Where Should I Pray

Certainly, both Bilaam’s desire to destroy the shullen of the Jews, and Pinchas’s praying that the plague end (see Tehillim 106:30), makes this a befitting week to discuss:

Where Should I Pray

Question #1: My Shul or my Minyan?

“Is it more important to daven with a minyan or to daven in shul?”

Question #2: Minyan-less

“I work nights, and by the time I am finished in the morning, there is no minyan with which I can daven. There is a shul near my workplace, but no minyan that accommodates my schedule. Should I go there to daven bi’yechidus?”

Question #3: The Shul I Don’t Attend

“From a halachic perspective, does it make any difference in which shul I daven?”

Question #4: Davening Privately

Davening with a minyan disturbs my learning schedule. May I therefore daven bi’yechidus?”

Introduction

As we will soon see, there are many halachos that determine the preferred location for prayer. Among other issues, I will be discussing the following questions:

What constitutes davening with a minyan?

Should one pray in a shul even when there is no minyan?

Is there a preference as to which shul one should attend?

With a minyan

The Gemara and authorities laud the advantages of praying with a minyan:

“The Holy One, blessed is He, said: ‘Whoever is involved in Torah and chesed and prays with the tzibur, I treat him as if he redeemed Me and My children from the nations of the earth’” (Brachos 8a).

“The prayers of the community are always listened to. Even when there are sinners among them, the prayers of the community are never viewed by Hashem with disfavor. Therefore, a person should always join with the community, and he should not pray by himself any time that he can pray with the tzibur. A person should always wake up early and go to shul, and should always attend shul in the evening, because prayer is not heard at all times, except when recited in a shul. One who has a shul in his city but does not daven there is called a bad neighbor” (Rambam, Hilchos Tefillah 8:1).

Segulah for longevity

In the merit of praying daily with a minyan, there is a segulah for living a long productive life, as we see from the following passage of Gemara:

They told Rabbi Yochanan: “There are old men in Bavel.” He responded with astonishment, noting that the Torah promises longevity only for those who keep the Torah carefully while living in Eretz Yisroel, but not for those who live in chutz la’aretz, including Bavel. When they told Rabbi Yochanan that these older people were wont to come to shul early and to stay late, he understood that they lived long in the merit of this mitzvah (Brachos 8a).

What constitutes tefillah betzibur?

Davening with a minyan means that one begins the shemoneh esrei at the same time that the tzibur does (Mishnah Berurah 90:28). One who arrives in shul late and therefore begins shemoneh esrei later than the minyan does, fulfills the mitzvah of davening in shul, but does not fulfill the mitzvah of davening with a minyan. If possible, he should attend a later minyan, in order to fulfill the mitzvah of davening with a minyan and in order to make sure that his prayers are heard.

Conflicts with my learning

Someone whose learning will be disturbed by his attending regular minyanim is still required to daven with a minyan (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 2:27; cf., however, Eimek Brocha, page 7). In the above responsum, Rav Moshe Feinstein does recognize one exception to this rule: Someone who learns in a place where there is no minyan davening is not required to interrupt his learning in order to daven at the same time as a minyan. This ruling will be explained shortly.

How far?

How far is someone required to travel in order to be able to daven with a minyan? This depends on whether he is at home or on the road. If he is at home, he is required to travel at least up to 18-24 minutes in order to be able to daven with a minyan (see Pri Chodosh, Orach Chayim 163:28 and Biur Halachah ad locum s.v. berichuk; however, cf. Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh Deah 112:6, quoting Shu”t Beis Yaakov #35, who rules more leniently.) In his above-referenced responsum, Rav Moshe suggests that one might be required to travel even more than this to join a minyan.

I wrote 18-24 minutes because of a dispute among early halachic authorities. This dispute is dependent on how one understands a passage of Gemara (Pesachim 95), and discussing these details is beyond the scope of our current article.

On the road

If someone is on the road and there is a minyan that is not in the direction that he is going, he is required to travel up to 18-24 minutes out of his way in order to daven with a minyan (see Pesachim 46a, as explained by Rashi and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 90:16). On the other hand, if he is traveling and knows that there is a minyan ahead of him, such that traveling to attend the minyan does not take him out of his way, then the halachah is more stringent. He is required to travel up to 72-96 minutes in order to participate in a minyan.

Davening at the time of the tzibur

If someone cannot daven together with a minyan, there is a halachic preference to daven at the same time that the tzibur davens, even though the individual is not davening in the same place where the tzibur is located. In other words, although his prayer will not qualify as tefillah betzibur, the fact that the tzibur is davening at the same time as this individual assists the acceptance of his tefillah. When someone davens with the tzibur, his prayer is always heard, even when his kavanah is subpar. (Of course, the better his kavanah, the more the tefillah is heard and responded to.) Davening at the same time as the tzibur, but in a different place, is considered to be on a somewhat lower level (Tosafos, Avodah Zarah 4b s.v. keivan; see also Machatzis Hashekel 90:17, quoting Shelah Hakodesh).

