Question #1: Where?
Where is the bracha of Magen Avos first mentioned?
Question #2: What?
What is the bracha Mei’ein Sheva?
Question #3: When?
On what occasions do we omit reciting the bracha Mei’ein Sheva?
What is the Bracha Mei’ein Sheva?
The bracha Mei’ein Sheva is recited by the chazzan after we conclude the Friday night Shemoneh Esrei, immediately after the congregation recites together the pesukim of Vayechulu. (Although the term Shemoneh Esrei is technically an inaccurate description of the Shabbos davening since it has only seven, and not eighteen, brachos, I will refer to it as Shemoneh Esrei, since that is what it is usually called.) This bracha is called Mei’ein Sheva, literally, an abbreviation of the seven brachos, because it is a synopsis of the seven brachos that comprise the Shabbos tefillah. Some people refer to the bracha as Magen Avos; since this phrase appears at its beginning, it is a common colloquial way of referring to this bracha.
Why did Chazal institute the Bracha Mei’ein Sheva?
In ancient times, the shullen were often located outside the towns in which people lived, and walking home from shul alone at night was dangerous. Chazal therefore instituted this bracha after Shemoneh Esrei, thereby delaying the end of davening so that someone who arrived late would be able to complete his davening and return with everyone else and not be left to walk home alone (Rashi, Shabbos 24b; Mordechai, Shabbos #407; Ran; Meiri).
According to an alternative approach, the bracha Mei’ein Sheva is a form of repetition of the prayer. The individual who arrived late could listen to the chazzan’s recital of this bracha and thereby fulfill his responsibility, even though the chazzan recited only one bracha and the regular Shabbos tefillah is seven (Rav Natrunai Gaon, as explained by Gra, Orach Chayim 269:13).
Although our shullen are no longer located outside the cities, once Chazal established the recital of bracha Mei’ein Sheva, we continue with this practice. Even in the time of the Gemara, it was practiced in places where the shullen were located inside the cities, notwithstanding that there was no danger to walk home from shul alone (Meiri, Pesachim 100b; Ran [on Rif, Pesachim 20a]; Or Zarua, Hilchos Erev Shabbos #20; Kolbo #11, 35).
Mei’ein Sheva instead of Kiddush
Yet another reason is presented why Chazal introduced Mei’ein Sheva. In ancient times, there were occasions when it was difficult to obtain wine for Kiddush Friday night, and Mei’ein Sheva was instituted as a substitute for reciting Kiddush (Yerushalmi, Brachos 8:1 and Pesachim 10:2. This passage of Talmud Yerushalmi is quoted by Tosafos, Pesachim 106b s.v. Mekadeish).
Why do we not recite Mei’ein Sheva on weekdays?
If the reason for reciting Mei’ein Sheva was out of concern that someone delayed might be placed in danger because he would need to return home by himself, why did Chazal not introduce a similar prayer after weeknight maariv, in order to make sure that this delayed individual would not be placed in danger?
The Rishonim raise this question, explaining that in the era when Mei’ein Sheva was established, someone who realized that he was delayed would not have gone outside the city to the shul on a weekday, but would have come home directly and davened at home. On Shabbos and Yom Tov, however, he would not have wanted to miss the davening in shul.
Do we recite Mei’ein Sheva on Yom Tov?
The Gemara rules that the prayer Mei’ein Sheva was instituted only on Friday evening, and not on Yom Tov evenings that did not fall on Fridays (Shabbos 24b). Why was Mei’ein Sheva not said on Yom Tov? Was there no concern of someone arriving late to shul on Yom Tov eve?
In the writings of the Rishonim, I found several answers to this question. One approach is that, although the concern that someone may be left behind may have equally existed on Yom Tov, since the more common situation was on Shabbos, Chazal did not include Yom Tov in the takkanah (see Meiri, Shabbos 24b).
Another approach is that, on Yom Tov eve, people were careful to arrive on time for davening, and there was no concern about individuals arriving late for shul and remaining alone (Mordechai, Pesachim #611).
Yet a third approach is that there are kabbalistic reasons why this danger was a concern only on Shabbos, even when it falls on Yom Tov, but not on a weekday Yom Tov (Kolbo #35).
