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Praying an Early Maariv

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Co-sponsored by the Sreter family in loving memory of their mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, Sara bat Yair, whose yarzheit is the 7th of Kislev. May her Neshama have an Aliyah.

Parsha Halacha – Parshat VaYetzei

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In the Torah portion of VaYetze, we read that when Yaakov was fleeing from Be’er Sheva[1]from his brother Eisav to his uncle’s house in Charan, he stopped in a certain place where he prayed and spent the night. According to our sages,[2] that place was Mount Moriah, the future site of the Bait HaMikdash, and the prayer that he prayed was the evening service – Maariv.[3]
The Talmud says[4] that originally Yaakov traveled all the way to Charan without stopping to pray at Mount Moriah. When he reached Charan, he realized he had passed the place at which his parents and grandparents had prayed.[5] So he decided to return there and pray.
A Prayer Trip
It is difficult to understand how our patriarch Yaakov could pass this holy place without realizing it. The Be’er Mayim Chaim (by Rav Chaim of Tzernovitz) explains that undoubtedly Yaakov was planning to stop and pray at Mount Moriah. But G-d didn’t want him to pray there “by the way” as he was traveling to another destination. Therefore, G-d caused the “road to shrink” (kefitzat haderech) so that he did not notice Mount Moriah while on his way. When he arrived in Charan, he realized he had passed it, and he turned around and went back to pray there. Thus G-d arranged for him to make a special trip in order to pray at Mount Moriah rather than have him pray there merely while passing through.
G-d Arranged for Yakov to Pray Maariv
The Talmud says[6] that after Yaakov “prayed, he wanted to return to Charan. G-d said, ‘Is it possible that this tzadik came to My dwelling place and will leave without spending the night?’Immediately the sun (miraculously) set,” forcing Yaakov to spend the night there (since it was forbidden to travel at night due to the dangers involved).[7]
It is also difficult to understand why G-d contrived a way to make Yaakov spend the night at Mt. Moriah while he allowed Avraham and Yitzchak to pray there and leave. (Abraham prayed there after the binding of Isaac and then went with his servants to Be’er Sheva. Yitzchak prayed there and then met Eliezer who was bringing him his future wife Rivkah. Presumably he accompanied them back to Chevron.)
Rabbi Aryeh Leib Tzintz (of Poland 1768-1833) explains[8] that the meaning of G-d’s statement “Is it possible that this tzadik came to My dwelling place and will leave without spending the night?” is that He wanted Yaakov to stay there to establish the prayer of the night (Maariv). (See below that some say he prayed after the sun set.)
When did the Sun Set?
It would seem from the wording of the verse that Yaakov prayed before the sun set as it says, “And he prayed in the place,[9] and he slept there because the sun had set.”[10] Indeed, the wording of the Talmud is “when he prayed, he wanted to return to Charan.” Only then did G-d make the sun set. Thus, it seems that the sun was still shining after he finished his prayer.
Tosfot[11] suggests that since Yakov prayed his evening service before sunset, this may be the basis for the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah who says[12] that one may pray Maariv beginning with one and a quarter hours before nightfall (as explained below).
This article will focus on the question of whether and under what circumstances it is proper to pray Maariv before nightfall.
Mincha and Maariv Times
The Mishnah[13] records two opinions as to the time until which one may pray Mincha. The sages say that the time for Mincha extends until evening[14] While Rabbi Yehudah says the time extends until Plag Hamincha – one and quarter hours before nightfall. (The words Plag HaMincha mean “Half of Mincha.” This is referring to half of the time of Mincha Ketana which is the final two and a half hours of the day.)
Since the time for Maariv is after the time for Mincha, the sages say that one must wait for nightfall in order to pray Maariv while according to Rabbi Yehudah, one may pray Maariv after Plag HaMincha.[15]
Thus, according to the Sages, the time of Mincha extends until nightfall, and one may only pray Maariv after nightfall. According to Rabbi Yehudah, however, one may pray Mincha only until Pelag HaMincha and from that point and one, one may pray Maariv.
Basis of the Argument
Since the times of the prayers are based on the times of the sacrifices and the afternoon Tamid could be sacrificed until nightfall,[16] it is difficult to understand why Rabbi Yehudah says that Mincha may only be prayed until Pelag HaMincha.
Tosfot explains[17] that Rabbi Yehudah is of the opinion that the Mincha service was instituted to correspond to the afternoon Ketoret (incense) offering which was offered before Pelag HaMincha.
The Vilna Gaon says[18] that although it was theoretically possible to sacrifice the afternoon Tamid until nightfall, in practice it was always sacrificed before Pelag HaMincha. The reason for this is that, according to the order of the day in the Bait HaMikdash, after the afternoon Tamid it was necessary to sacrifice the loaves of the Kohen Gadol (Chavitin), pour the libations of the Tamid on the altar, have the Levites sing their daily song and light the Menorah. All this had to be done before nightfall. Thus, the actual sacrifice of the Tamid was always completed before Pelag HaMincha to allow for all of these services to be completed on time. Accordingly, Rabbi Yehudah says that the sages instituted that Mincha be prayed before that time.
