Parashat Vayetze: Ma'ariv (Evening Prayer) - Obligatory or Not?

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Binyamin Tabory


Shiur #07: Ma'ariv (Evening Prayer) - Obligatory or Not?



            On the way from Be'er Sheva to Charan, Yaakov reached what the Torah describes simply as "the place."  (Rashi identifies it as Mt. Moriah.)  The Torah uses the verb "vayifga," which can be interpreted as "reached" or "prayed."  Therefore, Chazal explain that Yaakov then prayed ma'ariv.


            The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 1:1 and Sefer Ha-mitzvot 4) maintains that there is a biblical obligation to pray once daily.  The Ramban (Notes to Sefer Ha-mitzvot 4) disagrees and says that daily prayer is a Rabbinic requirement.  The only biblical obligation of prayer is at a time of crisis.  Both the Rambam and the Ramban agree that the requirement of praying THREE times daily is merely a Rabbinic law.


            The gemara (Berakhot 26b) cites the opinion of R. Yosi ben R. Chanina that the three daily prayers were instituted by our Rabbis in accordance with the prayers of our forefathers.  Avraham prayed and instituted shacharit, Yitzchak prayed and instituted mincha and Yaakov prayed and instituted ma'ariv.  On the other hand, R. Yehoshua ben Levi says that our daily prayers were instituted to parallel the Temple service.  Shacharit was instituted instead of the daily morning sacrifice ("tamid shel boker"), mincha in place of the afternoon sacrifice, and ma'ariv in place of the remains of animals that were left over to burn on the altar all night.


            The Rambam (ibid. 1:5-6) codifies the opinion that our prayers correspond to the daily sacrifices.  He adds that the obligation of ma'ariv is not as stringent as that of shacharit and mincha.  Nevertheless, the custom of all Jews worldwide is to pray ma'ariv, and it was therefore accepted as an obligation.


            If ma'ariv is derived from the burning of the sacrificial remains on the altar, it stands to reason that ma'ariv is not obligatory.  There is no requirement to have any remainder from the sacrifices.  Inasmuch as this was not an obligation, it follows that ma'ariv should not be regarded as stringent as the other prayers.


            On the other hand, if ma'ariv was instituted by Yaakov, why should his prayer be different than that of Avraham and Yitzchak?  In fact, Tosafot (Yoma 87b) qualify the nature of the ma'ariv obligation and employ this argument.  They say that ma'ariv is not really optional ("reshut").  Rather, it is obligatory, but not as obligatory as shacharit or as mincha, and may be waived under unusual circumstances (such as if there is a pressing mitzva to be fulfilled).  Proof of this can be found by the fact that it was the prayer of Yaakov and therefore cannot be taken lightly.


            While Tosafot believe that ma'ariv is a basic obligation, they agree that it is still less of an obligation than shacharit and mincha.  We must understand why this prayer is different.


            Moreover, the Rambam, who said that ma'ariv is not as stringent as the other prayers, also codified the fact that Yaakov prayed ma'ariv.  He traced (Hilkhot Melakhim 9:1) the development of six mitzvot given to Adam, the additional mitzva of Noach and the additional mitzvot of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.  The Or Same'ach (Hilkhot Tefilla 3:9) explains that the Rambam codified thus in order to show that he feels our prayers were instituted for both reasons.  The time constraints of prayer parallel the times of sacrifices, but the basic obligation is also due to the prayer of our forefathers.  Why, then, is the obligation of ma'ariv not the same as the other prayers?


            The Torah Temima (Bereishit 28:11) suggests an answer to this question.  He maintains that Yaakov was not really obligated to pray ma'ariv.  In fact, the gemara (Eiruvin 65a) states that one need not pray while traveling.  What we would call today "jet lag" would be a valid reason not to pray, as it would be difficult to have the proper intention ("kavana") while praying.  Most codifiers say that our kavana today is not on such a high level at any time, and therefore we must pray under all conditions.  Inasmuch as Yaakov himself was not obligated, the prayer he said was voluntary.  It therefore follows, argues the Torah Temima, that ma'ariv would never be obligatory.


            Of course, the halakha nevertheless is codified that one must pray ma'ariv.  The requirement of reciting Shema (and the berakhot before and after) is not in question here.  The issue at stake here is only the Amida, and that too is obligatory today because of the virtual acceptance of the obligation (Rambam) or the qualification that it may be waived only under extreme circumstances (Tosafot).


            Our custom is that the chazan repeats the Amida at shacharit and mincha but not at ma'ariv.  The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 9:9) explains that since ma'ariv is not really obligatory, there is no individual who must pray.  Therefore, not only is there no need to say the Amida for one who is unable to do so himself (the usual rationale for the chazan's repetition of the Amida), but it would constitute a "berakha le-vatala" - an unnecessary, wasteful berakha.


            In order to determine the proper time to pray ma'ariv, we would have to take into account that Shema must be said at night (Mishna Berakhot 2a, Tosafot and Rishonim ad loc.).  The Amida itself could be said at the time that the remains of the sacrifices would be on the altar.


            The Torah Temima (Vayikra 5:2) maintains that inasmuch as the remains stayed on the altar all night, we may pray ma'ariv all night.  Even though Chakhamim have generally instituted that all nightly obligations be performed by halakhic midnight ("chatzot"), this did not apply to the remainder of sacrifices (as is evident in the first mishna of Berakhot).  Therefore, it should not apply to ma'ariv as well.


            If we follow the opinion that our prayer should correspond to Yaakov's, we should determine when he actually prayed.  Tosafot (Berakhot 26b) prove from the gemara that Yaakov actually prayed before dark; therefore, they raise the question of why the gemara assumes that one may pray only at nighttime.  They respond that we follow the opinion of R. Yehuda that one may pray earlier (at "pelag ha-mincha"), and that indeed is preferable.


            The mishna (Berahot 20a) says that women are obligated in prayer.  Sefardi women, who follow the opinion of the Rambam, may be obligated only in biblical prayer (once daily), whereas those who follow Ramban and the other Rishonim would not distinguish between shacharit and mincha (Mishna Berura 106, 2:4).  However, there is a controversy among the codifiers if a woman must pray ma'ariv.  The Mishna Berura (op. cit.) says that women did not accept the obligation of ma'ariv and he observed that most women do not pray ma'ariv.  The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (106:5) disagreed and said that according to the Ashkenazi tradition, women should pray three daily prayers.


The discussion revolved only about the weekday obligation of ma'ariv.  The question of ma'ariv on Shabbat, Yom Tov or Motzaei Shabbat may be different, as special prayers are said then.