Tefillat Arvit (1)

  • Rav David Brofsky




This week, we will begin our study of Tefillat Arvit, the evening prayer.  As we learned previously, the Amora'im differ as to the origin of the daily prayers in general, and specifically regarding Tefillat Arvit.  The Gemara (Berakhot 26b) teaches:


It has been stated: "Rabbi Yosei be-Rabbi Chanina said: 'The prayers were instituted by the Patriarchs.'  Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: 'The prayers were instituted to replace the daily sacrifices…'"


Yaakov instituted the evening prayer, as it says, "And he encountered (va-yifga) the place" (Bereishit 28:11) and "pegia" means only prayer, as it says, "Therefore, do not pray for this people; do not raise song or prayer for them; do not encounter [tifga] Me" (Yirmiyahu 7:16)…


And why did they say that for the evening prayer there is no limit?  Because the limbs and the fats which were not consumed [on the altar] by the evening could be brought for the whole of the night.


While Rabbi Yosei be-Rabbi Chanina asserts that Yaakov Avinu instituted the evening prayer, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi insists that it corresponds to the burning of the limbs and fats which occurs at night.  The Gemara concludes that even Rabbi Yosei be-Rabbi Chanina agrees that while the prayer may have been instituted by Yaakov Avinu, its laws are still derived from the burning of the limbs and fats.


Tefillat Arvit is comprised of three components: Keriat Shema, its blessings (Birkot Keriat Shema), and the nighttime Shemoneh Esreh


The upcoming shiurim will focus on these three parts.  We will discuss the mitzva of Keriat Shema at night, including its proper time.  Then we will study the blessings recited before and after Shema, their relationship to the Shema, and their relationship to Shemoneh Esreh.  Finally, we will discuss the Shemoneh Esreh of the evening, its proper time, and practical concerns regarding Tefillat Arvit.


The Nighttime Keriat Shema:


The Torah (Devarim 6:6-9) instructs us:


And these WORDS, which I command you this day, will be upon your heart; and you will teach them diligently to your children, and you will TALK of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, AND WHEN YOU LIE DOWN, AND WHEN YOU RISE UP.  And you will bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they will be for frontlets between your eyes.   And you will write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.


Regarding the obligation to recite the Shema, the Gemara (see Berakhot 13a) understands that "these WORDS" refer to the Shema, which one is obligated to verbalize when lying down and upon rising.  In a previous shiur (http://vbm-torah.org/archive/tefila/67-07tefila.htm), we discussed the obligation to recite Keriat Shema.  We questioned whether the obligation is of biblical or rabbinic origin, and even if the origin is biblical (which is the accepted halakhic view), how many of the three paragraphs are including in the biblical obligation.


Regarding the proper time to recite the Shema in the evening, seemingly this question depends upon how we interpret the Torah's words "WHEN YOU LIE DOWN."


The Mishna (Berakhot 1:1) teaches that the earliest time to recite Keriat Shema is the point at which the kohanim who have earlier immersed themselves (to become ritually pure) are permitted to eat their portion; the Torah (Vayikra 22:4-10) instructs that they must wait until "the sun comes in," which the Gemara (2b) identifies as tzet ha-kokhavim, when the stars come out.


The Rishonim, responding to the prevalent custom to recite Tefillat Arvit BEFORE dark, question whether the law is in accordance with this view. 


Rashi (Berakhot 2a) notes that the prevailing custom in his community: to say the evening prayers before dark in the beit ha-keneset (synagogue), to return home, and then to repeat the first paragraph of Shema before going to sleep.  He questions the purpose of each Shema.


The first Shema, Rashi explains, which is recited in the synagogue during the evening prayer, is said in order to "pray following words of Torah."  However, one does NOT fulfill the mitzva through its recitation.  The second Shema, recited on one's bed, fulfills the biblical commandment of Keriat Shema.  The Rif and the Rashba (Responsa 1:47; Chiddushim, beginning of Berakhot) concur, as do Rabbi Yitzchak ibn Ghiyyat; Rav Amram Gaon, Rabbi Paltoi Gaon, and Rav Hai Gaon, cited by the Rashba; and the Rambam (Hilkhot Keriat Shema 1:9). 


