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Q&A: When Is the Earliest I Can Start My Seder?

April 19, 2016

Question: When is the earliest I can start my seder?

Answer: The Shulchan Aruch (Orah Hayim 472:1) rules that

One should have his table set while it is still day so that he can eat immediately k’shetehshach, when it gets dark, and even if he is in the house of study, he should rise [to do so] because it is a commandment to hurry and eat [the matza, maror, and paschal lamb] before the children fall asleep, but he should not recite qiddush until shetehshach, it gets dark.

The common understanding of this passage is that ״dark״ refers to a time significantly after sunset, usually identified with tzeith hakochavim, when three stars become visible, which is somewhere between a quarter and a third of an hour. This is explicitly defined by the Talmud as the time when 1. the evening sh’ma may be recited, 2. Kohanim who had immersed during the day are considered ritually clean enough to eat t’ruma, and 3. when the Sabbath and Yamim Tovim officially end. For our purposes, we will refer to this moment as “nightfall.”

This opinion is based on a number of Talmudic sources that mention that the consumption of the Passover sacrifice be done after tehshach, or specifically at night, as opposed to day. The Rosh and the Tosafists understood that this certainly applies to the meat of the offering, and it could be seen from the Tosefta that the same applies to the matza, which was eaten in conjunction with the paschal lamb. As we saw earlier, one has the opportunity to accept the holiness of the Sabbath or Festival even before the sun sets, and on those days, recite qiddush and have his meal well before nightfall. This opinion would still allow for one to accept the Festival early and recite qiddush and begin the seder early, just as long as the eating of the matza eventually is done after nightfall. Considering that maggid intervenes, it is not too hard to do so. However, there are also authorities, like the T’rumath Hadeshen, who link even the rabbinical commandments of the evening with the eating of the matza, and therefore, the drinking of the first of the four cups also has to be after nightfall. The Rosh has an interesting argument: one should avoid eating path the latter half of the afternoon before any Sabbath and holiday so that he has an appetite when the holy day starts, so why does the Mishna in P’sahim specify that one should also avoid eating before Passover “before it gets dark?” It must be that the Mishna is emphasizing that the meal that starts Passover is different from all other Holiday and Sabbath evening meals which may be conducted even before nightfall. The Passover meal has to be later. (There is an opinion out there even if one accepts another Sabbath or Yom Tov early, his meal has to extend to after the stars come out, but in most places this stringency is not followed.)

The Shulchan Aruch’s method of deciding between conflicting opinions makes this ruling not fully consistent with other halachoth. There is also the unaddressed opinion of the Rif and Maimonides and others, who disagree on a number of points. This alternate view not only seems to have been shared by the majority of Rishonim, it was the practice up until the modern era, once again because of the difficulty engendered by a world without electricity.

The first issue is about the key word, shetehshach. As you can find in all the other contexts, even though shetehshach literally means “when it gets dark,” it is used for when the line between the ordinary day and the holy day, or vice versa, is crossed. This is how we understand it with regards to accepting the Sabbath and reciting the qiddush and eating the meal. It so happens, that according to Maimonides, for example, the standard of “nightfall” is specifically with regards to the list of halachoth above, which do not involve the performance of positive commandments that require a specific holy day, but with regards to commandments that are defined by a particular day, like the qiddush and meal on the Sabbath and on the festivals, or even eating the matza, once someone has accepted the holiness of the day, he can perform those commandments.

As for the sources that explicitly declare that the matza and sacrificial meat only be eaten at “night,” those are not saying as opposed to the time that is “day, ” i.e., when the sun is shining, but rather as opposed to the times when other sacrificial meat can be eaten. Other sacrificial meat can be eaten the day it is slaughtered, and then the ensuing night, and sometimes the ensuing day also. The qorban pesah, unlike all the other sacrifices, can not be eaten the calendar day it is slaughtered, 14 Nisan, and it must not be left by the morning of the fifteenth. By “night,” the sages were saying that only the night of of the 15th of Nisan is the time for eating the pesah, but technically the night starts once the festival is accepted.

In answer to the Rosh’s argument that the Mishna did not need to rule that one should begin to build up an appetite in advance of Passover, and therefore the Mishna meant that the eating of the matza and pesah literally be after nightfall, other Rishonim believe that the Mishna is specifically forbidding all foods, not just forms of path, because every form of path is either already forbidden as a form of hametz, or forbidden as a form of matza.

Therefore, according to the approach used by the Shulhan Aruch in other places, there is not necessarily an obligation to eat the matza and pesah specifically after the stars come out. One only needs to eat them once the holiness of the day is accepted. Further, even if one were to accept the argument that the matza of the seder needs to be eaten after nightfall, it does not follow that the cups of wine also be consumed after nightfall. The idea of the T’rumath Hadeshen is not one that can be found in the Talmud, and was unknown to many of the Rishonim.

What is forbidden during the latter half of the afternoon on the 14th of Nisan? According to the Rosh, Tosafos and the Shulchan Aruch, one can still eat matza ashira (and in some cases matza-meal products,) until the second half of the afternoon, and after that he can still eat fruits and vegetables and the like,  but according to Maimonides, the Zohar, and the Vilna Gaon, all forms of matza are forbidden the entire day, and once the second half of the afternoon hits, one should no longer eat anything, but he has the option of accepting the holiday early and begining his seder and Yom Tov meal even before the stars come out.

Also, this should give us time to reflect on how many later stringencies basically prevented us from accepting many Yamim Tovim early. When it comes to Sukkoth, many are told that the commandment/obligation of dwelling in the sukka can only be discharged after nightfall. In truth, this is a minority opinion, and just like one can accept the holiday early, he can begin to perform the commandments of the holiday early. For Passover, you can see how many would not even try to start the holiday early considering the widespread practice the Shulhan Aruch  of not starting the seder before nightfall, but this still allows for synagogues to finish their services before that. With regards to starting Shavu’oth early, the humra of the Sh’la, namely that the counting of the Omer has to end after nightfall after the forty-ninth day, has become so assumed, you can find prominent rabbis who declare that Ashkenazim must follow it. The truth is that it was always assumed that for the Omer to consist of “seven flawless weeks,” each week of the count has to have seven days, but not that the last day, and therefore the entire count, would be blemished or deficient if the day after the count were to start early. On the contrary, the commandment to count the Omer is completed the instant one says “Today is 49 days, which is seven weeks of the Omer” and he no longer needs to do anything to else. There are still places that accept Shavu’oth early. Next, most are told that every Yom Tov Sheni has to start after nightfall, but once again, this is just a well-known minority opinion that only took off recently in history. How many times have you heard about not lighting candles and preparing the second night meal until after nightfall? I learned about this halacha directly from Rabbi Yisroel Janowski of Miami, that that policy is to protect laymen from preparing for the second night while it is still Yom Tov Rishon, but if Yom Tov Sheni is accepted early, just like any other festival, then it is as though the first day has come to a complete end. And indeed, not only is this still done in many places, this used to be the standard practice.

In conclusion, there  is much justification for starting Passover and the seder early, especially for those who have difficulty waiting until late just to start the seder. Many more children and the elderly can be much more active participants at the seder and stick around for more of it if we were to take advantage of the straight halacha and avoid the humra. The earliest time would be plag haminha, which in Israel would be at about 5:50pm on Friday. For the masses, this probably should not be done.

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From → halacha, original

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