Explaining the Time of Yaakov’s Prayer
As mentioned above, it seems from the Talmud that Yaakov prayed before sunset. How can this be reconciled with the opinion of the sages that the time for Maariv is after nightfall?
The Maharal of Prague explains[19] that when the Talmud says, “when he prayed he wanted to return” and that G-d then made the sun set early in order that he sleep there, it means that he was planning on praying and leaving immediately afterwards, for which reason G-d made the sun set before he prayed, causing him to pray at night and remain there overnight.
The Halacha is Undecided
In practice, the Talmud says[20] that the Halacha regarding these prayer times was undecided, and one may therefore follow the view of either Rabbi Yehudah or the sages.
Switch Hitting – Three Opinions
  • No Switching Allowed
Some say[21] that one may choose to follow either of the two opinions, but he must be consistent and not switch back and forth between the views. Rather, one must choose one opinion and follow it.
Specifically, if one prays Mincha until nightfall (in accordance with the view of the sages), one may not pray Maariv before nightfall (in accordance with the view of Rabbi Yehudah). And one who prays Maariv before nightfall (in accordance with the view of Rabbi Yehudah) may not pray Mincha after Pelag HaMincha (in accordance with the view of the sages).
If one switches between the opinions, he is satisfying neither opinion as the time between Pelag HaMincha is considered either day or night (regarding prayer times) and cannot be considered daytime on some days and nighttime on others.[22] One who does this is called a “fool who walks in darkness.”[23]
  • Switching Allowed but Not on the Same Day
Others say[24] it is permissible to follow conflicting opinions as long as one does not do so on the same day, i.e., one who usually prays Mincha until nightfall may pray Maariv before nightfall as long as he prayed Mincha on that day before Pelag HaMincha. And one who usually prays Maariv before nightfall may pray Mincha after Pelag HaMincha as long as he plans to pray Maariv on that day after nightfall. Although this does seem contradictory (that he sometimes considers the time of Pelag HaMincha to be daytime and sometimes nighttime) since the prayer times are of Rabbinic origin, the rabbis were lenient about them. Whereas if one prays both Mincha and Maariv after Pelag HaMincha before nightfall on the same day, he is considered to be a sinner as he is following two contradictory leniencies.[25]
  • Switching Allowed 
Some say[26] it is even permissible to pray Mincha and Maariv on the same day between Pelag HaMincha and nightfall. Although generally one may not follow contradictory leniencies (see sources quoted in note 24), the sages were lenient regarding prayer times.[27]
Practical Halacha
In practice, the Shulchan Aruch rules[28] one should remain consistent and not switch between opinions even on different days. (This is the first opinion mentioned above.) If one already prayed at a time that is not in accordance with the opinion he usually follows, he is considered to have fulfilled his obligation. One may even do so in the first place in a pressing situation, i.e., one may pray Maariv early even though he usually prays Mincha at that time if he will be unable to pray Maariv later as long as on that day he prays Mincha before Pelag HaMincha.[29]
Erev Shabbat
On Erev Shabbat one may pray Maariv early in order to fulfill the mitzvah of accepting Shabbat early even if one usually prays Mincha after Pelag HaMincha. One who does so should make sure that on that actual day he prays Mincha before Pelag HaMincha. This conforms with the second opinion mentioned above that one should not follow contradictory rulings on the same day.[30]
Losing the Minyan
Some communities have the custom to pray Mincha and Maariv consecutively even though they are following conflicting views (i.e., they daven Mincha after Pelag HaMincha and Maariv before nightfall on the same day). Although this is not recommended, there are opinions that permit it (based on the third opinion mentioned above) if this is the only way they will be able to maintain the minyan.[31]
Kriat Shema
The above discussion only covered the Maariv prayer. Regarding the time to recite the evening Shema, most authorities agree that even according to Rabbi Yehudah the earliest time is when the stars come out. Therefore, one who prays an early Maariv must repeat the Shema again after dark. It is best to say the Shema as soon as night falls. One may not eat a meal from a half hour before nightfall until after he reads Shema (after nightfall). If one usually prays an early Maariv, some say that he may simply have in mind while saying the bedtime Shema that he is doing so for the sake of the mitzvah. If one prays early only on occasion, he should not rely on this (since he might forget to have this in mind) but should rather recite the Shema after nightfall before eating.[32]
Minhag vs. Minyan
One who usually prays Maariv after nightfall and finds himself in a shul that is praying an early Maariv should rather wait and pray Maariv after nightfall even if it means he will pray without a minyan.[33]
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom Umevorach!

