Earliest Time for Morning Prayers (Shacharit)
I’ve noticed that our synagogue has morning services (Shacharit) quite early during the workweek, after which most of the congregants hurry off to work. During the winter months it is still dark outside for most of the services. Shouldn’t morning services be held when it is daytime already?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
What you describe is a fairly universal practice – very early morning services after which the congregants hurry off – trying their best to beat rush hour traffic. However, yes, there are a few issues in Jewish law of concern.
There are 3 relevant times when discussing the earliest times for morning prayers. I list them here together with the prayers which may be said at each time:
(a) Dawn – when the first light of day appears on the horizon. The blessings and prayers at the beginning of morning services may be said at this time. (In truth most of the morning blessings and according to many, pesukei d'zimra may be said even before dawn.) This is roughly 90 minutes before sunrise (more on the precise times below).
(b) Partial light - when one can recognize an acquaintance standing 4 cubits (6-8 feet) away (Talmud Brachot 9b). This is the earliest time for reciting the Shema, the first blessing preceding the Shema, and for donning Tallit and Tefillin (Shulchan Aruch 18:3, 30:1 & 58:1; see also Biur Halacha s.v. “b’lo brachot”). This is roughly 50 minutes before sunrise.
(c) Sunrise: This is the ideal time to recite the Shemoneh Esrei (Amidah), beginning it the moment of sunrise. It should preferably not be recited before this time. It is also permissible to recite Shemoneh Esrei for the first 4 hours of the day (Shulchan Aruch 89:1).
Regarding the Shemoneh Esrei, there is one important exception. One who is about to embark on a journey (and in Talmudic times would have no choice but to take the outgoing caravan), may recite Shemoneh Esrei from dawn (Shulchan Aruch 89:8). Contemporary rabbis extend this to people who have need to commute to work early, even though they do so on a daily basis (see e.g. Igrot Moshe O.C. 4:6).
Putting all of this together, a synagogue may have early Shacharit services (beginning after dawn), but they must be mindful of a few things:
(a) People should not put on their Tallit or Tefillin or begin the blessings of the Shema until the time of “partial light.” Many congregations which want to start as early as possible will begin services before that time, and then right after Yishtabach (before the blessings of Shema) put on Tallit and Tefillin and continue. In other congregations, the congregants put on Tallit and Tefillin without a blessing at the start, and then after Yishtabach touch each of them and recite the appropriate blessings (Rema 18:3; Shulchan Aruch 30:3). (First touch the Tallit strings and recite a blessing on it, then touch the Tefillin boxes and recite the blessings on them.) I feel the first method is preferable since when following the second, people not familiar with the issues will put on their Tallit and Tefillin with the blessings too early.
(b) All of the above is not advisable for someone who does not have early work obligations. Someone who does not need to commute to work early but who just wants to get an early start on his day should really not attend services which recite Shemoneh Esrei before sunrise.
When exactly are all of these times? The best and most accurate resource for worldwide times is myzmanim.com.