When is the earliest time to daven Mincha and how does a Minyan effect this choice?
A few weeks ago a friend asked a very important, but very basic question. One that got me taken down a long path of consideration. We are going to look at this in-depth. Our question is: When is the best time to say Mincha – the afternoon prayers.
It is most common for people to say Mincha later in the afternoon. Most often the prayers are said at the same time, or just adjacent to, the evening prayers of Maariv (Arvit). This is how it is normally done. This is the halacha (the law) as we will see.
Although often times there is a consideration given to one’s opportunity to say prayers with a minyan – a full congregation, a sufficient quorum. It is ideal to say prayers with a minyan than on one’s own, so people plan their prayer schedule to conform to meeting with this group. Nonetheless there is a time requirement in which to say morning and evening prayers; we say them in the morning and any time at night, if we are close to passing the appropriate time of day then we say them on our own. However Mincha can apparently be said all day long, as long as its past midday, so on some occasions that might leave us up to considering for ourselves when is ideal.
Is it better to say it on our own at the most halachically agreeable time later in the afternoon, or with a minyan even if that means saying it earlier? What is more appropriate? We are going to look at some answers to that question, and explore the reasons why we pray Mincha in this manner to begin with. We also make this even more interesting by taking a look at what some Sephardic poskim have to say regarding the halacha.
A look at the Laws relating to Mincha
Normally when I start presenting instructions for any type of mitzvah I start with the Shulchan Aruch – popularly known as The Code of Jewish Law. It usually is the stopping off place for our consideration of just about every mitzvah. In general, it not only presents us with the Sephardic approach for things as its base text, but it also is augmented with the glosses of the Rema who speaks for the Ashkenazi tradition as well. Very few times do I need to dig much further than that, or needing to do much more than identify halachic sources that clarify the approach for their respective communities based on this text. But today we are going to see a divergence from this, where the Shulchan Aruch is not necessarily giving a definitive voice.
We might need to break this down a bit for this to be understood, but let us start first off with the Shulchan Aruch‘s approach first. This is necessary also because we really need to draw a line of thinking as to why one might deviate from this approach.
The Maran (Rabbi Yosef Karo) tells us one fulfills his obligation of saying their Mincha prayers – which correspond to be our afternoon prayer service – after a half-hour past midday. We mean from when the sun is actually at its zenith, not when it says noon on the clock, this is decided by dividing the day into 12 proportional hour. However he states that the most ideal time to daven Mincha is after 9 hour all the way up until a ¼ hour before the 11th hour. One who discharges his obligation after 6 ½ hours apparently does so “b’deieved,” counting as one that does a make-up, but that the ideal time is later in the afternoon.
The Rema (Rabbi Moshe Issereles) in his glosses for this stresses the point that we are talking about proportional hours, that relate to the actual calculation of daylight and not mere relative hours like we find on the clock, in which all hours are 60 minutes long. If we think about it, simple hours are only the case on the equinoxes in the central temperate zones. But if you go more north or south, or the days drift longer or shorter because of the seasons, this calculation changes; these divisions of time are not static but instead are proportional to the length of day. The celestial hours work out well for people in Eretz Yisrael and Babylonia but it doesn’t really hold true up north in his native Poland and thus needs to be adjusted proportionally to the actual daylight hours, where in winter the days are exceedingly shorter.
The Maran and Rema seem to agree, with the Shulchan Aruch favoring the Ashkenazi approach even down to agreeing therefore that one has until tzet kochavim (the appearance of stars) to discharge their service, which would mean the birth of a new day. There would be little disagreement on this, except the consequential debate as to when this period to discharge Mincha ends; be it actually at tzet kochavim (twilight) or at shkiah (sunset). It would also be debated how early is too early to say Maariv. But thats not necessarily what we are talking about today, so we will pass right on to how this halacha effects us choosing the optimal prayer time. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, Siman 233)
Why is Mincha not said at Noon?
In all my travels I have rarely seen people engage in their Mincha prayers in the height of the midday. It is generally the case that congregations convene a Minyan to pray late in the day to say Mincha and then after a short pause engage in Maariv close to sunset. One may pray three times a day (four times on holy days, when you account for Musaf), but congregations are only made to convene twice a day.
But if we are saying “afternoon prayers” then one should naturally wonder why anyone would suggest that we do not say them until late in the afternoon. Why not near noon?
The confusion, in some ways, arises out of a disagreement that goes all the way back to the Talmud as to who instituted the daily prayer times to begin with. It is a disagreement that would continue to surface up until the middle-ages and even cut into the middle of certain communities themselves. For instance the Rambam and the Ramban (both Sephardic) would also disagree with each other as to the origins of our prayer services, leading each to different views as to if they were essentially biblical or rabbinic in origin. The answer to this defines if one would be transgressing a biblical command or merely failure to live up to a rabbinic custom if not meeting their obligation.