Rabbi Yitzchak and Rav Nachman

In this context, we are going to eavesdrop on a conversation that transpired between two great gedolim of the time of the Gemara, the great amora’im, Rabbi Yitzchak and Rav Nachman. (Both of these scholars were so well-known that they are usually referred to by their first names. Rav Nachman’s full name was actually Rav Nachman bar Yaakov [Tosafos, Bava Basra 46b s.v. Shalach], and the Rabbi Yitzchak referred to was probably Rabbi Yitzchak bar Pinchas [see Taanis 5a], but it might have been Rabbi Yitzchak bar Acha [see Brachos 27a and Rashi, Pesachim 114a].)

The conversation

Rabbi Yitzchak said to Rav Nachman: “Why did the master not come to shul to pray?” Rav Nachman replied, “I was unable.” Rabbi Yitzchak said to him: “Then you should have gathered ten people with whom to daven.” Rav Nachman responded that he found this difficult to arrange (tericha li milsa). Rabbi Yitzchak then advised, “The master should have instructed the sheliach tzibur to inform him when the tzibur is davening.” To this, Rav Nachman replied, “Is this so important?” Rabbi Yitzchak then quoted Rabbi Yochanan who, in turn, had cited Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai about the importance of davening at the time when the tzibur davens (Brachos 7b-8a).

This passage of Gemara teaches that the highest priority is to daven with a minyan in shul. The second choice, when one cannot daven with a minyan in shul, is to daven with a minyan that is not meeting in shul. Although there are advantages to the minyan in shul (see Mirkeves Hamishneh, Hilchos Tefillah, Chapter 8), davening with a minyan outside of shul is far preferred to davening without a minyan.

The third choice, when one cannot daven with a minyan at all, is to daven at the time that the minyan is davening in shul. The Rema (Orach Chayim 90:9) mentions that those who live in a place where there is no daily minyan should daven at the time that the tzibur davens. This demonstrates that the advantage of davening at the time that the tzibur davens is not limited to a tzibur that is within walking distance. The same rule is true for someone who is traveling – he should try to daven at the time that the tzibur is davening (Magen Avraham ad locum).

Exceptions

The Shelah Hakodesh mentions that there is an exception to this rule, meaning that there is a situation where one must daven bi’yechidus, and he should not daven at the time that the minyan is davening. If the minyan is davening maariv before it is fully dark, he should not daven at the same time that they are, since they have a heter to daven before it gets dark, but he does not. In this instance, he should wait until tzeis hakochavim, definite nightfall, before he davens (quoted by Magen Avraham).

Other poskim mention another instance in which one is not required to daven at the same time that the tzibur does, but can daven when it is convenient for him. If the tzibur davens shacharis later than he would like to, and he wants to be able to begin learning, he may daven before they do, in order to be able to begin his uninterrupted learning afterwards (Be’er Heiteiv). This ruling teaches that there is a difference between davening with a minyan and davening at the time that the minyan davens. As we mentioned before, the requirement to daven with a minyan supersedes his own desire to daven at a time that accommodates his own learning schedule. However, assuming that one cannot daven with the minyan anyway, but could, in theory, daven at the time that the minyan davens, he is not required to daven at their time, when his learning schedule is better accommodated in a different way.

Arranging a minyan

The Gemara mentioned that Rav Nachman did not arrange his own minyan because tericha milsa, it was difficult to arrange. Had it not been difficult to arrange, he certainly would have arranged a minyan. Thus, the halachah is that if someone cannot make it to the shul’s minyan, he is required to arrange his own minyan, unless it is a tircha to do so.

Tircha for whom?

What does it mean that it is a tircha to arrange the minyan? The Machatzis Hashekel cites a dispute among the rishonim whether this means that it is a tircha for the individual who cannot come to shul to make the arrangements that he have a minyan, or that the concern is that it is a tircha for the people to assemble especially for him (Semag). There would be an interesting difference in practical halachah that results from this dispute. According to the first opinion, in the days of Rav Nachman this would have required someone to go door to door or to look in the street for people to form a minyan for him. Today, when one could let one’s fingers do the walking, it would presumably not be considered a tircha to arrange a minyan. On the other hand, according to the second opinion, asking people to come especially to your house to form a minyan certainly involves a tircha for them. By the way, the words of our text of the Gemara, tericha li milsa, imply the first way of understanding the topic. Either way, someone who has this question should refer it to his rav or posek.

