The Torah preserves a somewhat complex account of the timing of the Exodus from Egypt. According to Shemot 12:29-34, as the final plague hits in the middle of the night, striking down the Egyptian first born, the people are thrown out of Egypt immediately. [This confirms the prediction offered by Moshe in Shemot 11:4-8.] No date is given here, but Devarim 16:1 similarly recalls a nighttime Exodus and identifies the date of the Exodus as חדש האביב or the new moon of Aviv, the month we know of as Nisan. [This date is also supplied by Shemot 13:4, 23:15 and 34:18.] In accordance with this memory, Devarim 16:4,6 specifies that the פסח sacrifice must be offered בערב, once the sun has set, so as to coincide with the time of day when the Exodus happened. [It seems that the point is not that this sacrifice must be offered or eaten at midnight, but that it is sufficient to do so sometime after the sun has set, thus locating the ritual in the night as opposed to the day.]
Shemot 12:1-28 describes the Israelites as slaughtering a special lamb on the 14th of the first month (again, Nisan), at the time of day described as בין הערבים—which is understood in rabbinic tradition to refer to the afternoon. They are then to remain indoors all night, waiting for the Egyptian first born to be smitten so that they can leave triumphantly in the morning. [This account of a triumphant morning depature on the 15th as opposed to a midnight escape is also supplied by Shemot 14:8 and Bemidbar 33:3-4.] This passage also specifies that the lamb to be eaten as part of the nightlong vigil must be eaten at night, though the term בערב is also used to describe the time when matzah should be eaten by future generations.
This complex narrative evoked several rabbinic attempts at harmonization. For one example, see Berakhot 9b. Most important, however, all of the above passages agree that the Egyptian first-born were killed at night and that the sacrificial meal commemorating this event had to take place בערב or בלילה, as opposed to during the day. [See Mishnah Zevahim 5:8.] Since matzah and maror are linked to the Pesah offering by Shemot 12:8, they also may not be eaten until it is nighttime. Tosefta Pesahim 2:22 confirms this point. [Interestingly, that text also emphasizes that one should eat those foods as soon after nightfall as possible.]
A separate consideration from the eating of these ritual foods is the retelling of the Exodus that rabbinic sources assume to be a core part of the observance of Pesah. The Pesah sacrifice was not only a celebratory family meal, it was also meant to be a reaffirmation of the national story. For Hazal, this part of the ritual was anchored in Shemot 13:8, which imagines a parent explaining to a child that the annual Pesah sacrifice is on account of the fact that God “took me out of Egypt.” This verse becomes the basis for the idea of the obligation to tell the story once a year. But since Shemot 13 speaks of the Exodus has happening on the new month of Aviv, this begs the question of when it is acceptable to tell this story.
Mekhilta dR. Yishmael Bo Pisha 17 entertains the possibility that this obligation to tell the story would be valid starting with Rosh Hodesh Nisan, in accordance with the plain sense of Shemot 13, but creatively resorting to the phrase ביום ההוא (on that day) in Shemot 13:8—which probably originally meant “at that future time”—the Mekhilta rejects any telling before the 14th of Nisan, which is the rabbinically accepted day for offering the Pesah sacrifice. The Mekhilta then asks whether one could tell the story on the day of the 14th of Nisan, rather than waiting for nightfall. The conclusion: the phrase בעבור זה (on account of this) demands that the telling be done when one can point to the full complement of ritual foods—the matzah and maror. Since these are only to be eaten at night—following Shemot 12:8’s description—the accompanying narrative ritual must happen at night as well.
We thus get a fairly uniform picture of a Seder ritual that must include the telling of the story along with the ritual of eating matzah and maror after nightfall. Since rabbinic tradition always deals stringently with twilight in the context of biblical mitzvot, this would seem to translate into waiting until the stars come out to begin the telling of the story.
Nonetheless, in the middle ages, an important question arises: Can one start Yom Tov early, treating the time before nightfall as the 15th of Nisan for ritual purposes and thereby eat matzah before nightfall? Indeed, Berakhot 27a reports that Rav used to pray Shabbat Arvit on Friday afternoon, well before nightfall (and seemingly even before sunset). This suggests that Shabbat can be begun early and the subsequent daylight hours can count as Shabbat. Can one do the same for Pesah?
R. Yaakov of Corbeil (12th-13th c., in Tosafot Pesahim 99b s.v. ad) argues that even though on most Shabbat and Yom Tov evenings one is permitted to begin the festive meal earlier, while there is still daylight, on Pesah the meal is tied to the Pesah offering, which means that the matzah and maror eaten at the start of the meal may not be consumed until nightfall. He cites Tosefta Pesahim 2:22 as proof of this position. [For more on the question of starting Shabbat meals early, see, among other sources, Terumat Hadeshen #1 and Bah’s citation of Maharal of Prague on OH 472.] R. Yehudah Sirleon (12th-13th c., see his Tosafot on Berakhot 27a) rejects this proof: It might be that the Tosefta is only clarifying that the Pesah offering is not to be consumed on the 14th, but rather on the 15th. [Every other sacrifice can be eaten right away on the day when it was slaughtered, such that this novel point must be made to clarify the Pesah offering’s uniqueness.] In other words, the Tosefta’s stipulation of משתחשך for the time to consume Pesah, matzah and maror is not about astronomy, rather it is about the proper ritual calendrical frame. As long as one has ritually begun the 15th of Nisan—by lighting candles, saying Kiddush or otherwise mentally accepting Yom Tov—one can eat the sacrificial meal and its components. R. Yehudah Sirleon thus argues that there is no rabbinic text that clearly forbids starting the Seder early and eating matzah and maror before nightfall. [See Hazon Ovadiah I:1 for further analysis of this position and a close reading of the printed Tosafot on Pesahim 99b and its various versions.]