In the Talmud, in the name of Rabbi Yosi ben Chaninah, we are taught that the prayer services were introduced to us by our fathers. Avraham Avinu instituted the morning prayers (Shacharit) and Yitzhak Avinu the afternoon prayers (Mincha). By prayers, we are talking about saying the standing Amidah – which is our duty before G-d. (Talmud Bavli, Brachot 26b) The Gemara notes that Yitzhak prayed and meditated in the field, then stayed there because the sun was setting and then after his devotion he laid down to rest. (see Genesis 28:11)
However, earlier on in the Gemara we are taught that of all the prayer services the one that is the most acceptable before G-d as a spiritual devotion is the afternoon prayers. (Talmud Bavli, Brachot 6b; statement of Rabbi Chelbo in the name of Rabbi Hunah) We are taught to pay special attention to pray the afternoon prayers because even Elijah the Prophet was only heard during the afternoon offering. He prayed for G-d to hear him, and He did, responding with fire from heaven. (see 1 Kings 18:36-37)
This brings up a great machloket (disagreement) between the Sages (if not also dividing the Biblical approach) as to what is the most appropriate time of day for Minchah – the afternoon prayers. What is better, during the late afternoon or during the time of the midday sacrifice?
If we return to our main source text regarding the subject (Talmud Bavli, Brachot 26b), we find that there are rabbis who state that the institution of our daily prayer services are based upon the daily sacrificial offerings, meaning as a substitution for sacrificial offerings presumably instituted by the Sages; so it is stated in the name of Rabbi Yehoshuah ben Levi. We then find that Rabbi Yehuda seems to concur initially in the Gemara, that one can only say similar prayers up until the 7th hour of the day. He gives as his example that the additional (Musaf) offerings of a holy day can only be brought until the 7th hour. This time in the middle of the day therefore seems ideal.
However, as we look at this text we must be reminded that his initial statement that he makes is that one may start Mincha until the middle of the afternoon (plag haMincha). But the Gemara continues and begins to explain something very different in the end. It begins to define what we mean by afternoon. We are then also taught in the name of Rabbi Yehudah that afternoon is divided into two periods; the earlier being Mincha Gedolah that begins a ½ hour after high-noon, and Mincha Ketana that begins 3 ½ hours after high-noon. It is obvious to all that these statements appear contradictory to each other.
Nonetheless when the Talmud apparently goes to rule on this subject it answers the dispute this way: “Come and hear: for it has been taught: Rabbi Yehudah said: They referred to the middle of the latter afternoon-tide, which is eleven hours less a quarter.” In his own name a clarification is offered up.
Still it must be noted that the dispute does not end here. Though there is a seeming ruling being brought down to settle the confusion, this does not detract from the conviction of Rabbi Yosi ben Chaninah. He goes on to retort that though the Rabbis found justification for the services by corresponding them to the sacrifices, he contends that the actual true birth of the prayer services was in the biblical example and age. He contends that the Sages just added on to them by finding justification from our forefathers, and only then added the Musaf prayer services after the manner of the others. Philosophically his point is that the prayer services transcends the mere spirit and rules of sacrifice alone.
The Talmud thus does not offer us a definitive answer for this dispute. It continued well into the middle-ages as a matter of dispute between our Rabbis, in some cases even cutting through communities themselves (as is the case with the Rambam and Ramban’s disagreement on this matter).
However it should be noted that the law, as laid down by the Shulchan Aruch, does not just rule with the latter clarification of Rabbi Yehudah regarding Minchah Ketanah but also keeps in mind other implications, ones revealed to us in great detail by the commentary of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah.
The Mishnah – the raw and unqualified source of the Talmudic text – does give us something very deep to consider. The Mishnah of Talmud Balvi for Shabbat 9a, it tells us that before Mincha it is not allowed for a person to get their hair cut, enter a bathhouse (or sauna for cleansing oneself) or a tannery (that processes animal skins), nor engage in eating or even in deliberating a lawsuit. The reasons is so that one will not be delayed in saying his prayers by engaging in a lengthy process.
The Gemara – the commentary of the Talmud, that clarifies the Mishnah – it will begin to debate out what this means, and how much engagement in one of these acts has to be done before one finds themselves fully engaged and unable to stop. The Gemara however does bring our attention to the latter clause of Mishnah that tells us that one who is already engaged in one of these acts does not need to break off his actions, but he can continue what he is doing. So as long as there is time for him to continue to prayer after, he need not worry and can be lenient in these matters.
