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Shabbat Parashat Emor 5776

Ask the Rabbi: Maariv Around the Time of Chatzot

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: When I have the chance to daven Maariv only close to chatzot (astronomical midnight), dilemmas arise. Sometimes I have time to either recite Kri’at Shema or Shemoneh Esrei before chatzot, but not both; which has precedence? Other times, I can daven all of Maariv before chatzot at home, but if I go to our local “minyan factory,” the minyan misses chatzot; which is better?


Answer: The answer to the first question is clear for a few reasons. First, we accept the opinion that while by Torah law, one may recite Kri’at Shema until the morning, the Rabbis instructed us to do so by chatzot (Berachot 2a; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 235:3), whereas not all agree whether Maariv has to be said by chatzot, as we will discuss. Second, Kri’at Shema at night is a mitzva from the Torah, whereas Maariv is at best a Rabbinic mitzva (see Rambam, Tefilla 1:1), and we rule that it is an originally optional tefilla that became accepted (ibid. 6). Third, while there are times it is justified to say Shemoneh Esrei before Kri’at Shema and its berachot (Shulchan Aruch, OC 236:3), we prefer not switching the accepted order (ibid. 2). Therefore, if it is close to chatzot, start with Kri’at Shema even if Shemoneh Esrei turns out to be after chatzot.

The more serious question is the relative importance of davening all of Maariv by chatzot vs. davening with a minyan. (Certainly, one should recite Kri’at Shema without its berachot before chatzot, even if means coming late or missing a post-chatzot minyan, as a minyan does not override even Rabbinic obligations. The question is whether he should go to a minyan and repeat Kri’at Shema within Maariv.)

The mishna (Berachot 26a) says that there is no set time of night for Maariv, and the Rambam (ibid. 6) mentions having all night for it without distinguishing between before and after chatzot. The Levush (108:3) is perhaps the earliest source to imply otherwise, as follows. One can do tashlumin (makeup) for a missed tefilla only during the next tefilla time slot (Shulchan Aruch, OC 108:4). The Levush comments that one who missed Mincha makes it up during Maariv time, but not the whole night. While the Malbushei Yom Tov argues with the Levush, one suggestion of the Eliya Rabba (108:4) is that the Levush limits the makeup time until chatzot, as it makes sense that the time of Maariv is limited like that of Kri’at Shema, which is a component of Maariv. The Pri Megadim (108, MZ 3) prefers the Eliya Rabba’s other suggestion, that the Levush only meant to say Maariv by alot hashachar (dawn), even though the night arguably continues beyond that. The Mishna Berura (108:15) cites both opinions without a clear preference.

The Tzelach (Berachot 26a) understood from the silence of the early poskim that there is no chatzot limit and wonders why not. After all, the reason regarding Kri’at Shema, that we want to avoid situations where people will forget, should apply to tefilla as well! He gives two main answers: 1. Tefilla is modeled after placing certain korban parts on the altar, which can be done all night. 2. Since Maariv is not a full obligation, they were less concerned about mistakes.

Because there are significant opinions who say that one should say Shemoneh Esrei by chatzot, we find contemporary poskim who say that Maariv by chatzot takes precedence over a minyan (Ishei Yisrael 28:15; Ohr L’Tzion II:15:9). This makes a good deal of sense from a purist perspective. However, not all agree (see Tefilla K’hilchata 3:53). Since all agree that one may daven after chatzot and the question is whether it should, l’chatchila, be done by chatzot, it is logical to let the individual decide which setting is better for his tefilla. Consider that these matters are not just about fulfilling obligations, which is accomplished in any case, but of having the best tefilla. Time plays a role, but so do other things. Realize that a minyan is impactful in having the tefilla accepted, by joining with other Jews (see sources in Living the Halachic Process II:A-5).
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