What role do women play at the Seder?
Generally speaking, women are not obligated in Mitzvot aseh she-hazman gerama – positive commandments that are dependent on time. Thus, women are not obligated to sit in a Sukka on Sukkot, nor are they obligated to wear tzizit or to lay tefillin, which are only done during the day. Based on this principle, we would anticipate that women would not be obligated in the mitzvot of Seder night.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that women are obligated in the four cups of wine at the Seder , she’af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes – that they were involved in the miracle of the Exodus. There is a difference of opinion regarding this teaching. According to the Rashi and the Rashbam the Jewish women in Egypt played a crucial role in the miracle, similar to the role played by Esther in the Purim story, where we also apply this rule and obligate women in the mitzvot of Purim. Others argue that they had a greater level of suffering in Egypt, because of the decree that the first-born would be drowned, which affected the mothers more than it did the fathers. According to Tosafot, it is enough to say that women were part of the miracle in order to obligate them, even if their role was no greater than that of the men.
Another mitzva of the Seder night is eating in a reclining position. Here the Gemara rules that a woman does not recline when in the presence of her husband, but if she is an important woman, then she does.
According to the Mekhtam, this rule is based on the fact that most women do not recline, so it is not considered an expression of freedom for them to do so. An important woman, who does make a habit of reclining, is obligated to show her freedom by eating in that position. The Nemukei Yosef explains this rule by arguing that most women who work in the kitchen and are involved in preparing the meal cannot ignore a certain aspect of servitude in their routine. An important woman, who has servants who do her bidding, can see herself as a free woman who can recline.
It is important to note that the Rema in his gloss to the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 472:4) comments that in our day and age, all of the women in our community are considered important, and theoretically are obligated to recline at the Seder. Since, however, eating in a reclining position is no longer considered an indication of freedom, many do not choose to do so.