However, if we look at the Mishnah we are clearly told that when we are talking about someone engaging in a distracting or postponing act near Minchah, we are talking about Mincha Gedolah, not the latter Mincha Ketahah.
The Rambam, in his commentary for all of Jewish Law in the Mishnah Torah, cannot ignore this clause. He does rule in agreement with the Mishnah above, and likewise it is brought down to us in the Shulchan Aruch, (Orach Chayim 234) which in unison with him on this matter. However, even the Rambam has to do much work in explaining what is the point of no return for a postponing action, likewise what it mean by eating.
This point here cannot be missed, because as we begin to see our seasons changing this becomes a real concern. If the Mishnah outright says that one should not engage in any time consuming or involved acts after Mincha Gedolah until one prays, this puts a very big constraint on to one’s day. Especially if one is insisting on praying at Mincha Ketana, near sunset. We would be saying that no one can really do any viable business or even eat from midday until after dark. Sure one can rely on the leniency, but this is obviously not the ideal. What we would be saying, for example, is that in a long days like we have in Summer one should wait an enormous amount of time to take on a meal, something that is quite impractical.
The seasons also have another implication, one that is relevant for us now during the middle of winter when the days are very short. Sometimes, because of the shortness of the day, people will often encounter difficulties if they wait until the late afternoon to pray their Mincha. It can often be hard for an individual to even distinguish if it’s daytime or night time already. Though evening prayers (of the Amidah of Maariv) are not a requirement, being only a service of rabbinic institution which does not have any correspondence to a separate sacrifice of its own, the Mincha prayers are required to be said and we would all agree that they correspond to their time of day. Now Maariv does not have a repetition of the Amidah, reminding of the fact that it was not distinct but merely the occasional offering of leftover pieces of the other sacrifices of the day in evening flames.
However it is the custom for many to say a shorted Mincha Amidah, truncated by adding only a partial repetition by the Shliach Tzibur (the prayer leader); the leader starting the prayers himself but cutting off his repetition after the Kedushah, with the congregations then continuing on after that point with their own silent reading of the rest of the Amidah. However keep in mind that the reason is not because of similarity of Maariv and Mincha that might lead one to dispense of a full repetition of the Amidah, its because with days so short it can often be impossible for one to finish their Mincha prayers on time. The Maran cites this as the Sephardic tradition that he was familiar with, but he instead rules in favor of the full repetition of Mincha in agreement with the Ashkenazi approach.
Modern debate among Sephardic poskim regarding the halacha
Now it must be noted that many great rabbis, even among the Sephardic tradition, hold by the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch; it is defined by “the code” and the Mishneh Torah, therefore is the Ikar haDin (the letter of the law). This is made clear to us, even among critical and scholarly poskim such as Rabbi Chaim David haLevi (the famed Sephardi legal expert know as the Mekor Chaim haLevi). In his Kitzur Mekor Chaim, like many who came before him, he saw no reason to break with the position of the Shulchan Aruch and Rambam.
In fact the Mekor Chaim makes some interesting points after defining the names Mincha Gedolah and Ketanah – having to explain away why one is the greater and one is the lesser. He outright says that it is wrong for a person to pray at Mincha Gedolah, especially if there is a time later in the day that is less stressful for a person to pray, presumably during Mincha Ketanah! It is more ideal in the afterglow of the day, and one has up until the Shkiah of Sunset in which to say their Mincha prayers.1
The Mekor Chaim also makes another interesting point, that seems relevant for our modern day. He makes it clearly proper for even Sephardim to hold by this, his reasoning is because it alleviates one having to gather and then scatter at two different times, especially for those who show up to services for joining in with the congregation because they don’t read Hebrew. However, he stresses that for those who pray in Hebrew themselves, they should make sure to not delay so late as to wait until twilight for dispensing their Mincha prayers. Presumably waiting for a later congregation to convene is not justifiable in the case of a literate Hebrew speaker.
However when it comes to explaining how to fit waiting until later into our lives, and the details of the poskim regarding waiting for meals and such he further offers logical explanations for being lenient in this respect. He states that if one is relieving oneself by taking on a small meal (a snack) to make it easier to pray, then one may. Though he says that in the case of large meals such as for a wedding banquet it should be that one pray and then engage in a big meal after their davening. The Mekor Chaim is once again our compassionate conservative, and offers us logical reasons for our modern age. Though we can not ignore that first he outright tells us at the beginning that his position is “afilu meikar hadin / after the essence of the law,” that no one should have more than a egg sized portion of bread or fruit after Mincha arrives without praying. He does not wish to break with the law, even by a letter unless humanly necessary. (see Kitzur Mekor Chaim, Siman כה – Tefillat Mincha, pages 56-57)
Interestingly enough, his predecessor as Rishon L’Tzion (Sephardic Chief Rabbi) of Tel-Aviv – Yafo was Rabbi Ovediah Yosef (shelita), who tells us that he too was previously of this opinion, siding harshly with the Shulchan Aruch. He even noted that on days when he saw a congregation going past the seventh hour he would say Musaf on his own and not wait for the congregation.