Tosafot (Berakhot 2a, s.v. Me-eimatai), however, question how one can recite the Berakhot of Shema, with the Shema, during a time in which one cannot fulfill one's obligation; after all, in discussing the "real" nighttime Keriat Shema, the mishna teaches that one should precede Keriat Shema with two berakhot, and follow it with one — and this is what we do at our early recitation, not at bedtime!


This question apparently leads Rabbeinu Tam to assert that one may fulfill the obligation of Keriat Shema BEFORE dark.  He explains that since the halakha is in accordance with Rabbi Yehuda (Berakhot 26a), who permits one to say the evening Shemoneh Esreh after pelag ha-mincha (1¼ hour before night), one may also recite the Shema from this time onwards!  If one can fulfill one's obligation of the evening Shemoneh Esreh, he argues, then one can also fulfill one's obligation of Shema!  Therefore, according to Rabbeinu Tam, one actually does say the berakhot when one fulfills the mitzva of Shema.  We will return to the relationship between the berakhot and Keriat Shema later.  Rabbi Eliezer ben Rabbi Yoel Ha-levi, the Ra'avya (1140–1220), concurs.  


Rav Yosef Karo, in Shulchan Arukh (OC 235:1), rules in accordance with the majority of Rishonim, who believe that Shema may only be recited after the appearance of three small stars (tzet ha-kokhavim).  While the Gemara (Shabbat 35b) describes tzet ha-kokhavim as the appearance of three medium stars, the Rishonim insist upon waiting until the appearance of three small stars, as not everyone can distinguish between large- and medium-sized stars. 


As we have discussed previously, the Rishonim differ as to the definition of tzet ha-kokhavim.  Rabbeinu Tam (see Tosafot Berakhot 2b, s.v. Dilma; Shabbat 35a, s.v. Terei; Pesachim 94a, s.v. Rabbi Yehuda) suggests that tzet ha-kokhavim occurs four mil, or 72 to 90 minutes, after sunset, depending upon one's definition of a mil.  The Geonim (see Responsa Maharam Alashkar, 96, citing Rav Sherira Gaon and Rav Hai Gaon) and the Gra (see his Bei'ur to Shulchan Arukh, OC 261:2) explain that tzet ha-kokhavim occurs ¾ of a mil after sundown, or approximately 13½ to 17 minutes after sunset.


Although common custom is in accordance with the Vilna Gaon, many Acharonim insist that even the Gra would hold that tzet ha-kokhavim should be determined by when three small stars are actually visible. 


The recent compendiums on the laws of prayer (see Tefilla Ke-hilkhatah 3:46 and Ishei Yisra'el 28:10) relate that while some wait 15–20 minutes after sunset to begin Tefillat Arvit, the custom in Jerusalem is to begin 20-25 minutes after sunset.  Rabbi Yechiel M. Tukitchinsky insists that tzet ha-kokhavim occurs approximately 35 minutes after sunset.  The Chazon Ish requires waiting 40-45 minutes after sunset.  Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, OC 4:62) discusses the proper time for tzet ha-kokhavim in New York


The Relationship Between Keriat Shema and Its Blessings:


The discussion above may also impact upon another important issue: how should we understand the relationship between Birkot Keriat Shema and Keriat Shema itself?


Generally, before the performance of most mitzvot, we recite a birkat ha-mitzva (see Pesachim 7b).  As Keriat Shema is certainly a mitzva, and it is preceded by two berakhot, in both the morning and evening, we might view these berakhot as birkot ha-mitzva, despite the absence of the classic formula "asher kiddishanu be-mitzvotav," "Who sanctified us with His commandments."  Alternatively, we might simply view these berakhot as birkot ha-shevach, blessings of praise, which are meant to enhance the themes of Keriat Shema but assert their halakhic independence from it, as may be implied by their texts.


