constitute a hefsek (unnecessary interruption); others allow it because the blessing also applies to the other mitzvot of the seder. These issues are averted by deferring the saying of Sheheheyanu to Kiddush.


Yaknehaz is the mnemonic acronym used to recall the order of the blessings in the kiddush on Saturday night: Yayin (the blessing over wine); Kiddush; Ner (the candle required for the havdala ceremony marking the end of Shabbat); Havdala; and Zman (the Sheheheyanu blessing). The German Jagen-has (hare hunt) sounds close to it, and medieval Ashkenazic haggadot would therefore sometimes include a scene of a hunter and his hounds.


On a personal level, when we split, the real challenge is to come back together. When one holds a half, the other approaches with the other half. Part of this matzah becomes the afikoman which some of us hide and some of us find. If we have finally found each other, let us not hide again from each other (Beverly Gribitz, Yeshivat Ramaz Likrat Shabbat Haggadah).

In the Syrian-Sephardic community, the head of the household holds the napkin containing the matzah in his right hand, puts it over his shoulder and says:

"Mishaartam ... their remaining possessions tied up in their bags on their shoulders; the children of Israel did as Moses commanded" (Exodus 12:34).

The family then asks him: "Minwen jaiyeh? (Where are you coming from?)"

He replies: "Mimitzrayim (From Egypt)."

They then ask: "Lawen rayekh? (Where are you going?)"

He replies: "Leyerushalayim (To Jerusalem)."

They ask: "Ishu zawatk? (What are your provisions?)"

He replies: "Matzah umaror (Matzah and bitter herbs)."

He then hands the napkin to the next oldest who repeats the whole process. This continues in turn until all present have participated.

Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayim 483:6) says that one puts the broken matzah that is set aside for the afikoman in a napkin and gives it to another (one might suspect for safekeeping from the children who would attempt to steal it!). R. Yair Bakhrakh (Mekor Hayim commentary on Shulhan Arukh, ibid.) quotes the custom of putting the napkin on one's shoulder and then walking to and fro, noting one comment that this was the custom in Germany and another that "he had never seen anyone who did it." However, variations on this custom are widespread in many Sephardic communities.

R.Yair Bakhrakh is more widely known for his book of responsa, Havvot Yair, "the villages of Yair."


Excerpted from WOMEN AT THE SEDER by Joel B. Wolowelsky Copyright © 2005 by Joel B. Wolowelsky. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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