Understanding the Prohibition of Avodah Zarah

As there are several references to the prohibition of Avodah Zarah in this week’s parsha, we present:

Understanding the Prohibition of Avodah Zarah

Question #1: Defining Idols

Many people ask: “Are idol worship and Avodah Zarah the same thing?”

Question #2: The Only G-d

Rav Efrayim discusses: “May a gentile accept ideas that we consider Avodah Zarah, providing that he believes in G-d?”

Question #3: Nothing but G-d

Rav Moshe asks: “If all mankind is required to believe in one G-d, why do we say Shma Yisroel, that Hashem is One. Shouldn’t we say Shma Bnei Odom…?”

Introduction:

The most basic belief underlying our observance of Torah is that Hashem is the Creator of the world and the ongoing Director of all that transpires. He does not delegate authority to anyone or anything else, and we are to pray only to Him.

Idol worship vs. Avodah Zarah

Are idol worship and Avodah Zarah the same thing? The question, as phrased, is almost meaningless, since it does not define what is meant by idol worship. Truthfully, most people do not understand the extent of the prohibition of Avodah Zarah. They think that Avodah Zarah is limited to believing that some force other than Hashem decides our destiny. However, the prohibition of Avodah Zarah is far more encompassing. To quote the Rambam: “In the days of Enosh, mankind committed a major mistake…. This was their error: They said that, since G-d created the stars and the other cosmic forces with which to run the world, placed them in the heavens, gave them honor and they serve Him, it is appropriate to honor and praise them. They said that this is G-d’s Will – to honor that which honors Him” (Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 1:1). The Rambam proceeds to describe that this was the primary form of Avodah Zarah — not that any of those who worshipped the sun, moon or stars ascribed power to these celestial creations.

“With time, false prophets arose who claimed that G-d had commanded the people to worship specific stars or forces” (Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 1:2). The Rambam explains that this developed into extensive cults. “The primary commandment of Avodah Zarah is to not worship anything that was created, not an angel, not an extraterrestrial force and not a star… even when the worshipper knows that Hashem is the only G-d” (Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 2:1). We see that worshipping or performing any act of reverence to a force other than Hashem is included in Avodah Zarah, even when one accepts that all decisions are made by Him. To explain this further, let us discuss the term shituf.

Shituf

In most contexts, the word shituf is translated as “partnership.” When applied to the prohibition of Avodah Zarah, the term is used to mean worshipping something other than Hashem, even though the individual believes in one G-d Who created the universe. As we just read, the Rambam describes this mode of worship as the primary violation of Avodah Zarah.

There are several ways that one could violate Avodah Zarah through shituf. Above, we described one way: there is nothing wrong with the belief system, but the object being worshipped makes it into an act of Avodah Zarah.

Another form of shituf is the mistaken belief that, although Hashem is indeed the Creator of all, He authorized some other force to make decisions. This constitutes Avodah Zarah. Many religions believe that Hashem created the world, but believe that He delegated authority on some matters to angels or others whom He created. Some religions even believe that He passed authority to humans or to former humans. Any belief that G-d allowed some other entity or force to have a decision in helping or saving mankind is pure Avodah Zarah. Practicing or believing in any of these religions is Avodah Zarah.

Praying

Another way of violating the prohibition of Avodah Zarah through shituf is by directing one’s prayers to something other than Hashem. Even asking an angel to convey my prayers to Hashem qualifies as a very serious prohibition of Avodah Zarah. To quote the Rambam, “Only to G-d is it appropriate to serve, to praise, and to promulgate His greatness and His directives. One may not pray to anything beneath Him, not His angels, not the stars, not the celestial creations, not the elements of creation, nor anything developed from them. All of them are fixed in their deeds and have neither control nor independent free choice, with the exception of G-d. One may not make them intermediaries to use them to contact G-d. All our thoughts must be directed only to G-d, and one should ignore anything else. All this is included under the prohibition of Avodah Zarah. Most of the Torah’s purpose is to command us concerning this” (Rambam, introduction to his commentary on the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin, fifth principle).

This belief comprises the fifth of the thirteen basic beliefs of Judaism, formulated by the Rambam, that Klal Yisroel has accepted as the core belief system of Torah. In the words of the unknown author of the 13 ani maamins, it is structured as: Ani maamin be’emunah sheleimah, shehaborei yisborach shemo lo levado ra’ui lehispallel, ve’ein ra’ui lehispallel lezulaso, “I believe with complete faith that it is appropriate to pray only to the Creator, blessed is He, and that it is inappropriate to pray to anything else.”