At least one gemara strongly implies that Birkot Keriat Shema are NOT, at least exclusively, birkot ha-mitzva.   This gemara discusses whether one may recite these Berakhot EVEN if one will not fulfill the mitzva of Keriat Shema.


The Mishna (Berakhot 1:2) rules that


One recites the Shema… until the third hour of the day… and one who recites the Shema later loses nothing, as he is like one who reads the Torah.


The Gemara (10b) elaborates:


Rav Chisda said in the name of Mar Ukba: "What is the meaning of 'HE LOSES NOTHING?'  He does not lose the berakhot."


It has been taught to the same effect: "He who says the Shema later loses nothing, being like one who reads from the Torah, so he says two blessings before and one after."


In other words, while one has not fulfilled the mitzva of Keriat Shema, one may still recite the Berakhot! This seems to indicate that Birkot Keriat Shema do NOT function as a birkat ha-mitzva.


The words of the Rashba, taken from a different context, may explain this gemara.  The Rashba (Responsa 1:47) explains:


The Berakhot of Keriat Shema are NOT literally blessings OF Keriat Shema, like Birkot Ha-Torah and birkot ha-mitzvot; rather these Berakhot were instituted separately, and were merely placed before Keriat Shema.


In another responsum (1:319), the Rashba rules that while our gemara is referring to a case in which one has yet to recite Keriat Shema, even one who has recited the Shema earlier, without the Berakhot, should recite the Berakhot WITHOUT THE SHEMA!  He proves from a passage (Berakhot 2:1) in the Talmud Yerushalmi (also attributing this ruling to the Rambam!) that the Berakhot are an independent mitzva, and they may be recited even WITHOUT the Shema.


Rav Yosef Karo, in Shulchan Arukh (OC 60:2), rules in accordance with the Rashba, although he does recommend reciting the Berakhot WITH the Shema, even if one has already fulfilled the mitzva.


The Ramban, however, disagrees.  He writes:


There was a custom in the towns to say "Kel Melekh ne'eman" (God, trustworthy King) in between [the latter blessing] "Ahavat Olam" and Keriat Shema.   In my youth, I was troubled, as it is clear [to me] that Birkot Keriat Shema are a birkat ha-mitzva, as every mitzva must be preceded by a berakha, e.g., Hallel, Megilla, and Keriat Ha-Torah, and so much more so Keriat Shema


Therefore, since it is clear that one who makes a berakha on a mitzva or on a fruit and answers "Amen" to his berakha is completely mistaken [so too here]… but since that was the custom I had to ask Rabbi Me'ir Ha-levi (Ramah), and he answered that the practice is clearly mistaken.


As Keriat Shema contains 245 words, a mere three more words would make Shema 248 words long, corresponding to a man's proverbial "248 limbs" (Makkot 23b).  The Ramban is describing the early custom of adding three more words in order to reach the mystically significant sum of 248 words.  The Ramban rejects this practice, identifying it as constituting an interruption between the berakha and the mitzva of Keriat Shema.


The Ramban clearly views the latter berakha as a birkat ha-mitzva, and he therefore opposes interjecting "Kel Melekh ne'eman," as it amounts to a hefsek (interruption).  While one might still maintain that this phrase is relevant enough to Keriat Shema not to be considered a hefsek (see Me'iri in Magen Avot, Inyan 1, as cited below), the Ramban's position regarding Birkot Keriat Shema is clear.


Similarly, Rav Yosef Karo, in Beit Yosef (46), cites the Ra'a, who opposes the practice of reciting the first verse of Shema before Pesukei De-zimra, in the section beginning "Le-olam yeheh."  He argues that anyone who does so undermines Birkot Keriat Shema, as they will NOT be recited upon the performance of a mitzva.   In Beit Yosef, Rav Yosef Karo claims that the Ramban also adopts this approach, which certainly makes sense in light of the above-cited ruling of the Ramban.


