Question #1: Earliest Maariv?
When is the earliest time that I may daven maariv?
Question #2: Earliest Shabbos?
May I daven maariv earlier on Friday evening?
Question #3: Earliest Conflict?
What does “tartei desasri” mean?
Question #4: Early Meal?
If I make “early Shabbos,” when may I begin the Shabbos meal?
We may have heard terms like “mincha gedolah,” “mincha ketanah,” “plag,” “Magen Avraham’s zman,” “Gra’s zman,” “tosefes Shabbos;” and “tartei desasri” and have an approximate idea of what they mean, yet not a perfect understanding.
Let’s explain some of the terms:
Mincha gedolah: This is the earliest time that it is permitted to daven mincha (Brachos 26b, see Rashi and Rambam), and is half an hour after halachic midday (ibid.). For virtually all the calculations that we will be making, “an hour” is what we call a sha’ah zemanis, which means that we divide the daytime into twelve parts, and each part is considered an hour. One of the major questions that we will be discussing is whether the “daytime” we are dividing is calculated from sunrise to sunset (which means that it averages out over the year to about sixty minutes) or whether it is calculated from halachic dawn until nightfall, in which case each hour is considerably longer.
Mincha ketanah: The preferred time to daven mincha is after mincha ketanah (Brachos 26b, see Rashi and Rambam). This is half an hour after the day is three-quarters over (ibid.). Expressing this in a more mathematical way, it is 9.5/12 or 19/24 of the day. Here the range among the various opinions is much wider than it is for mincha gedolah. The time on your home clock for mincha ketanah is much later when you end the day at nightfall than when you end it at sunset because your daytime hours and length of each hour are longer.
Plag, or, as it should properly be called, “plag hamincha,” is midway between mincha ketanah and the “end” of the day. The word plag literally means “splitting” or “half.” The mathematical way of expressing this is 10.75/12, or 43/48 of the way through the day, meaning that if you divide daytime into 48 quarter-hours, calculating backward from the end of the day by five of these quarter-hours is plag haminchah. The same dispute that I mentioned earlier, whether we calculate the end of the day from nightfall or from sunset, also makes a tremendous difference here regarding when is plag haminchah.
The main halachic factors determined by plag hamincha are when is the earliest time of day that one may daven maariv, and when is the earliest time of the day that someone may light the Shabbos lights and accept Shabbos.
“Magen Avraham’s zman” and “Gra’s zman:” These terms are used most frequently in reference to the latest time by which Shema must be recited every morning, which is before a quarter of the day has passed. The difference between these two zmanim is that the Magen Avraham calculates the day from alos hashachar, sometimes called halachic dawn, until tzeis hakochavim (Magen Avraham 58:1), “when the stars come out,” whereas the Gra calculates it from sunrise to sunset (Orach Chayim 459:2; Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 261:10). Calculating the other three times of the day that I mentioned above — mincha gedolah, mincha ketanah, and plag hamincha — is also dependent on the same question: whether we calculate these zmanim by beginning the day at alos hashachar and ending it at tzeis hakochavim, or by beginning it at sunrise and ending it at sunset. (There are authorities who calculate some of these laws from alos hashachar to tzeis hakochavim and others from sunrise to sunset; see acharonim who explain above Magen Avraham; Achuzas Sadeh, page 62.)
The Gemara mentions that the cutoff-point between one day and the next, is at tzeis hakochavim, “when the stars come out” (Brachos 2a-b; Pesachim 2a; Megillah 20b). There are authorities who reach a different halachic conclusion, but we will discuss this some other time.
Tosefes Shabbos: the halachic requirement to begin observing Shabbos before the day has yet arrived and, also, to continue observing Shabbos for some time after the day is over on Saturday night. Even if we are able to calculate the exact moment that Shabbos begins and ends, we are required to add time, before it begins and after it ends.
Tartei desasri, literally, two that contradict, means two practices that conflict with one another, because they follow two opposing opinions. We will soon see how this applies to our discussion.
At this point, let us discuss our first opening question: When is the earliest time that I may daven maariv?
Although several Mishnayos discuss the beginning and ending time of many mitzvos and prayers, they make no reference to the earliest time to daven maariv. Instead, the Mishnah (Brachos 26a) states that “the maariv prayer has no established time.” The same Mishnah records a dispute among tanna’im when is the latest time to daven mincha (Brachos 26a): An anonymous tanna, whom the Gemara calls the “Sages” (chachamim), permits davening mincha “until evening,” whereas Rabbi Yehudah ends the time for mincha at plag hamincha, notwithstanding that the day is not yet over.
The Gemara (Brachos 26b) then quotes a Tosefta (Brachos Chapter 3) in which these tanna’im explain their opinions. Rabbi Yehudah contends that the latest time for mincha is at plag hamincha because this is the latest time that the afternoon korban tamid may be offered in the Beis Hamikdash. The Sages disagree with Rabbi Yehudah, contending that the korban tamid may be offered until the end of the day and, therefore, the prayer of mincha may also be recited until then. Thus, all agree that the time for davening mincha is dependent on when the afternoon korban tamid may be offered.