Some well-meaning people may be making a serious mistake when they daven at a graveside. To avoid the possibility of inadvertently transgressing the prohibition of Avodah Zarah when visiting a gravesite, one should be careful that all one’s prayers are only to Hashem. (We will leave for a different time the discussion as to whether it is permitted to ask a deceased person to be a guta beter, to pray on our behalf. See, for example, Gesher Hachayim, Volume 1, Chapter 29, Section 9.)

One of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah is a prohibition against causing an oath to be expressed that includes the name of an idol. The Torah says, Vesheim elohim acheirim lo sazkiru, lo yishama al picha, “you may not mention the name of an idol, nor may your mouth allow it to be expressed” (Shemos 23:13).

Chazal understand that this includes a prohibition of swearing an oath mentioning the name of Avodah Zarah. They also understand that this prohibition includes causing an idol worshipper to take an oath, in which he uses the name of his idol. Again, to quote the Rambam, “It is prohibited to include something else together with Hashem’s Name in an oath. Someone who includes something else with Hashem’s Name in an oath is uprooted from the world. There is nothing else in the world that should be given honor” (Hilchos Shavuos 11:2).

Because of this mitzvah, until the modern era, Jews were excluded from holding office in most European countries, because assuming such a position required an oath of office that included a reference to what halacha recognizes as idolatry.

Gentiles

Although it may seem strange for a non-Jew to ask a rav a shaylah, it should actually be commonplace. After all, there are thousands of gentiles for every Jew in the world, and each one of them should be concerned about his or her halachic responsibility. Many non-Jews are indeed concerned about their future place in Olam Haba and, had the nations not been deceived by spurious religions, thousands and perhaps millions more would observe the mitzvos of Bnei Noach that they are commanded. It is tragic that they have been misled into false beliefs and practices.

The prohibition of Avodah Zarah applies not only to Jews, but to any human being walking the face of the earth. One of the mitzvos that bnei Noach are required to observe is a prohibition against worshipping Avodah Zarah. What is included in this prohibition?

On an obvious level, there should be no difference between the prohibition of Avodah Zarah as it applies to gentiles and as it applies to Jews, and this is the understanding of most halachic authorities. This approach is certainly implied by the Rambam, when he introduces the prohibition of Avodah Zarah by saying, “in the days of Enosh, mankind committed a major mistake,” which happened over a thousand years before the Torah was given to Klal Yisroel.

Between Israel and the nations

If, indeed, the prohibition of Avodah Zarah is the same for Jew and gentile, are there any differences between a Jew’s mitzvos regarding G-d’s existence and a gentile’s?

Yes, there are. A Jew has several positive mitzvos that a gentile does not, such as the mitzvah of ahavas Hashem, to love Hashem, and the mitzvah of yiras Hashem, to be in awe of Him. In general, the mitzvos of a ben Noach are prohibitions banning him from specific activities, but do not require him to perform any positive acts.

Other mitzvos

Several other laws that pertain to Jews germane to Avodah Zarah, such as the prohibition against entering a house of idol worship, or the prohibition of allowing an Avodah Zarah to be in one’s house, do not apply to bnei Noach.

Similarly, the prohibition of lo yishama al picha, “your mouth shall not cause the name of an idol to be expressed” does not apply to bnei Noach. Thus, they would not be prohibited from taking an oath by the name of something in addition to or other than Hashem.

At this point, let us analyze one of our opening questions: “Rav Efrayim discusses: ‘May a gentile accept ideas that we consider Avodah Zarah, providing that he believes in G-d?’”