Based on a statement of the Talmud Yerushalmi that the reason for Mei’ein Sheva was not because of the dangers of walking home alone, but because wine was not always available, some later commentaries present yet a fourth reason why the takkanah was established only for Shabbos and not for Yom Tov. Since most authorities hold that Kiddush on Yom Tov is not required min haTorah (Maggid Mishnah, Hilchos Shabbos 29:18), Chazal did not create a takkanah whose only reason would be to make sure that one fulfills a mitzvah that is miderabbanan (Marei Kohen, Pesachim 117b).
Reciting Mei’ein Sheva when Yom Tov falls on Friday
Do we recite the bracha Mei’ein Sheva when Yom Tov falls on Friday? The reason for reciting Mei’ein Sheva on a regular Shabbos was because people would work late on Friday afternoon, and therefore arrive late to shul Friday evening. However, when Friday was Yom Tov, there would be no reason for someone to be delayed. Nevertheless, the poskim rule that we should recite Mei’ein Sheva even when Yom Tov falls on Friday, notwithstanding the fact that the reason for the takkanah does not apply (Kolbo #52).
Thirteenth century zeal
Actually, the question regarding recital of Mei’ein Sheva when Yom Tov falls on Friday resulted in a very heated dispute during the era of the Rishonim. In the time of the Rivash, Rabbi Amram ben Meroam, a frequent correspondent of the Rivash, sent him the following shaylah:
Reuven was the chazzan for the Friday night davening on a Shabbos that immediately followed Yom Tov. He began reciting Mei’ein Sheva, when Shimon reprimanded him, contending that one should not recite this bracha when Shabbos follows Yom Tov; since no one was working on Friday, the reason for the takkanah did not apply. Levi then got involved, saying that it is accepted that one does recite Mei’ein Sheva on Friday night following a Yom Tov. The shul then burst into a cacophony of voices, with Shimon’s and Reuven’s backers screaming at one another. Finally, Shimon shouted that Reuven was desecrating Hashem’s holy Name since he was willing to recite a bracha in vain, and that if he did, Shimon would declare him to be in cherem, excommunicated! Reuven did recite the bracha Mei’ein Sheva and a day later opened his door to find Shimon and twenty of his backers there to notify him that he had been excommunicated! The Rivash was asked to rule on whether Reuven was indeed in cherem because of Shimon’s declaration that he had recited a bracha in vain, or, perhaps, Shimon should be placed in cherem for excommunicating someone without proper cause.
The Rivash ruled that Shimon was mistaken and that one should recite Mei’ein Sheva when Shabbos follows Yom Tov. Therefore, he concluded that Reuven, who followed the correct halachah, could completely ignore the cherem placed on him. However, he also concluded that since Shimon thought he was acting correctly, it is inappropriate to excommunicate him for his actions (Shu’t HaRivash #34).
Yom Tov falls on Shabbos
When Yom Tov falls on Shabbos, do we mention Yom Tov in the bracha Mei’ein Sheva?
The Gemara rules that when Yom Tov falls on Shabbos, the chazzan makes no mention of Yom Tov since on Yom Tov we do not recite this bracha (Shabbos 24b).
Reciting Mei’ein Sheva on Shabbos Yom Kippur
Do we recite Mei’ein Sheva when Shabbos falls on Yom Kippur? Logically, there is a strong reason that we should not, since no one arrives that late to shul on Kol Nidrei night. Furthermore, the many piyutim recited allow ample time for someone to finish davening and not be left behind. Nevertheless, the poskim rule that we recite Mei’ein Sheva when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbos (Kolbo #70).
The entire law of the bracha Magen Avos teaches a lesson of paramount importance in the powers of our traditions and the respect we show Chazal. The establishment of this bracha takes us back to a period of time thousands of years ago, and a set of circumstances when shullen were all located outside a town’s boundaries. Yet, we continue to observe this mitzvah every Friday night, notwithstanding the fact that the reason for its establishment no longer exists and especially in a world where change has become a constant phenomenon, and opinions become obsolete almost more quickly than they come into style. Chazal’s wisdom is timeless and eternal, giving the Jewish people a stability that the nations, as a whole, and every individual crave. One way of fulfilling our mission to be “a light unto the nations” is through following the words of Chazal, knowing that they are relevant in all times and all places.