“Kulanu mesubin”

Still on Pesach theme

n  Focus on Mah Nishtanah – 4 questions – or rather, the one question and 4 answers.

n  Earliest recorded versions: Talmud Yerushalmi- three questions: why 2 foods are dipped, why matza, and why meat is eaten exclusively roasted rather than roasted, stewed or boiled (a ref to the korban pesach).

n  Talmud Bavli – matza, marror, why 2 foods are dipped and again, why roasted meat.

n   Roasted meat q’ was dropped after the Temple was destroyed as no longer ate the Paschal sacrifice

n  At some point replaced by ‘kulanu mesubim’ – certainly by time of Saadia Gaon in 10th century, who mentions it, and the Rambam in the 12th century.

n  What does it mean? All other nights eat whether sitting or leaning (reclining); tonight we lean / recline.

n  No doubt that that was the original intention, way it has always been understood. By the 10th century reclining was unusual and merited a question. In Temple times everyone reclined so wouldn’t have seemed unusual.

n  Unfortunately can’t suggest we have got it completely wrong…

n  But can suggest another way of reading the question that makes linguistic sense, and may open another way for us to make sense of it now that reclining has become anachronistic – an act, something we act out, rather than something that still automatically has meaning for us.

n  à what is different about this night from all other nights? On all other nights we eat alone or gathered round; on this night we eat gathered round, as a group.

n  Mesubin =  eating together, gathered round

n  Those of you who speak modern Hebrew may spark immediate associations: mesibah – party; mesibat itonaim – press conference

n   Root – savav

n  Several sources we can go to to back up this theory and allow us to read it this way – from the bible, Mishnah and gemarah, midrash (won’t get to) and finally the hagaddah itself.


n  Leaning was the Roman custom, Greek custom and probably even the Persian custom. But words using the root of ‘mesubin’ appear in Tanach well beforehand. What do they mean?

n  Usually – savav – to turn around or encircle

n  One that might be related to dining: Shir HaShirim 1:12 – Ad shehamelech bimsibo

n  While most translations have "while the king was at his table", Kaddari says it means "at his circle.

n  Shmuel 1, ch. 16 – shmuel visiting family of Yishai and insisting on meeting David, though the family is reluctant.

n   In verse 11, he says to bring David - כִּי לֹא-נָסֹב עַד-בֹּאוֹ פֹה. There are commentaries that explain this verse as "we will not continue (i.e. turn away) until he comes." But most translations offer "we will not sit down to eat until he comes". On the assumption that they were not going to be reclining on beds (as we will see shortly), the literal meaning would have been "sit around the table to eat". The association with reclining developed later.

n  So clear that the original meaning had something to do with eating, and most probably, something to do with eating together.


n  Next we have a discussion involving both sitting and reclining in the Mishnah, completely outside any Pesach connection.

n  Tractate brachot. Discussion of when you need to say certain brachot over food and when you are already yotzeh – when you are already ‘covered’ by a previous brachah or something else.

היו יושבין ־ כל אחד מברך לעצמו, הסבו ־ אחד מברך לכולן . 

n  If group of people were sitting, everyone makes the blessing for themselves. If they recline, one makes the blessing for everyone.

n  What’s going on here? What distinction is being made between sitting and reclining? (Imp because these are the exact words used in mah nishtanah)

n  Gemara explains how people used to eat back then:

The Tosefta (Brachot 4:8) explains more about what happened before entering the triclinium:

כיצד סדר הסעודה אורחין נכנסין ויושבין על גבי ספסלים וע"ג קתדראות עד שיכנסו כולן נכנסו כולן ונתנו להם לידים כל אחד ואחד נוטל ידו אחת מזגו להם את הכוס אחד ואחד מברך לעצמו הביאו להם פרפריות כל אחד ואחד מברך לעצמו עלו והסיבו נתנו להם לידים אע"פ שנוטל ידו אחת נותן לשתי ידיו מזגו להם את הכוס אע"פ שבירך על הראשונה מברך על השניה הביאו לפניהם פרפריות אע"פ שבירך על הראשונה מברך על השניה ואחד מברך לכולן [הביאו לאחד] שלש פרפריות אין [לו] רשות ליכנס

What is the order of the meal? The guests enter [the house] and sit on benches, and on chairs until all have entered. They all enter and they [servants] give them water for their hands. Each one washes one hand. They [servants] pour for them the cup; each one says the blessing for himself. They [servants] bring them the appetizers; each one says the blessing for himself. They [guests] go up [to the dining room] and they recline, for they [servants] give them [water] for their hands; although they have washed one hand, they now wash both hands. They [servants] pour for them the cup; although they have said the blessing over the first cup, they say a blessing also over the second. They [servants] bring them the dessert; although they said a blessing over the first one, they now say the blessing over the second, and one says the blessing for all of them. He who comes after the third course has no right to enter.