The Rav Efrayim we mention was the author of the Shaar Efrayim, Rav Efrayim ben Yaakov Hakohen, one of the great Ashkenazic halachic authorities of the 17th century. He was the grandfather of the Chacham Zvi and the great-grandfather of Rav Yaakov Emden. The Shaar Efrayim was born and raised in Vilna, and became one of the dayanim of the city at the age of 20 in a beis din that included the Chelkas Mechokeik, the Shach and the Birchas Hazevach, Rav Aharon Shemuel Kaidenover. During the upheavals of the period of the Gezerios Tach veTat that destroyed the Jewish communities of Poland and Lithuania, the kingdom of Sweden invaded Lithuania (then under the control of the king of Poland).  During this era, the Shaar Efrayim fled southwestward, finding himself first in Moravia (now in the Czech Republic), then in Vienna and ultimately in Budapest, where he became the rav and opened a large yeshivah. He corresponded with the great poskim of his era, both those of the Ashkenazic world and those of the Sefardic world in Turkey and Eretz Yisroel. Eventually, he was offered and accepted the rabbonus of Yerushalayim, but, unfortunately, died in a plague before he could assume the position.

The question we are addressing, “May a gentile accept ideas that we consider Avodah Zarah, providing that he believes in G-d?” is published in Shaar Efrayim, in the context of the following halachic discussion.

Partnering with a gentile

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 63b; Bechoros 2b) prohibits creating a business partnership with an idol worshipper, because of concern that, should one need to have him make an oath, which was a common procedure in earlier generations, the gentile would swear in the name of his deity. This would cause the Jew to violate the prohibition of lo yishama al picha, “you may not cause the name of an idol to be expressed.” This ruling is codified in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 156).

Medieval gentiles

At the time that the Gemara prohibited creating a partnership with an idol worshipper, most gentiles were pagans. In the course of time, most European gentiles began to follow different religious beliefs and practices that accepted that there is one Creator, but included various other beliefs that qualify as Avodah Zarah. In the time of the rishonim, the following question was raised: Does the prohibition against forming a business partnership apply to a gentile who observes these practices?

Rabbeinu Tam, cited by Tosafos (Sanhedrin 63b s.v. Asur; Bechoros 2b s.v. Shema), ruled that it was permitted to have the gentiles of his day make an oath. The words Tosafos uses to express this idea is that a non-Jew is not commanded concerning shituf. This opinion is quoted authoritatively by the Rema (Orach Chayim 156). The question is, what did Tosafos mean?

Some authorities understood Tosafos to mean that shituf is not included in the ben Noach’s prohibition against worshipping idols (Olas Tamid, Orach Chayim 156). This interpretation understands that although the Torah is strongly opposed to any recognition or worship of any force other than Hashem, this aspect of Avodah Zarah was not included in the mitzvah that bnei Noach were commanded.

However, most authorities rule that this is a misunderstanding of Tosafos. In their opinion, there is no difference between Jews and non-Jews regarding the prohibition of idol worship. Any belief in another power that shares power or decision-making is a form of idolatry. It is also forbidden for a gentile to worship or pray to anything other than Hashem, even with the understanding that this object of worship is only an emissary of G-d.

According to the more accepted approach, Tosafos means the following: It is true that the gentiles in his day believed in ideas that qualify as Avodah Zarah. In addition, they prayed to their saints, whom they believed had a power to sway how G-d would treat them. When they swore oaths, they would include the name of the saint and the name of G-d. Tosafos rules that causing a gentile to swear an oath in which he mentions the name of a saint does not violate the Torah’s prohibition of lo yishama al picha, since the gentiles, themselves, view the saint only as a means to get Divine help, but not as a source of help himself. They did not consider their saints to be deities.

Furthermore, although the gentiles have strange idolatrous notions defining and understanding the nature of G-d, causing them to swear an oath in G-d’s Name does not violate lo yishama al picha, since the name of the idol is not mentioned. Even though they think of their idol, they don’t mention his name in their oath. Therefore, the Jew does not violate any prohibition when the gentile takes an oath (Shu”t Shaar Efrayim #24; Shu”t Mahara Sasson #95; Shu”t Meil Tzedaka #22; Machatzis Hashekel 156:2).

Stumbling blocks

Thus far, we have explained why Tosafos holds that when a gentile swears, the Jew does not violate lo yishama al picha. However, there is another halachic question: If a gentile must observe Avodah Zarah exactly as does a Jew, are we not causing the gentile to violate his prohibition of Avodah Zarah? This is included under the Torah’s violation of lifnei iver lo sitein michshol, “Do not place a stumbling block before a blind person.” In this context, the verse means: Do not cause someone to sin if he is blind to – i.e., he is unaware of – the seriousness of his violation (Avodah Zarah 6b). This mitzvah applies also to a Jew who causes a gentile to transgress his mitzvos.

