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The haggadah (several copies that I've looked at, so I'm assuming this is universal?) tells us when eating certain foods at the seder to recline or lean to the left. I understand why we lean (the haggadah tells us that), but why the left in particular? Is this because of historical practice (maybe couches were asymmetrical)? Is there a symbolic reason? Some other explanation?

I'm asking why the haggadah has this instruction; while later interpretations of what it means may be interesting, that's not my question.

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Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/8370/5 –  Seth J Mar 18 '13 at 17:41
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3 Answers

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The Talmud says (Pesachim 108a) that leaning on one's right is not considered Heseba (leaning). Rashbam explains this is because you have to eat with your right hand. (For lefties this would be the opposite. -- Me'iri) It seems this is because you lie on your side on your left, leaving your right hand available for eating with, unlike your left hand which is being lain upon.

The Talmud also says to not lean on the right lest your windpipe catch the food instead of your esophagus and you choke. I cannot comment on the specific anatomical details of why this is so. (For lefties then this would be the same. -- Me'iri) Note though, that some (including Rashi) interpret this passage as explaining that one shouldn't lean on one's back lest one choke, which is an earlier statement of the gemara.

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Rashbam doesn't say it's (eating) the opposite for lefties. How do you know that convention wasn't that everyone, including lefties, ate with their right hands? –  Seth J Mar 17 '13 at 1:56
    
@SethJ See Bach 472:3 that based on the reason of the Rashbam lefties should lean to the right. –  Michoel Mar 17 '13 at 1:59
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@michoel that assumes lefties eat with their left hands. But if you are living in Bavel in the 6th Century, you may be eating with your right hand for hygiene reasons (see Mas. Ber.) as well as logistic reasons (ie., everyone reclined the same way to avoid bumping each other on the pillow-lined floor. Just guessing here, though. –  Seth J Mar 17 '13 at 2:05
    
@SethJ Seems this assumption is lehalacha though - if a lefty leaned to the right b'dieved he was yotzie, because the danger of choking is only lechatchila and the reason of leaning to the left to accommodate eating doesn't apply to him. See Mishna Berura 472:11. –  Michoel Mar 17 '13 at 2:11
    
@SethJ I was working with the Meiri's exposition of that position which explicitly discusses lefties. I suppose that doesn't have to be the conclusive interpretation, particularly since Meiri didn't live in Bavel at the time. –  Double AA Mar 17 '13 at 3:29
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The Gemora in Pesachim (108a) gives two reasons why one should lean specifically to the left:

  1. Since he needs to eat with his right hand, leaning in that direction would interfere with his eating.

  2. It is considered dangerous to lean to the right because it might cause him to choke.

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The Gemora doesn't mention your first answer AFAIC see. –  Double AA Mar 17 '13 at 16:00
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the right bronchus is more vertical than the left bronchus, so it is easier for food to accidentally go into the right lung and cause choking. That is the anatomical reason behind why leaning left helps you choke less.

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Welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks for bringing your expertise here! Normally, comments on other answers should be posted as such (and probably this soon will be moved as such), but please look around the site for other questions you could help with! –  YEZ Mar 6 at 19:43
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