[1] According to our sages, Yaakov spent 14 years studying in the yeshivah of Shem and Ever before going to Charan. Despite this, the Torah says that he left Be’er Sheva and went to Charan. This teaches us that, after the 14 years of study, before going to Charan, Yaakov returned home to his parents to take leave of them (Sfat Emmet).
[2] Rashi, Targum Yonatan, Kli Yakar and Ohr HaChaim, based on Pesachim 88a, Sanhedrin 95b and Chullin 95b. But see Rashbam, Ibn Ezra and Seforno
[3] Rashi based on Brachot, 26b
[4] Chullin, ibid
[5] See Gen. 22:14 and 24:63
[6] Chullin and Sanhedrin, ibid
[7] Pesachim 2a
[8] Melo Ha’Omer on the Torah
[9] I am translating the word vayifga according to the Talmud – that it means prayer, based on Jeremiah, 7:16. The simple translation is that he chanced upon the place.
[10] Gen. 28:11
[11] Brachot, 26b, D.H. Yaakov
[12] Brachot 26a as explained by Tosfot D.H. Me’ematai, Brachot 2a
[13] Brachot 26a
[14] As to the definition of evening (in the context), some say it means the time when the stars emerge (Sha’agat Aryeh 17 based on Rashi D.H. Ad HaErev on ibid) while others say that it means sunset (Talmidei Rabeinu Yonah). In practice, one should make every effort to pray Mincha before sunset but if necessary, one may pray after this time (Mishnah Berurah, 233:14 and Siddur HaRav, Seder Hachnassat Shabbat). Some say that it is better to pray without a minyan before sunset than to pray afterwards with a minyan (Mishnah Berurah ibid) while others say that it is better to wait and pray with a minyan (Mor UKetziah, 333, Shevet HaLevi, 9:48, and Ohr LeTziyon 20).
[15] Rashi D.H. Shel Shabbat on Brachot 27a, Tosfot D.H, Me’eimatai on Brachot 2a. The Vilna Gaon (Shenot Eliyahu, Brachot 4:1) explains that this is the meaning of the words of the Mishnah “Tefilat Arvit ein lo keva – Maariv has no fixed time.” This means that there is no clear time as to when is the earliest time for Maariv. Rather, it simply depends on when the time for Mincha ends. The reason for this is that Maariv was instituted to correspond to the burning of the fats and limbs. This did not have a set time but rather took place (in the Bait HaMikdash) whenever they finished the daily sacrifices (see Rashba on Brachot, 2a D.H. Vehikshu).
[16] See Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah that the atonement of the Tamid sacrifice is mainly through the sprinkling of the blood (see Menachot 19a) and that the blood can only be sprinkled while it is still daytime (Zevachim 56a and b).
[17] Brachot 26b D.H Ad
[18] Shenot Eliyahu on Mishnah Brachot 4:1
[19] Chidushei Aggadot on Chullin ibid
[20] Brachot 27a
[21] Rosh, Brachot, 3:3 and Rashba (27a D.H. Hashta) in the name of the Gaon, Sefer HaHashlama (by Rabbi Meshulam ben Moshe of Badrish, in the time of Tosfot) in the name of Rav Hai Ga’on and Rambam, Hilchot Tefilah 3:4 as explained by the Kessef Mishnah
[22] Talmidei Rabeinu Yonah, Brachot 18 a (in the pages of the Rif), D.H De’avad
[23] Kohelet, 2:14 cited by the Sefer HaHashlama
[24] Chidushei HaRa’ah on Brachot, 27b, D.H. Ishtik and Me’iri Brachot 27a, D.H. Mah Shekatavnu. See Mordechai, Brachot chapter 4, Siman 89 and Mo’ed Kattan Siman 923
[25] Ra’ah based on Chullin, end of 43b and Eiruvin, 7a
[26] Rabbeinu Tam, cited in Brachot 2a D.H. Me’ematai
[27] Rashba on Brachot, 2a D.H. VeRabeinu Tam and Rosh, Brachot 1:1 in explanation of the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam.
[28] O.C. 233:1
[29] Mishnah Berurah, 233:11
[30] Shulchan Aruch HaRav, 267:2
[31] See Mishnah Berurah, ibid and 267:2 with Biur Halacha D.H Uvipelag
[32] Shulchan Aruch HaRav, 267:2 and 4 and Kuntres Acharon 1
[33] Tzemach Tzedek, Brachot, page 2

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