Lifnei iveir and swearing

The Ran (end of the first chapter of Avodah Zarah) explains that there is no violation of lifnei iveir, since the ben Noach’s prohibition not to worship idols does not include a prohibition of swearing in the name of an idol. Thus, although a gentile may not serve Avodah Zarah, he is permitted to take an oath of allegiance to an idol in which he does not believe. A result of the Ran’s ruling would be that, in a country in which swearing allegiance to the local religion is a requirement for holding public office, a ben Noach would be permitted to swear this oath.

Shma Yisroel

Having concluded that a non-Jew is required to believe that there is only one G-d, we are left with a question based on a posuk that we recite several times every day: Shma Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad. Why does the Torah say Shma Yisroel, when all non-Jews are prohibited from worshipping idols and from practicing shituf (see Maharam Shik’s commentary on Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 418)?

This is the third question we asked above. Rav Moshe asks: “If all mankind is required to believe in one G-d, why do we say Shma Yisroel, that Hashem is one. Shouldn’t we say Shma Bnei Odom…

The Rav Moshe that I am quoting is Rav Moshe Shik, the Maharam Shik, who was the posek hador of the mid-nineteenth century in Hungary.

There are several answers one can give to explain this. I will share with you an answer that the Maharam Shik himself provides: The mitzvah of Shma Yisroel is that Jews are required to believe in one G-d because of the mesorah we have from our forefathers of the miracles that we saw at Har Sinai and in Egypt, and not because of logic. A gentile is permitted to believe in G-d even if his belief is only on the basis of his having been convinced through logic. Thus, Isaac Newton, who believed in G-d because His creation proves it, fulfilled the requirements of belief in G-d required of a gentile. However, Albert Einstein, who was Jewish and also believed in G-d because His creation proved it, but rejected the mesorah, did not fulfill the mitzvah of Shma Yisroel.

 

Is It Time for Maariv?

sunset

Question #1:

When is the correct time to daven maariv?

Question #2:

Why is there no repetition of shmoneh esrei for maariv?

Question #3:

Must women daven maariv?

Introduction:

In citing the source for our three daily prayers, the Gemara quotes two approaches. Rabbi Yosi ben Chanina explains that our three daily prayers were founded by our forefathers: Avraham instituting shacharis, Yitzchak mincha, and Yaakov maariv. The source that Yaakov introduced maariv is in the second verse of parshas Vayeitzei, where it says vayifga bamakom and the Gemara explains the word vayifga to mean he prayed. The Gemara also cites Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s statement that shacharis and mincha were established by the Anshei Keneses HaGedolah (the great leaders of Klal Yisrael who lived during the time of the building and the beginning of the Second Beis Hamikdash) to correspond to the offerings that were brought every morning and afternoon in the Beis Hamikdash (see Bamidbar 28:1-8), whereas maariv corresponds to the burning of the remaining parts of these offerings that transpired at night (Brachos 26b).

What we call “maariv” actually fulfills three different mitzvos, and the above-quoted Gemara is referring to only one of these mitzvos, the part called the tefillah, which are the prayers we recite as shmoneh esrei. (The avos did not establish the shmoneh esrei, but the concept that one should daven three times a day. The text of the shmoneh esrei was written by the Anshei Keneses HaGedolah.)

The other two mitzvos that we fulfill when we pray maariv are kriyas shma, whose recital is required min haTorah every morning and night (Brachos 2a), and the birchos kriyas shma, which Chazal instituted to surround the shma with brachos (Mishnah Brachos 11a). These brachos together with the shma constitute the part of the davening between borchu and the shmoneh esrei. (Ashkenazim in chutz la’aretz also add another bracha that begins with the words Baruch Hashem LeOlam between the birchos kriyas shma and the kaddish that precedes the shmoneh esrei.)

Although we are very familiar with how we recite the order of the different parts of maariv, we should be aware that, at the time of the Gemara, this order was a topic of dispute between Rabbi Yochanan, whose opinion we follow, and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who contended that the shmoneh esrei of maariv should be recited before shma and the birchos kriyas shma, so that one recites shma closer to the time one retires (Brachos 4b).

Why is there no maariv repetition?