R. Ya’akov of Corbeil’s approach dominates subsequent discourse, with almost all assuming that matzah may not be eaten until dark. [Aside from those preferring the substantive approach of R. Ya’akov of Corbeil, anyone who rejects the notion that biblical mitzvot tied to a specific day cannot be done before the astronomical onset of the day—אין תוספת יום טוב דאורייתא—also would not be able to accept his view. In other words, anyone uncomfortable with starting Shemini Atzeret early and eating outside of the sukkah for that late afternoon meal would not be able to rely on R. Yehudah Sirleon here. See Taz on OH 668.]
Maharil (Germany, 1360-1427) assumes a standard requiring one to wait until the stars came out to do Kiddush at the Seder, but is perplexed by this. R. Ya’akov of Corbeil’s argument only explicitly requires eating matzah after dark! Why not begin the Seder earlier, and allow Kiddush and the narrative retelling last until nightfall, at which point matzah can be eaten. He therefore explains that the Mekhilta tells us that the narrative retelling is linked to the ritual foods of the Seder. If the latter can only be consumed after dark, then the former can only be begun after dark. He furthermore emphasizes that karpas at the Seder is intended to get children to ask questions and is thus part of the narration. Therefore, this too must be done after dark. Kiddush, strictly speaking, does not need to be done after dark, he argues, but since some people do a longer Kiddush and others a shorter one, the practice emerged to wait for dark to do Kiddush as well.
R. David Abudraham is stricter: he argues that the four cups of wine at the Seder are linked to matzah and therefore cannot be drunk until after dark. Since Kiddush at the Seder is one of the four cups, it too cannot be said until after dark. Terumat Hadeshen #137 makes a similar point, insisting that the Mekhilta demands that all the rituals associated with matzah be done at a time when it is valid to eat matzah. He strengthens his argument by appealing to the midrash first advanced in Yerushalmi Pesahim 10:1 that the four cups of wine at the Seder are intended to hint at the four verbs of redemption used by God in Shemot 6, rather than just serving as anchors of a festive meal. They are thus a mythic unit that cannot be separated from the matzah and maror. [Maharil in fact challenged this logic, since it would seem to require drinking the third and fourth cups before midnight, after which one cannot consume the required matzah at the Seder, a requirement with no basis in earlier sources. Terumat Hadeshen might respond that the key for the four cups is not that they all be at a time valid for the consumption of matzah per se, but rather at night, so as to coincide with the slaying of the first born and Israel’s deliverance.] Nevertheless, this strict approach to Kiddush was not universally practiced. While R. Shimshon b. Tzemah Duran (14th-15th c., North Africa) advances this position as well in his work Yavin Shemuah, a later gloss on that work testifies that it was not common practice to wait until dark to begin Kiddush at the Seder, an effective return to Maharil’s approach. Indeed, while Shulhan Arukh OH 472 takes a strict view on starting Kiddush after dark, R. Ya’akov Reischer (in Hok Ya’akov there) notes that the logic on which this is based is challenged by Maharil and seems to favor the latter’s position. As a result, R. Ovadiah Yosef (in Hazon Ovadiah I:1) rules that while Kiddush should in fact be said after dark, when one is in a difficult situation, one can say it earlier, based on Maharil’s approach. [He goes so far as to argue that Terumat Hadeshen himself would concede this point.]
While almost all subsequent voices endorse the requirement to wait for dark even for Kiddush, some modern authorities questioned this whole line of analysis, suggesting an even more limited reading of R. Ya’akov of Corbeil. R. Yosef b. Avraham Molkho (18th c., Salonica, student of R. Yosef David of Salonica), in his work Shulhan Gavoah, asserts that R. Ya’akov of Corbeil and all other rishonim that only emphasize the importance of eating after dark would in fact permit all prior parts of the Seder to be done earlier. Only the foods directly compared to the Pesah sacrifice, and thus associated with the directive to eat it בלילה הזה, must be eaten after nightfall. But Kiddush, karpas, and the whole narrative ritual of the haggadah, can be done while it is still light out. He in fact claims that the plain language of the Tosefta only seems to be concerned about the rituals of Pesah, matzah and maror, but evinces no concern for the earlier parts of the Seder. As a result, he concludes that almost everyone other than Maharil, Abudraham, Terumat Hadeshen and Rashbatz would permit starting the Seder while it is still light and timing it to get to the eating of matzah at nightfall. Though he prefers starting Kiddush after nightfall, R. Molkho notes that this is only in deference to the Shulhan Arukh, but not because he believes this view to be correct. Hatam Sofer (in his comments on Pesahim 99b) more actively permits starting Kiddush early (possibly only after sunset, though his language there may be an imprecise way of just indicating the onset of Yom Tov) and timing the end of the hagaddah for the emergence of stars. [It should be noted that Hatam Sofer grounds this position in a fairly weak textual argument, even though the substantive position is tenable; the same can be said of R. Ya’akov of Corbeil’s position above.]
