Night-owl Seder

In theory, the virtue of 'tosefet Shabbat' should apply to Pessah as well, thereby allowing the Seder to take place at an earlier hour.

Q My kids have a hard time staying up for the Seder. Am I allowed to start the Seder before nightfall, as we frequently do for Shabbat in the summer time? - A.D., Jerusalem A While children are not formally obligated in mitzvot, they nonetheless play an influential role in the Seder. In four different places, the Torah depicts the necessity of retelling and recreating the exodus story to the next generation. These verses inspired the "four children of the Haggada" for whom the story must come alive over this holiday. Their inquisitiveness creates the edifying environment that makes the Seder so enriching. While no similar obligation exists on Shabbat, many people start Shabbat early so that their children can gain spiritual nourishment from the meal. Shabbat technically begins on Friday at sunset but only ends on Saturday night after three stars emerge. The reason for this discrepancy is that the rabbis were not sure which time during the evening twilight begins night. They therefore erred on the side of caution, declaring the entire period, known as bein hashmashot, as Shabbat (Shabbat 34b). While there are limited leniencies afforded in this time period, virtually all of the regular Shabbat restrictions and requirements apply (Shulhan Aruch OC 261:1). Around the world, most communities light candles 18-20 minutes before sunset (Mishna Brurav 261:23), while in Jerusalem we begin an additional 20 minutes earlier. This practice stems from a talmudic midrash that ordains tosefet Shabbat, additional time to Shabbat (Yoma 81b). Since the Talmud derived this notion from verses regarding Yom Kippur, Maimonides believed this requirement did not apply to Shabbat. Most medieval scholars, however, applied this rule to Shabbat as well, and this became the normative practice (OC 261:2). Rashi (1040-1105, France) believed that this extra time protects us from working on Shabbat because of errors in our time calculations (Rashi to Genesis 2:2). Rabbenu Nissim (14th century, Spain), however, declared that tosefet Shabbat represents a pious attempt to add moments of sanctity to weekday hours. Consequently, one is not allowed to end Shabbat early, even to begin the Seder when Pessah immediately follows the Sabbath (as it does this year), since we cannot diminish this most sanctified time. Similarly, one may not prepare for the Seder before the Sabbath concludes, since this constitutes inappropriate planning on Shabbat. The sages, moreover, asserted that one may not take in the Sabbath too early, with 90-110 minutes before sunset being the earliest time. One should consult a halachic time calendar to determine the proper time for that week. This rule also causes difficulties in countries with an extremely late summer sunset, like Norway, and a rich literature emerged to address this issue. In theory, the virtue of tosefet Shabbat should apply to Pessah as well, thereby allowing the Seder to take place (when it does not follow Shabbat) at an earlier hour. The mitzva of retelling the Exodus, however, is intrinsically connected to the other central mitzva of the night, eating matza. Historically, matza was consumed with the Pessah sacrifice, which cannot be eaten before complete nightfall. Since the Seder recitation can last for a few hours, one could theoretically begin the Seder at an earlier hour, and only begin eating matza after nightfall. R. Yisrael Isserlein (14th century, Germany), however, ruled that Kiddush, which constitutes the first of the four cups and the first mitzva of the Seder, must also take place after nightfall (Beit Yosef OC 672). This became the normative practice, subsequently preventing an "early Seder." The contemporary author Rabbi Moshe Harari discusses whether certain leniencies might be made for hospital personnel and soldiers who might not have the time to perform the Seder after nightfall. While a few decisors rule leniently, especially for soldiers who do not know when their mission will end, no such dispensations apply to children, who are ultimately not obligated in mitzvot. One should remember, of course, that the obligation to perform the Seder - and even ask the four questions - applies even when no children are present, and even if one eats alone. The difficulties of the late hour were recognized by the talmudic sages, who kept children awake by distributing snacks while urging people to start the Seder on time (Pessahim 109a). Scholars debate whether the Talmud also ordained speeding up the Seder to ensure that children eat matza and the meal (Sha'ar Hatziyun 472:2). Most keep children awake, especially until the four questions and the beginning of the Haggada (telling of the story), with games like "stealing the afikomen," but not at the expense of a thoughtful Seder. From personal experience, I can tell you that my father's distribution of candy for every question or song worked wonders in my family. The writer, editor of, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University. [email protected]