As a preamble to answering this question, let us examine a famous event that occurred shortly after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, after the main Sanhedrin and its associated yeshiva had been forced to evacuate Yerushalayim and reestablish itself in the city of Yavneh. To understand this anecdote properly, we must realize the historical context that the Beis Hamikdash, which had been the central focus of all organized Torah life, had been recently destroyed, and there was concern whether an organized Jewish community could maintain itself without the Beis Hamikdash.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, then a young student in the yeshiva, posed the following query: Is maariv (referring to the tefillah part) reshus, usually translated as “optional,” or is it required? First he brought his inquiry to the great scholar Rabbi Yehoshua, the rebbe of Rabbi Akiva, who ruled that tefillas arvis reshus. Afterwards, Rabbi Shimon shared his question with Rabban Gamliel, who was the rosh yeshiva and the head of the Sanhedrin, who responded tefillas arvis chovah, the maariv prayer is required.

Rabbi Shimon noted that he had previously heard Rabbi Yehoshua’s opinion to the contrary, to which Rabban Gamliel responded that Rabbi Shimon should wait until all the scholars had arrived in the Beis Hamedrash. After the students entered the Beis Hamedrash, Rabbi Shimon repeated his inquiry, and Rabban Gamliel immediately answered tefillas arvis chovah. Rabban Gamliel then asked whether anyone disputed this, to which Rabbi Yehoshua responded in the negative. Rabban Gamliel challenged Rabbi Yehoshua, announcing that it had been reported that Rabbi Yehoshua had ruled that tefillas arvis reshus. Rabban Gamliel then ordered Rabbi Yehoshua to arise so that they could hear the testimony that he had indeed ruled maariv to be only reshus. Rabbi Yehoshua acknowledged that he had indeed ruled this way. Rabban Gamliel then continued the lecture, without granting Rabbi Yehoshua permission to sit down.

This continued for a short while, until the students objected to Rabban Gamliel’s highhanded treatment of Rabbi Yehoshua. The lecture was stopped, and the decision was reached to remove Rabban Gamliel from his position as rosh yeshiva and as head of the Sanhedrin, and to install Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah in his stead. Eventually, all understood that although the consensus was that Rabban Gamliel was wrong for his strong tactics, his motives were completely sincere. He had been ruling with an iron fist to maintain a central authority for Torah in Klal Yisrael, out of concern that in the absence of such strong authority, the centrality of Torah leadership over Klal Yisrael may dissipate. Eventually, Rabban Gamliel was returned to his position with Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah serving as rosh yeshiva and the head of the Sanhedrin one week in four (Brachos 27b- 28a).

Is Maariv Optional?

Ultimately, the halachic conclusion is that maariv is a reshus. Is maariv really optional? Can one decide every night if he wants to skip maariv?

The Rishonim already note a ruling that appears to contravene the statement that maariv is optional. Someone who missed maariv must recite a makeup prayer, called a tefillas tashlumim, after the next morning’s shacharis. However, this ruling appears to contradict the statement that tefillas arvis reshus. If maariv is optional, why must one make up the missed prayer?

In response to this question, Tosafos explains that when the Gemara states that maariv is reshus, it does not mean that it is optional, but that it is less obligatory than other requirements. For example, should one need to choose between fulfilling two different mitzvos in a situation where one cannot fulfill both of them, maariv is pushed aside (Tosafos, Brachos 26a s.v. Ta’ah). In all other circumstances, one is obligated to recite maariv.

The Rif answers the question in a different way. He explains that indeed maariv is technically not obligatory. However, someone who decided to recite maariv makes it obligatory on himself and must pray correctly, even if he needs to pray a makeup.

Must a Woman Daven Maariv?

Does any other halachic distinction result from this difference of opinion between Tosafos and the Rif? It seems that a difference results regarding whether, according to those authorities who rule that women are obligated to daven shacharis and mincha daily, a woman must also daven maariv daily. According to Tosafos, who contends that maariv is obligatory, a woman should be required to daven maariv daily. This ruling is stated by the Aruch Hashulchan (106:7). However, other authorities rule that women are not obligated to daven maariv since they never accepted it as a responsibility (Graz 106:2; Mishnah Berurah 106:4; cf. Magen Avraham 299:16). This approach reflects the opinion of the Rif that although maariv was originally reshus, since men daven maariv regularly, they must continue to do so, but women, who for the most part do not regularly daven maariv, are exempt from doing so (see Shach, Yoreh Deah 375:14).

Why should Yaakov lose out?