In shul

Until now, we have discussed davening either with a minyan or at the same time as a minyan davens. Aside from the importance of tefillah betzibur, it is also important to daven in shul, even when there is no minyan there. The Gemara (Brachos 6a) teaches: “Abba Binyamin says ‘a person’s prayers are answered only in shul, as the verse states, lishmo’a el harinah ve’el hatefillah,to hear the song and the prayer” (Melachim I 8:28). As Rashi explains, rinah means prayers in shul where the community as a whole recites praises of Hashem with beautiful song.

This statement of the Gemara surfaces another time in mesechta Brachos (8a), in this occasion in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, and it is quoted in the halachic works of the three major early halachic authorities, the Rif, the Rambam and the Rosh and by all later poskim. When the Tur (Orach Chayim 90) quotes this halachah, he states that a person should always daven in a shul with a minyan. However, Rabbeinu Yonah cites, in the name of the Geonim, that even if he needs to daven at a time when there is no minyan, he should still daven in a shul, since it is a place designated for the public to daven (Beis Yosef).

The Shulchan Aruch combines the conclusions of the last two discussions as follows: “A person should always try to daven in shul with a minyan. If an extenuating circumstance prevents his attending shul, then he should daven at the time that the tzibur does. And if this is also not possible and he must daven by himself, he should still daven in a shul.” (Orach Chayim 90:9). The Magen Avraham cites illness or weakness as reasons why someone missed the minyan in shul. He also notes that it is preferable to daven with a minyan at home, rather than daven at the time the tzibur is davening, but without a minyan. Again, this is based on the Gemara that we saw above.

Beis midrash versus shul

The Gemara teaches that the great scholars, Rav Ami and Rav Asi, davened in the place where they studied Torah, notwithstanding the fact that there were thirty shullen in their city (Brachos 8a, 30b). Thus, we see that davening in the beis midrash where one usually learns is more valuable than davening in shul. Among the early halachic authorities, we find two interpretations of this practice.

  • Rabbeinu Yonah explains that someone whose full time occupation is studying Torah (toraso umnaso) should daven in a beis midrash rather than in a shul, even at the expense of not being able to daven with a minyan. Alternatively, since he spends his entire day learning in one place without interruption, he should not waste potential learning time by leaving his home for shul (Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim, Chapter 90).
  • The Rambam disagrees and rules that he should daven with a minyan. According to his understanding, it appears that the Gemara is teaching that a Torah scholar should daven in a beis midrash with a minyan, and does not need to attend the shul’s minyan. The Rosh follows a similar approach, concluding that the Torah scholar who would not have a minyan where he learns should go to shul to daven for several reasons, including that others will learn from his example and not daven with a minyan (Shu”t HaRosh, cited by Tur Orach Chayim chapter 90).

Choosing between shuls

When one has a choice of shullen in which to daven, does halachah provide a priority as to which one he should choose? Indeed it does, mentioning three rules to follow.

Regular shul

One should preferably have a shul which one attends regularly (Mishnah Berurah 90:28).

Farther shul

Rabbi Yochanan said that he learned from a widow how one should earn reward for mitzvos by walking a greater distance. She would come daily from a different neighborhood to pray in the beis midrash of Rabbi Yochanan (obviously, in the women’s section). Rabbi Yochanan asked her, rhetorically, “Is there no shul in your neighborhood?” to which she answered, “Do I not get extra reward for walking to the farther shul?” (Sotah 22a). We find that Rabbi Yochanan reiterated this lesson in a different passage of Gemara, where he ruled that it is not an advantage to live next to a shul, since one thereby loses the merit of walking a greater distance to shul (Bava Metzia 107a). From both passages, we see that one should try to daven at a shul that involves a farther walk, in order to gain extra merit.

Larger minyan

The halachah is recorded that one should daven in the shul where more people are attending davening (Mishnah Berurah 90:28). This is because of the concept called Berov am hadras Melech (Mishlei 14:28): the more people that participate in a mitzvah, the greater is the honor for Hashem.

Conclusion

The power of tefillah is very great. Through tefillah one can save lives, bring people closer to Hashem and overturn harsh decrees. We have to believe in this power. One should not think, “Who am I to daven to Hashem?” Rather, we must continually drive home the concept that Hashem wants our tefillos and He listens to them! Man was created by Hashem as the only creation that has free choice. Therefore, our serving Hashem and our davening is unique in the entire spectrum of creation.

Understanding how much concern Chazal placed in the relatively minor aspects of davening should make us even more aware of the fact that davening is our attempt at building a relationship with Hashem. As the Kuzari notes, every day should have three very high points — the three times that we daven. Certainly, one should do whatever one can to make sure to pay attention to the meaning of the words of one’s Tefillah. We should gain our strength and inspiration for the rest of the day from these three prayers. Let us hope that Hashem will accept our tefillos together with those of Klal Yisrael!