n  Essentially two stages to the meal in Roman nobility’s houses. Guests come into the house through a long corridor – prosdor in Hebrew, vestibulum – leading to the atrium, or an open-air courtyard where guests sat on chairs and were handed drinks and appetizers – hors d’oevres. Here, the gemara tells us, everyone made their own brachah.

n  Afterwards the guests go to the dining room, the traklin, a room with three couches, where they recline – literally lie on a bed with a small table with the food in front of them. Here one person can make the blessing for everyone else (officially the first blessing but understood to include birkat hamazon as well).

n  Makes sense now to look back at mah nishtanah.

n  In the traditional reading, bein yoshvin uvein mesubin – now makes more sense. It’s the difference between  two modes of dining. We eat appetizers informally or sit down to a proper meal; or perhaps, it has been suggested, this verse of mah nishtanah refers to different stages of the same meal: usually we have both appetizers and the main meal, tonight we do the whole thing formally.

n  But it also makes sense for the alternate reading I’ve suggested.

n  What is the difference between these two scenarios – the sitting and the reclining – that means everyone has to make the blessing for themselves in one, but together in the other?

n  Sitting = the informal part of the meal, everyone doing their own thing.

n  Reclining = a formal meal, an established meal, everyone together.

n   In essence, yoshvin is a solitary act. Mesubin is a communal, joint one. Bein yoshvin ubein mesubin – we usually eat alone or together

n  In fact, the gemara goes further to strengthen this reading.

n  Later on it says that one person can make the blessing for everyone else even if they were sitting ---- if the group dined together in a premeditated manner, deliberately.

כיון דאמרי ניזיל וניכול לחמא בדוך פלן ־ כהסבו דמי.

n  In this scenario, if they ate deliberately as a group – it is as if they were reclining. The essence of the reclining is that it is a group situation.

n  So again, it makes even more sense now to read bein yoshvin uvein mesubin – we eat either alone, or in a group situation.


n  Most convincing

n  Is actually another mention of the word ‘mesubin’ in the hagaddah – anyone know?

n  Rabbis Eliezer, Yehoshua, Elazar ben Azarya, Akiva and Tarfon “hayu mesubin b’Vnei Brak,

n  Were they reclining in bnei brak? Seems unlikely – they were talking. Never seen it translated that way

n  Seems obvious they were GATHERED in bnei braq

n  When the same word used w/in a few paragraphs, in the same context – seder night – seems obv they could or should be read the same way.

n  They were mesubin in bb because that’s what you do – get together – rather than sit alone.

Why is this reading imp? Why can’t just stick w/ leaning?

n  First of all, some rabbis regard reclining as anachronistic and no longer necessary – although interpreted more broadly, we should still lean. As early as 12th century, the German Raavan (R. Eliezer ben Nathan) and his grandson the  Raavia (R. Eliezer ben Yoel Ha-Levi) both argued that because we no longer recline as a matter of course, but only eat sitting on chairs, reclining is no longer necessary.

n  The Maharil – Jacob b. Moses Moelin, Germany, late 14/early 15th century - said we must not recline because nowadays it makes you look like you’re ill.

n  A different reading of this mah nishtanah answer gives us an opportunity to insert a more relevant understanding. Can recognise that customs and meanings to change – as the text of the mah nishtanah itself has over the centuries, responding to events.

n  Regardless, however, I think that the reading of mesubin as ‘together’ has instrinsic value.

n  It ties in strongly to our tradition of seder night as a communal event.

n  Korban Pesach was eaten only as a group – each extended family actually had to register who was going to attend their feast.

n  A seder depends on the presence of other people. Vehigadata lebincha – it is a story you should be telling to your son.

n  The give-and-take of the seder involves other people.

n  We invite strangers to join us – kol dichfin yetei veyochal….

n  Ksav sofer – son of the chatam sofer - quotes the Baal Sechel Tov as explaining that the reason for leaning is because of ‘pirsumei nisa’. Rav Kasher says that eating whilst leaning is a public demonstration of the uniqueness of the Seder; it is a physical sign that enshrines the story in the hearts of oneself and children.

n  Leaning is something, in this interpretation, that you do for others as much as for yourself. This night is different because we need to be together to publicise G-d’s miracle.

n  In today’s modern world, when we are too much Bowling Alone – detached from other people, from community – I like the idea that we emphasise the communal nature of our ritual, its family orientation. While too many us eat most of our dinners in front of the tv, how appropriate that we actually sit back and note that tonight we are all together. Literally remarkable.

haggadah Section: Maggid - Beginning
Source: Original