This previous discussion should arouse a question in every one of our readers. Since Yaakov Avinu introduced tefillas maariv, why is it treated “second rate” – why is maariv reshus, and only the tefillos founded by Avraham and Yitzchak are obligatory?

Why is Maariv Different?

To answer this question, let us revert to our previous discussion – where I noted that there were two approaches, one contending that the daily prayers were instituted by our forefathers, and the other maintaining that the prayers were created to correspond to the daily offerings. According to both of these approaches, we can explain why maariv is treated somewhat differently from shacharis and mincha.

According to the interpretation that the forefathers instituted the daily prayers, although Yaakov was the first to daven maariv, he had not intended to daven so late in the day, but Hashem caused the sun to set suddenly, giving Yaakov no choice but to daven after nightfall. Since this davening was performed not as Yaakov’s first choice, but because he had no other option, the prayer instituted this way is reshus (Pnei Yehoshua, Brachos 26b s.v. Mihu).

According to the approach that our prayers correspond to the daily offerings, shacharis and mincha each represent the daily korban tamid that was offered in the Beis Hamikdash. Maariv represents the remaining parts of the daily tamid that were burnt the following night on the mizbei’ach. As such, since this step in the processing of the korban is non-essential, the prayer is also not required (Rashi to Shabbos 9b s.v. Lemaan).

Repetition of Maariv

With this background, we can now answer the question we raised above: Why does maariv not include a chazzan‘s repetition of shmoneh esrei, as is done for both shacharis and mincha. The answer is that although today maariv is obligatory, it is not the same level of requirement as are shacharis and mincha. Since everyone is required to daven shacharis and mincha, Chazal were concerned that unlettered individuals would be unable to fulfill the mitzvah. Chazal therefore instituted the repetition of the tefillah so that those unable to daven otherwise can fulfill their requirement by listening to the chazzan‘s prayer. However, since maariv is reshus, Chazal were less concerned that the unlettered would be unable to fulfill this responsibility and therefore they did not institute a repetition.

When Do We Daven Maariv?

Having established that maariv is indeed obligatory, our next question is: When is the earliest time that one may begin maariv? Indeed, although the Mishnah establishes times for the other prayers, it leaves the time for maariv fairly vague. The accepted halachah is that once the time for davening mincha is over, one may daven maariv (Tosafos, Brachos 2a).

So now we need to resolve: Until when can one daven mincha?

The Mishnah records a dispute between the Tana’im regarding this question. According to the Sages, one is allowed to daven mincha until “the evening,” while according to Rabbi Yehudah, the last time for mincha is “plag hamincha,” which I will soon explain. The dispute between them is dependent on how late one may offer the afternoon korban tamid. According to Rabbi Yehudah, one may offer it only until plag hamincha; whereas according to the Sages, one may offer it until evening (Brachos 26b).

So we now know. According to Rabbi Yehudah, one may daven mincha until plag hamincha, and maariv after plag hamincha, whereas the Sages contend that one may daven mincha until “evening,” and maariv afterwards.

When is Evening?

Of course, now we need to find out when is “evening,” when is plag hamincha, and whether we rule like the Sages or like Rabbi Yehudah.

The authorities dispute whether “evening” here means shortly before tzeis hakochavim, nightfall (see Rama 233:1 and Mishnah Berurah #14) or whether it means sunset (Rabbeinu Yonah; authorities cited by Shaarei Tziyun 233:18). According to the first approach, the Sages hold that one may daven mincha until nightfall but one may not daven maariv until after nightfall. According to the second approach, one may not daven mincha after sunset but one may daven maariv then.

When is Plag Hamincha?

Rabbi Yehudah ruled that the latest time to daven mincha is a point in time called plag hamincha. When is plag hamincha? According to the most commonly accepted interpretation, plag hamincha is calculated by dividing the time between sunrise and sunset into 48 “quarter-hour” segments. The point of time that is five of those segments prior to sunset is plag hamincha. Obviously, each segment will not be exactly fifteen minutes, but will vary according to the length of the day. An easier way to express this is to say that plag hamincha is 1 1/4 “halachic hours” (in Hebrew, sha’os zemaniyos) before sunset, where a “halachic hour” is defined as a twelfth of the time between sunrise and sunset. (There are other authorities who calculate the halachic hours and plag hamincha from halachic dawn, alos hashachar, until nightfall, tzeis hakochavim. In their opinion, plag hamincha is considerably later in the day than it is according to the first opinion quoted.)