Neither of these views directly engage the Mekhilta, which seems to insist that the narrative retelling happen at the time when Pesah, matzah and maror are in play. There are a number of ways they might have addressed this text: 1) They might read the phrase בשעה שמצה ומרור מונחים לפניך to mean when you are engaged in the direct preparation for eating them. Even if it is not yet a valid time for eating them, the fact that the narrative will culminate with their consumption at the proper time is sufficient to meet this criterion. [Note that a close reading of Tosefta 2:22 suggests that it is preferable to eat Pesah, matzah and maror as close to the onset of nightfall as possible.] 2) They may view the Mekhilta as an asmakhta, as having fundamentally less authority than the explicit linkage of the Pesah offering with matzah and maror in the Torah. In other words, whereas the Torah specifies night as the proper time for Pesah, matzah and maror, it is only the Mekhilta that tries to link the narrative telling of the story to the time of the Pesah. Therefore, even if we require the telling of the story to happen on the 15th of Nisan (as opposed to on the 1st of the month or even on the 14th during the day), we don’t have a strong enough linkage based on the Mekhilta alone to require the telling to be after astronomical dark. Therefore, as long as one has ushered in the ritual frame of the 15th (by committing oneself to refrain from forbidden work, lighting candles, and/or praying Arvit), one may say Kiddush and engage in all Pesah rituals that were not specifically earmarked by the Torah for nightfall.
R. Ovadiah Yosef rejects any such deflection of the Mekhilta and assumes it establishes a strong and binding connection between the Hagaddah and matzah and maror. He therefore does not allow for any leniencies—even in pressing circumstances—for anything other than Kiddush.
The halakhic conversation surrounding the timing of the Seder is dominated by those voices that forbid starting even kiddush—and certainly everything after kiddush—before nightfall. Also note that the overwhelming consensus of almost all aharonim follows the approach of R. David Abudraham and Terumat Hadeshen as codified by Shulhan Arukh and embraces a vision of the Seder where all of its components are part of a nighttime reenactment ritual. This approach emphasizes how we are reenacting the nighttime deliverance that launched the Jewish people’s freedom and sees all the rituals of the Seder as part of that reenactment. It is therefore the most powerful model and therefore, the most preferable. Nonetheless, people often find themselves at a Seder that will start earlier than this time and can get stuck about how to proceed without causing a major family dispute. The above sources reveal a richer language for understanding a variety of practices that deviate from what emerged as halakhic consensus in most communities:
1) Accepting Yom Tov through Kiddush and starting the Seder early without concern for delaying eating matzah until nightfall. This approach is that effectively defended by R. Yehudah Sirleon, who argued that no rabbinic source explicitly contradicts this practice. This is a real outlier position in the conversation and strips the Seder experience of any astronomical connection to לילה, a key word through not only the Torah’s narrative of this story, but also the Hagaddah’s retelling of it. Given where the halakhic conversation has gone, and the plain sense of לילה in the Bible, this is essentially a deviant practice, though it has at least one defender. One at such a Seder should make the minimal effort to eat some matzah and maror after nightfall as well, even if this model is a way of understanding a family’s practice within halakhic discourse.
2) Starting the Seder early but timing the end of maggid to coincide with the emergence of stars, so that matzah is eaten after dark. This practice is validated in principle by R. Yosef Molcho and in practice by Hatam Sofer (with the latter possibly only permitting if Kiddush is begun after sunset). This approach downplays the critical nature of telling the story at the exact same time when matzah can be eaten; as long as the retelling and the ritual eating are juxtaposed and done within the same ritual time frame, there is no problem.
3) Starting the Seder early, but beginning עבדים היינו—the formal beginning of the maggid—after nightfall. While no authority I have found seems to take this approach explicitly, it is a reasonable position less radical than those above. This approach would affirm the Mekhilta’s linkage of the haggadah to the ritual eating but would balk at the deep significance of karpas, which, after all, has its origins as a typical dipping—or “salad course”—at the beginning of a meal and only later becomes invested with religious significance.
4) Starting Kiddush before nightfall but timing karpas to occur with nightfall. This conforms to Maharil’s position and is endorsed by R. Ovadiah Yosef in difficult situations (such as wanting to avoid family conflict). This approach affirms that anything done differently on the night of Pesah from another Yom Tov is inherently wrapped up with the hagaddah and thus must be part of the nighttime ritual.
5) Starting Kiddush after nightfall. This covers all opinions and reflects the assertion of Abudraham and Maharil that the Seder—which includes Kiddush as the first of four cups—is a set piece that reenacts and retells a nighttime event and thus must be done entirely at night.