In the Tosefta and Gemara, it states that maariv has no “set time” because the remains of the korbanos that were offered during the previous day are burnt on the mizbeiach all night long.
As mentioned, the Mishnah says nothing about when the time for maariv begins. However, the following Gemara implies that it begins when the time for mincha ends. The Gemara notes that Rav davened the maariv of Shabbos when it was still Friday afternoon; the Gemara derives from this practice that Rav accepted the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah. The Gemara then concludes that, since Rav Huna and other great rabbis did not daven maariv until it was night, they follow the opinion of the Sages. Thereby, the Gemara implies that the time for maariv begins whenever the time for mincha ends; since Rav davened maariv before nightfall, he must hold like Rabbi Yehudah that it is now too late to daven mincha. According to the Sages, that the latest time for mincha is “evening,” one cannot daven maariv earlier.
Rabbi Yehudah or the Sages?
The Gemara discusses whether the halacha accords with Rabbi Yehudah, that the demarcation between mincha and maariv is plag hamincha, or whether we rule like the Sages, that it is the end of the day. After rallying various opinions in either direction, the Gemara concludes that there is no clear-cut accepted practice, and, as a result, each individual can choose which approach he wants to follow. This leads us to the following question, which the rishonim address: Can one daven sometimes according to the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah, and sometimes according to the Sages? Although there are many instances in halacha of tartei desasri, the one involving davening mincha and maariv is the most commonly referred to instance.
I explained above that this means following two practices that conflict with one another, because they follow opposing opinions. For example, the Gemara prohibits certain practices that would be following the opinion of Beis Hillel, in one aspect, and that of Beis Shammai, in another. This is prohibited because, taken together, someone is doing something not accepted by either academy (Eiruvin 7a).
At this point, our question is as follows: May someone follow the opinion of the Sages by davening mincha after plag, and also follow the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah and daven maariv before the day ends? Although the halacha does not definitively follow either Rabbi Yehudah or the Sages, davening mincha at a time that Rabbi Yehudah rules is too late, and maariv when the Sages consider it too early, is tartei desasri (Tosafos, Brachos 2a s.v. Mei’eimasai). Although I may follow either of the two opinions, tartei desasri implies that I cannot mix – since this results in following no opinion.
Most rishonim consider this a concern, the majority contending that someone should decide that he follows either Rabbi Yehudah, and never davens mincha after plag hamincha, or that he follows the Sages, and never davens maariv before the day ends.
Some rishonim rule that this is a problem only on the same day, i.e., one should not daven mincha after plag and maariv before the day ends on the same day, but there is no problem doing this on different days (see Mordechai, Brachos #89, cited by Magen Avraham). Although most rishonim do not hold this way, the prevalent custom is to follow this approach.
There is a minority opinion that there is no problem with davening mincha and maariv in a way that causes a tartei desasri, particularly when davening with a tzibur (see Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 235; Taz, Orach Chayim 235:2; Yad Efrayim, 267:1).
Fourteenth century conundrum
In the fourteenth century, it was apparently common among Ashkenazim that the summertime communal mincha–maariv minyan was scheduled considerably before plag hamincha. This raises a major halachic concern, because no opinion cited by the Gemara allows davening maariv this early.
This issue was raised by perhaps the most prominent poseik of the era, the Terumas Hadeshen (1:1), who notes that the practice seems to defy the rules we would derive from the Gemara. Yet, he concludes that one should daven together with the community minyan. Although the Terumas Hadeshen does not fully explain his conclusion, he may opine that a community’s prayer schedule may be more flexible than that of an individual, as evidenced by a different passage of Gemara (Brachos 27b). We should note that the Gemara mentions this factor only regarding a situation in which an error occurred that caused the tzibur to daven too early.
At this point, we will address the second of our opening questions: May I daven maariv earlier [than I usually do] on Friday night?
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 267:2) permits davening maariv on Friday evening while it is still day, even according to the Sages. This appears to contradict the Gemara, cited above, that permitted davening maariv early on Friday night only according to Rabbi Yehudah.
I am aware of at least four approaches that can be used to justify this practice, three of which are mentioned by the Magen Avraham (267:1):
(1) The Baal Halachos Gedolos and other authorities understand that a later passage of Gemara permits early maariv on Friday night even according to the opinion of the Sages. The rationale for this is because tosefes Shabbos permits davening early, since accepting Shabbos prohibits davening the weekday mincha of Friday. Once the time of mincha ended (because he accepted Shabbos), the time for maariv automatically begins, even though night has not yet begun (Mordechai; Olas Shabbos 267:1; Penei Yehoshua, Brachos 27a s.v. Amar rav Chanina).