Do We Rule like the Sages or like Rabbi Yehudah?

Now that we have discussed the dispute between the Sages and Rabbi Yehudah, we need to know how we rule so that we can determine when is the latest time for mincha and the earliest time for maariv. Most disputes in the Gemara are resolved either by the Gemara itself or by the early halachic authorities. However, in regard to this dispute, the Gemara states something unusual — that one can choose which opinion he wants to follow (Brachos 27a). One wishing to daven maariv after plag hamincha, following the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah, may do so, and one who would rather recite mincha after plag hamincha may follow the opinion of the Sages and do so.

Now our question is:

How consistent must I be? May I follow Rabbi Yehudah’s approach one day and the Sages approach on a different day? What about on the same day – may I daven mincha after plag hamincha following the Sages, and then daven maariv before sunset following Rabbi Yehudah?

Most Rishonim rule that one must consistently follow one of these two opinions. In other words, if one decides to daven maariv before sunset following Rabbi Yehudah, then he must be consistent and always daven mincha before plag. Once he follows Rabbi Yehudah’s ruling in this matter, he may no longer daven mincha after plag — to do so is contradictory (Rabbeinu Yonah, Brachos 18b, s.v. D’avad; Rosh, Brachos 4:3; Tur, Beis Yosef, and Shulchan Aruch 233). Being inconsistent is referred to as following a path that is tarti desasri ahadadi, two approaches that contradict one another, since neither Rabbi Yehudah nor the Sages approve of what he is doing, albeit for different reasons.

Some authorities permit one to follow Rabbi Yehudah on one day and the Sages on a different day, providing one is consistent on the same day by davening mincha after plag and maariv before sunset (Hashlamah and Mordechai, both quoted by Beis Yosef 233).

Notwithstanding this discussion, the frequent practice was to daven mincha and maariv together after plag hamincha, which appears to be inconsistent according to all opinions. Nevertheless, the poskim acknowledge that this was commonly done and suggest different reasons why this practice was accepted, or at least tolerated. Some explain that if this approach was not accepted, many communities would be unable to consistently have a regular minyan, or people would not daven maariv since they would not wait in shul until the later time to daven maariv. As a result, for the sake of tefillah betzibur many authorities allowed the tarti desasri but ruled that someone who davened mincha after plag and is davening maariv privately (beyechidus) must wait until nightfall to daven maariv (Magen Avraham 233:7).

We should note that, according to the accepted halachah, one who davens maariv before nightfall, should recite the full shma over again after nightfall (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 235:1). This is for two different reasons. Firstly, although Rabbi Yehudah ruled that the cutoff time between mincha and maariv is plag hamincha, this is only germane to the shmoneh esrei parts of our davening, whose timing is dependent on the daily tamid offerings as mentioned above. However, the mitzvah of reading shma must be fulfilled at the time people retire for the evening, as the Torah says beshachbecha, and few people retire for the evening before it gets dark. Since the time for reciting the evening shma is when most people might consider it bedtime, one cannot not fulfill this mitzvah until nightfall according to most opinions. (However, see Rabbeinu Tam, quoted by Tosafos, Brachos 2a.)

Secondly, the requirements of davening at a specific time and reciting the birchos kriyas shma are rabbinic in nature rather than Torah mandated, which allows some leniency. However, regarding the Torah requirement of reading the shma, we should follow the stricter approach and recite it again after it is definitely nightfall.

I’ll share one anecdote to show how far we should be concerned that one recites shma after it is dark. One gadol I knew from the previous generation, who established his community in America, was concerned that baalei batim would not recite shma after dark, and thus not fulfill the mitzvah min haTorah properly. He also knew that if the break between mincha and maariv was too long, many would not attend shul regularly. He thus established in his community that they began mincha after sunset, followed by a fifteen minute shiur and then maariv so that people would daven maariv in its correct time. In other words, he decided that the entire community should daven mincha at a time that he himself considered non-optimal according to some poskim, in order to guarantee that everyone recite shma properly in its proper time! Although this approach is certainly not the most accepted, we should all be aware of the many considerations

Contemporarily, most communities have many minyanim scheduled both for mincha and for maariv. An individual can, therefore, with a small amount of planning, daven in a way that he avoids any question of davening tarti desasri.

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