Interestingly, Rabbi Yaakov of Karlin (brother of the Keren Ora), in his Mishkenot Yaakov (Chap. 80), questions whether one who has already recited Shema should recite the Berakhot at all!  He argues that only one who is unable, due to extenuating circumstances, to recite even the Shema, may say the Berakhot, as a form of tashlumin, a make-up prayer. 


Regarding the Keriat Shema of the evening, as we learned above, according to most Rishonim, one may recite Birkot Keriat Shema before dark, despite the fact that one may not fulfill one's obligation of Keriat Shema until tzet ha-kokhavim.  How do these Rishonim understand the function of the blessings, which are recited before the time during which the mitzva can be fulfilled?


The Rashba (Responsa 1:47), as cited above, claims that Keriat Shema really does not need to be recited with any berakhot, and the relationship between the Berakhot and Keriat Shema is almost coincidental.  Others, however, who believe that Birkot Keriat Shema function as the birkot ha-mitzva of Shema have a much more difficult time explaining this custom. 


The Or Zarua (Hilkhot Keriat Shema 1), for example, cites the Ri of Courville, who suggests that the berakhot recited in the beit ha-keneset ALSO cover the Shema recited before bed, regardless of the fact that many hours may elapse between them. 


Rabbeinu Tam, however, who maintains that one DOES fulfill the mitzva of Shema before nightfall, might maintain that the Berakhot must be recited during the time in which one may actually fulfill the mitzva. 


Interestingly, Rav Amram Gaon (cited by Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona, Berakhot 1a) adopts a completely opposite approach, claiming that one does NOT fulfill the obligation before dark, and that Keriat Shema DOES require a berakha; therefore, one should recite the birkat ha-mitzva of "likro et Shema" (to recite the Shema) before going to bed!


For the record, not every halakhic authority justifies this custom of reciting Tefillat Arvit before dark.  As early as the period of the Geonim, Rav Hai Gaon (cited by the Rosh, Berakhot 1:1) grapples with this question and records that the rabbis of Israel would say Shemoneh Esreh with the community and recite the Shema with its Berakhot after dark.  Similarly, the Roke'ach (Chap. 326) records of Rabbi Yitzchak ben Asher (the Riva):


He would read the Shema with the tzibbur (congregation) when they prayed while it was still day and would say Shemoneh Esreh with them, as a person's prayers are only heard when they are said with the community, but when the stars came out he would recite the Shema WITH ITS BERAKHOT on his bed.


Furthermore, the Roke'ach adds that the ikkar (essential) mitzva is to recite the Shema, with its Berakhot, and to attach them to Shemoneh Esreh, AFTER dark.


This discussion continues through later generations.  Interestingly, while the Gra (Ma'aseh Rav 65) rules that one should even pray privately rather than say the evening prayers before dark, both the Arukh Ha-shulchan (235) and the Mishna Berura (267:2) defend the practice of accepting Shabbat early by reciting the evening prayers before dark. 


The Me'iri (Berakhot 11a) seems to offer a more reasonable, balanced view.  He agrees with the Rashba that these berakhot stand alone and can be recited WITHOUT the Shema


They were fundamentally established independently, the first one ("Yotzer Or") for the reality of day and light, and the second ("Ahava Rabba") for Torah; however, once they were instituted, they placed them before the Shema, thereby removing the need [to say] "asher kiddishanulikro et Shema."  Nevertheless, one who does not know the Berakhot but knows the Shema should recite a blessing of "asher kiddishanulikro et Shema."


According to the Me'iri, Birkot Keriat Shema are fundamentally birkot ha-shevach, though they ALSO function as birkot ha-mitzva.  This brilliant formulation may resolve many of the difficulties we have encountered, and it is most likely the position of other Rishonim as well.



We will continue our discussion of Keriat Shema next week, as we examine the practice of reciting Tefillat Arvit early.