(2) As I mentioned above, Chazal instituted the nightly prayer of maariv, corresponding to placing leftover parts of the day’s korbanos on the mizbei’ach. On a weekday in the Beis Hamikdash, what was not consumed by the fires during the day was burnt at night. However, this was the procedure only on a weekday. No leftovers were burnt on Friday night, because it is Shabbos; instead, they were burnt Friday afternoon. Since maariv corresponds to the burning of these parts of the korbanos, it is permitted to daven maariv at the time that these were offered – on Friday before nightfall.
(3) The Magen Avraham suggests a different reason why someone may daven earlier on erev Shabbos — based on the opinion of the Mordechai that permits following the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah one day and that of the Sages on a different day. Thus, you may daven mincha before plag and maariv after plag on Friday, notwithstanding that the rest of the week you daven mincha much later in the day.
(4) According to the above-mentioned responsum of the Terumas Hadeshen, a tzibur may daven maariv early, immediately after davening mincha, even though we would otherwise consider it too early to daven maariv. This approach might be based on the idea that tefillas aravis reshus, that maariv is less obligatory than the other tefillos, and therefore one can be more flexible with its time.
There are several halachic differences (nafka mina) that result from these various answers. For example, according to the first two approaches, it is acceptable to daven mincha on Friday evening after plag and maariv immediately after, and it is not considered tartei desasri.
The Magen Avraham concludes that someone davening maariv early on Friday evening should daven mincha before plag. This is because he accepts the third approach, that of the Mordechai, as the main heter, notwithstanding that he quoted three reasons to be lenient.
Nevertheless, the accepted practice, in most places, is to be less concerned than is the Magen Avraham.
When is the earliest time to fulfill the mitzvah of reciting Shema at night?
Most rishonim assume that the earliest time to recite the Shema is at tzeis hakochavim. After all, most mitzvos that we observe at night are dependent on tzeis hakochavim.
However, when the Torah instructs us concerning the mitzvah of reading the Shema, it never says that the mitzvah is at night. The Torah teaches that we are to perform the mitzvah be’shachbecha, when we go to bed, or while we are in bed (see Rashi, Brachos 2a). This distinction produced much halachic literature at the time of the tanna’im, many of whom held that the time for reciting the evening Shema does not necessarily begin at tzeis hakochavim (Brachos 2b). Rabbeinu Tam concludes that one may fulfill the mitzvah of reciting Shema as early as plag hamincha. His reasoning why Shema is different appears to be that the Torah never states that Shema be recited at night, but when you go to bed, and there are those who go to bed early.
At this point, let us discuss the last of our opening questions: If I make “early Shabbos,” must I be careful what time I begin eating the Shabbos meal?
The halacha prohibits beginning a meal once it is the time for reciting Shema, or even within a half hour of that time, without first reciting Shema. This means that if it is less than half an hour before the time that the day ends, one must wait until it is nightfall and recite Shema before beginning the meal.
However, there is no problem with beginning the meal more than half an hour before nightfall, continuing the meal into the night, and reciting Shema when the meal is over. Since it was permitted to start the meal, Chazal did not require interrupting the meal to say Shema.
Someone who starts Shabbos shortly after plag hamincha and begins the meal within a short time thereafter does not have any concern about this halacha, since he is beginning the meal well before half an hour before the time to recite Shema. The question concerns someone who starts Shabbos at a set time every week, and the meal sometimes starts within half an hour of the time to recite Shema. Is he permitted to begin his meal now, or must he wait until it is late enough for him to recite Shema before he begins his meal?
Indeed, the conclusion of many prominent authorities is that he should wait until he recites Shema (Magen Avraham 235:2).
However, although most rishonim do not accept Rabbeinu Tam’s approach that one can fulfill the mitzvah of reciting Shema after plag hamincha, there are those who do (Mordechai, Hagahos Maimani, Raavyah, all quoted by Terumas Hadeshen 1:1). The Beis Yosef (Orach Chayim 235, quoting Mordechai, Shabbos 224 and Ran) and others conclude that, although everyone who davens maariv before it is fully dark should recite the full Shema later and not rely on Rabbeinu Tam’s opinion, regarding the rabbinic prohibition to delay the meal until he recited Shema, one may rely on Rabbeinu Tam that he already fulfilled the mitzvah and may begin the meal already (Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 267 and Yad Efrayim).
Conclusion — Why is maariv different?
As the Gemara teaches, Yaakov Avinu introduced maariv. If so, why does the Gemara discuss whether maariv is an obligatory prayer or not? Although we consider maariv to be obligatory, it sounds like someone considered it “second rate” relative to shacharis and mincha,which were established by Avraham and Yitzchak?
The Penei Yehoshua answers that Yaakov was not planning to daven maariv; he had intended to daven mincha, 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, this allows us the option to be more flexible regarding the time of this prayer – a very helpful halachic consideration when Shabbos begins late (Penei Yehoshua, Brachos 26b s.v. Mihu).