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Our synagogue says Mincha shortly before sunset and Ma’ariv almost immediately after. I’m wondering if there is any issue doing so. It is only beginning to get dark when Ma’ariv is said. What is the earliest time for Ma’ariv?
Thank you for raising the important issue. The quick answer to your question is that it is not ideal to say Ma’ariv so soon after sunset, before nightfall. However, this is commonly done in synagogues in which it would be difficult to gather a minyan (quorum of ten men) a second time for a later Ma’ariv. When this is done, Shema should be repeated after nightfall (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 235:1, Mishna Berurah 7-8). Below I discuss the relevant issues at length.
Mincha is the afternoon prayer which corresponds to the afternoon daily burnt offering brought in the Temple (Tamid shel bein ha’arbayim). Ma’ariv (or Arvit) is the evening prayer. It contains two major components – Shema and Shemoneh Esrei. Shema is recited as fulfillment of the obligation to recite the Shema both at day and at night (see Deut. 6:7 & 11:19). The Shemoneh Esrei said at night corresponds to a different aspect of the Temple service – the burning of the “leftover” portions of the day’s sacrifices which had not been offered in the day. Interestingly, the proper times for reciting these two parts of the service – Shema and Shemoneh Esrei – are not identical.
Shema is recited twice every day – “at your retiring and at your rising” (Deut. 6:7). The Talmud understands this to mean at the time of day in which people typically go to sleep (and are asleep) as well as the time they typically rise – i.e., nighttime and the morning hours (Mishnah Brachos 1:1-3). There is considerable discussion as to the precise technical definition of “night” in this and other halachic contexts, but the simplest one is when three medium-sized stars become visible at night (Talmud Shabbat 35b). (Out of doubt as to the exact definition of “medium-sized” we wait until three small stars are visible – see Shulchan Aruch O.C. 235:1, Mishna Berurah 1.) This is generally in the area of 40 minutes after sunset (often calculated as the time in which the sun has dipped 8.5 degrees below the horizon) – although this varies somewhat according to the latitude, altitude and time of year. (Myzmanim.com is an excellent resource for precise halachic times for locations worldwide.)
In terms of Shemoneh Esrei and the rest of Ma’ariv, the proper time depends on the times when the various Temple services were performed. As above, Mincha corresponds to the afternoon daily offering while Ma’ariv corresponds to the burning of the remaining portions of the day’s sacrifices. (This time begins immediately after the time for the afternoon offering ends.) Until when may the afternoon offering be brought? It is an unresolved debate in the Mishna (Brachos 4:1, Talmud there 27a). It is either brought until nightfall or until 1¼ hours before sunset. (An “hour” in this context is 1/12th of the time from sunrise till sunset.) One of these two times is the cutoff between Mincha and Ma’ariv time (Shulchan Aruch 233:1; see also Mishna Berurah 235:7 with Sha’ar HaTziyun 6).
One more complication. Although we wrote above that night begins with the appearance of three stars, the time immediately before this, beginning with sunset, is considered a question mark in halacha – whether it is part of the day or the night. This period is known in Jewish law as bein ha’shemashot – literally, “between the suns.” The actual start of night falls somewhere in the time between sunset and the appearance of three stars, but it is impossible to know precisely when. Thus, although we wait till the appearance of three stars to be certain night has arrived, it might be night already immediately after the setting of the sun. (See Talmud Shabbat 34b for various opinions regarding this.) This is why, for example, we observe Shabbat from sunset Friday night until nightfall Saturday night. Out of doubt we take into account that this period might be part of the new day Friday night, making it Shabbat, and part of the previous day on Saturday.) Thus, if the cutoff between Mincha and Ma’ariv is nightfall, we would have to be stringent to recite Mincha before sunset and Ma’ariv after darkness (Mishna Berurah 233:14).
As above, there is a debate in the Talmud as to the dividing time between the afternoon and evening services in the Temple – whether it is 1¼ hours before sunset or at nightfall. This debate is unresolved, and so the Talmud concludes that either practice is acceptable. A person can recite Mincha until 1¼ hours before sunset and Ma’ariv right after that, or Mincha until sunset and Ma’ariv from nightfall. (This is again due to the further doubt in halacha if bein ha’shemashot is daytime or nighttime.) Most authorities understand this to mean that each person (or more likely, community) must choose an opinion to follow and observe it consistently for his entire life. Thus, since the general practice today is to recite Mincha until sunset, Ma’ariv should be said after nightfall. However, in exceptional circumstances, or if it would be difficult to gather a minyan in the synagogue later, one may follow the other opinion – which for us would mean to pray Mincha before 1¼ before sunset and Ma’ariv immediately after that (Shulchan Aruch 233:1 with Rema, 235:1, Mishna Berurah 235:8).
One exception, however, is Friday night. Since we are obligated to add to Shabbat, it is acceptable to follow the other practice on Friday nights only and begin Shabbat anytime after 1¼ hours before sunset, praying Ma’ariv in this time as well. However, one must be sure to complete Mincha before the 1¼ hour cutoff (Mishna Berurah 267:3). Based on this, many people make “early Shabbos” in the summer, when sunset is very late. (Note, however, that if one does follow the earlier cutoff time, although he may recite Ma’ariv early, he does not fulfill the obligation of reciting Shema – which must be said when people begin going to sleep. Shema (preferably all three paragraphs) will have to be said again later (Shulchan Aruch 235:1, Mishna Berurah 11). It should also be mentioned that there is an opinion that one should not make an exception and recite Ma’ariv early, even on Friday night and even when the community is doing so. It is rather preferable to pray even by oneself at nightfall proper (Biur Halacha 235 s.v. “v’im” in name of Vilna Gaon).)
This finally returns us to your question – synagogues which pray Mincha and Ma’ariv around sunset. This would seem to be problematic as it does not follow either of the dividing times provided by the Talmud. If Mincha is being said after 1¼ hours before sunset, Ma’ariv should only be said after nightfall. If so, why do many synagogues do so?
The answer is that there is a minority opinion that since the debate as to the cutoff between Mincha and Ma’ariv is unresolved, a person can adopt different practices not only on different days as above, but even on the same day. This means he can pray Mincha later than 1¼ hours before sunset and Ma’ariv before nightfall on the same day. Although almost all authorities reject such a practice as self-contradictory, recent authorities write that in a situation in which it would be difficult to gather a minyan to pray Mincha and Ma’ariv in the proper times, one may rely on this opinion (Mishna Berurah 233:11). In addition, saying Ma’ariv after sunset carries the advantage that it is clearly after Mincha time and is already in the period of possible night (see Mishna Berurah 267:3).
Further, many synagogues which rely on this additionally study Torah for a few minutes after Mincha, so that Ma’ariv is not prayed until 13½ minutes after sunset. This is the earliest and most lenient opinion for the start of nightfall; thus, it carries the further advantage that Ma’ariv is at least possibly being prayed after nightfall. (Even so, one should recite Shema again later when it is definitely night.) This practice of many synagogues also carries the very considerable benefit of adding a few minutes of communal Torah study to the synagogue’s daily schedule.