We Jews certainly worry a lot. It’s true that, over the generations, we have had a lot to worry about, much of that concerned with survival in a series of hostile environments. Perhaps that pressure and danger developed in us the habit, that even when things are temporarily secure, we’re still driven to worry. I’m not sure, though, that that is really the agenda The Creator has for us.
On a recent Friday (6/7/13), going into Shabbat presented food for thought. For one thing, approaching the solstice, these are the latest candle-lightings of the year (the latest times of the year that Shabbat begins), and living in the Pacific Northwest, this meant Shabbat starting around 8:45! It was also Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the New Month of Tammuz, which requires an additional prayer.
It all appeared pretty straight forward. Have a long, relaxing Friday afternoon, start the baseball game on tv, lazily roll into Shabbat around the seventh inning (hoping that the outcome of the game is already obvious) and then daven, make kiddush and enjoy dinner. Of course, no longer having children at home, I normally don’t feel much pressure to begin Shabbat early (a legitimate halachic option), but because I was sharing Shabbat with friends who, indeed, do have young children, everything was shifted up almost an hour and a half.
This should be relatively simple, but it actually stirred up quite a few technical halachic principles which appeared to conflict with each other and so, needed resolution. All of these matters, by the way, have been discussed for millennia, but it’s always fun to go over them each time.
Here are the issues. How early (before sundown) can you begin Shabbat? How early can you daven Ma’ariv? How early and late can you daven Mincha? Can you daven Mincha and Ma’ariv, back-to-back, in the same time-frame or must you wait? Even if you can bring in Shabbat early, can you also enter Rosh Chodesh early? Can you say the special addition for Rosh Chodesh (Ya’ale v’Yavo) before it’s actually dark? Before sunset? Before candle-lighting (18 minutes before sunset)? And most important, what, if any, does all this matter? Now let’s explore.
Our sages of Mishnaic times, ending in the earliest years of the third century, already discussed the flexibility of Shabbat’s starting time (one can enter the realm of Shabbat, including its restrictions, earlier than sunset, even though officially each Jewish day begins at night (“And it was evening, it was morning, Day One/Two/Three……”)) as well as the acceptable time frames for each of the three daily prayer services (שחרית, Shacharit, morning, מנחה, Mincha, afternoon and מעריב/ערבית, Ma’ariv/Aravit, evening).
In general, one can enter Shabbat just about as early as one wishes on Friday afternoon, but the question remains when can one begin ערבית, Aravit, the evening service. It was already common during those times, and commented on by both Rashi and Tosefot, for people to go to synagogue toward the end of the day and say Mincha and then Ma’ariv back-to-back, intentionally starting home before it was dark (largely for safety issues), obviously, then, davening Ma’ariv before dark and often before sunset.
Technically, the day is divided into three time frames, one for each prayer service. While, of course, God doesn’t have “office hours”, so we can pray whenever we like, the question, then, is what service do we say. The issue turns on an opinion in the Gemara (Berachot 26a) of Rabbi Yehuda who says that Mincha (afternoon) has a deadline of plag mincha “middle of the afternoon”, which in an ideal 12-hour day would be at 4:45, but at this time of year, closer to 7:30. Presumably, according to Rabbi Yehuda, before this time is proper for Mincha and after that time, even before sunset, proper for Ma’ariv. So, according to these criteria, we should have completed Mincha by 7:30 and can, immediately thereafter, say Ma’ariv!
That sounds simple, too simple to be true and it is! Since Shabbat was also the beginning of Rosh Chodesh, the new month, and there’s no principle about extending Rosh Chodesh like there is extending Shabbat (which, in part, enables us to begin Shabbat early on Friday afternoons), and since Rosh Chodesh requires the special addition of Ya’ale V’Yavo in the Amida (the central prayer of each of the three daily services), there is a question as to whether we can properly say the Shabbat Amida early because it’s not yet Rosh Chodesh! This seems to offer two solutions, either say Ma’ariv after dark, which defeated the entire purpose of trying to finish prayers early and move to dinner before the children melt down, or to say the Amida without Ya’ale V’Yavo and making extra sure to add that verse to the Birkat HaMazon, Grace after Meals (which also contains space for that prayer when needed).
We’ve now solved the puzzle and generated at least two partial solutions, davening later than planned (after sundown) and risking a kid meltdown (having raised four children, I know this is always a very real pitfall) or saying a possibly-deficient Ma’ariv. Of course, there’s a third solution which, in many forums, would naturally have been selected, probably without any thought or worry. That would be to daven Mincha shortly after people have gathered (hopefully once there is a minyan (a quorum of 10)) and then moving into Kabbalat Shabbat (a selection of Psalms, preparatory for Shabbat)/Ma’ariv (with Ya’ale V’Yavo), serve and enjoy dinner! In other words, to fall back on experience and instinct and daven as you normally do!
The question here is, “What is God’s Will?” It’s absolutely true that we do have a set of “rules” as well as “operations” to combine these “rules”. Moreover, we’re taught that studying and working through these types of problems are a good thing to do, comprising the essential mitzvah of Talmud Torah, studying Torah. We’re also supposed to take these rules and limitations and structures seriously and do out best to live harmoniously with them. But on the other side of the discussion, Torah observance is supposed to lead to a balanced life, a better life, a more directed, healthy and spiritual life. Excessive worry over increasingly small details and obsessiveness over theoretical time limits (opposed to “absolute” ones such as Shabbat beginning, at the very latest, with the moment of sunset (usually we begin approximately 18 minutes before that, but those extra minutes are optional).) Does God “want” and thus is our goal detailed, to-the-minute (even when it doesn’t really count) timing or is it more important to, yes, start Shabbat before its deadline (otherwise, the “train has left the station”), engage and enjoy the rituals, liturgy, fellowship and celebration of Shabbat, even if we’re a little “rough along the edges”?
I’m not really sure about this final question. I know that there is tremendous momentum for stricter and stricter observance. On the other hand, large number of Chassidic and many other communities, in practice at least, have long been much more relaxed on these kinds of deadlines. I’ve probably began Mincha after sunset almost as often as before sunset, and certainly more often than before plag mincha (4:45). (Actually, this issue is often at the center of arguments between Chassidic and more Lithuanian-based models of Ashkenazic orthodoxy.) I do know, without a lot of second-guessing myself, that it is very good to work out this and similar time problems. It’s part of the enjoyment of Torah (i.e. exploration of the Infinite) which is so central to our way of life. But whether God really chooses our stress and worry, I’m not so sure.