He asserts that he felt likewise about Mincha, that it should be said at its ideal halachic time. However upon inspection he later rejected this position, noting that a great deal of early rabbinic sources held that saying Mincha Gedolah was “Le’chatehila,” it was the ideal way to fulfill a mitzvah. Among those that he cites the Saadia Gaon, the Rif, the Rosh (Rabbi Ashen Ben Yechiel), the Ramban and the Ritba. This is further supported by prominent legal experts such as the Tur. The Rav tells us that had the Maran been aware of the long list of sources that held by this view, then he would have acquiesced and ruled differently in the Shulchan Aruch. (see Teshuvot Yechaveh Daat)
As we see, when all this comes together we have a very interesting perspective being delivered to us by Rabbi Ovediah Yosef. He says it is thus better to say the prayers at their corresponding times in full with a minyan, and not delay them to wait for a later minyan who says them truncated or even to say them privately at the more halachically agreeable time.
Theoretically this should be optimal from the perspective of people who hold by the Nusach Ari z”l (namely Sephardim and Chassidim). As we see the Rabbi Yitzhak Luria – great kabbalist know as the Ari z”l – did not establish a shorter and easier to say order of prayers. He first off insists that the entire repetition be recited by the leader, which he asserts is the established custom (as cited by the Aruch haShulchan, 223:6); thereby seeming to insist that one not wait until the latest times possible for saying Mincha. But he also further extended the prayers by including readings of the daily Tamid offering of Ketoret (incense) to be said with one’s prayers. To do this one needs more time, starting earlier is more helpful.
Okay, now enough of looking at teshuvot – to legal discourse after the fact regarding this. When we look at the rabbinic literature we find that we have a halacha being brought down – a law to guide us by – but a debate still remains. We would have a legal opinion presented to us by the Shulchan Aruch, supported by the Misheh Torah of the Rambam. However even well respected commentaries upon these such as the Aruch haShulchan and the Mishna Berurah would not attempt to settle the issue of what is better, be it Mincha Ketanah or Mincha Gedolah. They would actually show a curious honesty that even the Rambam had, despite their opinions, and present both arguments. The issue is far from settled, in fact each approach has certain philosophically merits behind it.
Mincha is our “Gift” to G-d
As we look at Mincha I would ask us to finally consider a more elementary definition of what we are talking about, one often noted by our scholars. Sometimes words come layered with legal terminology and idiom, to the point that we often look over the obvious truth about something that is revealed in it’s very name. Mincha more essentially means grain offering in biblical Hebrew, poetically it means a gift, present or tribute.
It can be said that if we really want to reinforce the significance of Mincha as a mindset and not just a mere time of the day that comes and goes, then we should be more interested in presenting our prayers as a real gift before G-d. One can argue that taking time out of their day to daven Mincha Gedolah would be more meaningful. Nothing is more precious than the hight of the day, if used for prayer then it’s a really big gesture.
Nonetheless one who chooses to daven later is also losing out on “prime-time hours.” Probably even more so today considering many of us work until quite late, not being limited by considerations of daylight for operating our businesses. Taking time out of our day in order to offer it up as a gift before Hashem in prayer is a real sacrifice. It has merit also, we should not just dismiss the halacha of the Shulchan Aruch right away either. Our sacrifice in light of halacha doesn’t have to be too oppressive to our daily activity as functioning people. But we do need to give back something.
And that is the real lesson of Mincha, I believe; that we are to take time out of our day and give it in service to G-d. We take time out of when we should be more concerned with making that final dollar or merely getting back to the safety of our homes, and we give it to Hashem. Not trying to make the best of the day for just our uses. We offer part of our day back as a gift to G-d.
The Halacha in Summary
The ideal halachic time for saying Minchah is during the later part of the afternoon, during Mincha Ketanah. One has the entire afternoon in which to say their prayers, but halacha favors the latter for engaging in prayer. However if given the chance to pray with a minyan at a less ideal time during Mincha Gedolah then this is acceptable.
Do you need to find out the halachic times for praying? There are various automated Zmanim resources available online, such as at Chabad.org or MyZmanim.com, that will calculate the halachic times for your location.
1) Kitzur Mekor Chaim, page 56:
“טעה להתפלל משש שעות ולמעלה ללא שעת דחק יצא בדיעבד ומצוה להתפלל עם דמדומי חמה, היינו מעט קודם שקיעת החמה“