The week before Pesach is the hungriest week of the year for Jews. Numerous occasions bring restrictions on eating, but never are they felt as strongly as this week. On fast days we don’t eat at all, but relief comes at the end of the day. On the week of Sukkot we have restrictions on the place of eating, and of course during Pesach itself we have restrictions on the range of foods we can eat. But the week before Pesach is surely the worst. We are, as the Yiddish expression goes, “nisht ahin nisht aher,” neither here nor there. Most Jews have a custom to refrain from eating matzo for 30 days before Pesach, and we have a phobia of crumbs from virtually anything else. The kitchen is being turned over and chametz cooking cannot easily happen, while the Pesach cooking is just getting started and nothing is ready for eating.
On erev Pesach, in homes where everything happens on schedule, there is finally a break. The last preparations are underway, and a more relaxed atmosphere spreads through the home. The house is entirely chametzrein, and the kids are happily crunching kitniyot on the front porch. We can’t wait to get Pesach started but we must wait until nightfall. In the southern hemisphere this can be fairly late (especially this year when daylight savings hasn’t come to an end). In the northern hemisphere when daylight savings begins before Pesach the start time can also run late.
Many of us are accustomed during summer months to begin Shabbat early. There is plenty of latitude for that, and the halacha allows for an early start to Shabbat from late afternoon. We often begin Friday night Kiddush while the sun is still shining and the birds are still chirping. No such allowance is given for Pesach. We must wait until nightfall to begin kiddush. The verse (Ex 12:8) discussing the eating of the Paschal lamb states “And they shall eat the meat on this night, roasted on fire with matzos, and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.”
The sages derived from this verse, specifically from the words “on this night,” that the Pascal lamb must be eaten at night. The sages understood that the same rule applies to the matzo and marror, which are eaten alongside (or together with) the meat. In fact, these words appear in our text of the Haggadah during Maggid, teaching us that the Mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus applies at night, “at the time that matzo and marror are placed before you.” The Shulkhan Arukh (O”C 472:1) rules accordingly, that in contrast to Shabbat and other festivals, the Pesach kiddush must be recited after nightfall even if one began observing Yom Tov earlier in the evening.
We now know that the eating of the matzo must occur after nightfall, although this usually doesn’t happen in the first hour of the Seder proceedings. Based on the earlier quote from the Haggadah we know that the storytelling should also occur within this timeframe, “when matzo and marror are placed before you,” and not earlier. This rules out starting the Maggid section before nightfall. But perhaps we can still get away with starting Kiddush 15 minutes before nightfall? Maybe we can at least cut some corners at the start of the Seder? After all, it does take some time to recite the Kiddush, dip the Karpas and break the matzo. Why are we so tough on timing here?
The Magen Avraham, in his comments to the Shulkhan Arukh, cites the Terumat Hadeshen explaining that Kiddush incorporates the first of the four cups of the night, and the four cups are part of the proceedings of the night, a component of relating the story of the Exodus. The Kiddush must therefore take place within the time frame of this Mitzvah, which is after nightfall. Last week we discussed the concept of remembering the Exodus from Egypt, establishing this story as our national narrative, making it the cornerstone of our heritage. We recite these words during the blessing of Kiddush, and that already ties the first cup to the story even without looking for a deeper, thematic connection. For this reason even the Kiddush must take place in the time frame of the Seder, as a component of the Seder experience. It is not arbitrary that these time restrictions are imposed. (Naturally, there is a dissenting position, attributed to the Chatam Sofer, allowing the first half of the Seder to take place before nightfall, as long as the matzo is eaten after nightfall. However, this is not the halachic consensus.)
We’ve just seen a light overview of the halachic considerations regarding one small detail of the Seder night. There are myriad such details, and each practice in our tradition, both on Pesach as well as generally, stand upon solid, and often multi-layered halachic underpinnings. In the course of the Maggid section of the Seder we invoke the four approaches reflected in the “four sons.” We aspire to be the wise son, and the wise son thirsts for more knowledge. “What are the testimonies, decrees and laws, that the Lord, our God has commanded you?” asks the wise child. Our reply elaborates on the laws of the Pesach, reflecting the Torah principles inherent in each of our practices. We do this better on Pesach than any other occasion. Pesach has become a stronghold of observance in many circles, even when observance of other Mitzvot have lapsed. Pesach remains a guardian of our tradition, a nucleus that will hopefully grow and spread, bringing with it a better understanding and appreciation of our traditions.
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