Early Shabbat Services: Plag or 7:00?

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by R. Yaakov Hoffman

During the summer, many wish to eat the Shabbat evening meal well before dark. To accommodate them, many shuls offer early Friday evening services. Some daven Mincha right before plag ha-mincha (1 ¼ halachic hours before sunset) and immediately thereafter recite Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv. Others begin Mincha at a set time all summer long – often 7:00. Are both options halachically valid?

Some poskim vociferously oppose the fixed-time minyan,1 and one hears many rabbis and educated laymen nowadays passionately espouse this position. However, the fixed-time minyan can be justified; in fact, it has some overlooked advantages.

To better understand this issue, we must first examine the halachic basis for “early Shabbat” services. The Mishnah records a disagreement pertaining to the latest time one may daven Mincha on any day (not just Friday).2 R. Yehuda says one must pray before plag ha-mincha, but the Sages say the deadline is ha‘erev, “evening” (commentators disagree whether “evening” in this context means sunset or nightfall).

The Talmud Bavli explains that the cutoff point for Mincha also constitutes the earliest time one can say Maariv.3 Thus, R. Yehuda permits reciting Maariv after plag ha-mincha even on weekdays, whereas the Sages forbid praying before “evening” even on Friday night. The Talmud permits one to follow either opinion.4

When making early Shabbat, one davens Maariv before “evening,” following the opinion of R. Yehuda. Seemingly, then, one must daven Mincha on Friday before plag ha-mincha.5 In a fixed-time minyan, however, one usually prays Mincha after plag but Maariv before “evening.” In other words, one is simultaneously following the leniencies of both R. Yehuda and the Sages, which would appear to be self-contradictory (tartei de-satrei). Hence the opposition to such minyanim.

Historically, however, many Jews have held such “self-contradictory” prayer services.6 This practice seems to have a basis in no less a source than the Talmud Yerushalmi,7 which does not connect davening Maariv early with R. Yehuda’s opinion regarding the cutoff point for Mincha. According to the Yerushalmi, the timing of Maariv is flexible because it is theoretically a voluntary prayer (although we treat it as obligatory). Thus, even the Sages would place no restrictions on reciting Maariv before “evening.”

But even if the fixed-time minyan is justifiable, it seems that one should ideally favor davening at a plag minyan, in consonance with the simple reading of the Talmud Bavli. Is there any downside to doing so?

Many authorities would actually answer in the affirmative. The generally accepted approach nowadays is to determine plag ha-mincha by subtracting 1 ¼ halachic hours from the time of sunset. Many poskim, however, rule that plag is actually 1 ¼ halachic hours before nightfall.8 Thus, one who davens at a contemporary plag minyan might be reciting Maariv—and worse, the blessings over the Shema—too early.9

While the common practice certainly has a strong halachic basis,10 one could argue that davening Maariv a bit later than the accepted plag—thereby making more likely that one will recite it in the correct timeframe—trumps the concern of tartei de-satrei.11

There is also an ancillary benefit to services scheduled later than the normative plag ha-mincha. While a basic reading of the Talmud indicates that one may recite Kiddush any time after plag ha-mincha,12 a minority opinion exists—held by some very early and weighty authorities—that one should wait until after sunset to do so,13 or at least until shortly before sunset.14 When one davens at a fixed-time minyan, one will generally arrive home later than if one prays at plag and will thus be in a better position to accommodate these opinions.

In a similar vein, many poskim recommend eating some of the Friday night meal after nightfall,15 and one is more likely to wind up doing so if one begins the se‘udah after having attended a fixed-time minyan.16

A practical downside of the plag minyan is the hardship it involves for those who live alone. Plag ha-mincha is the earliest time one can light Shabbat candles.17 Thus, people without someone at home to light on their behalf would need to come to shul for Mincha (before plag), run home to light, then speed back to shul for Maariv. It would obviously be much easier if these individuals could light right after plag and then come to Mincha.18

Both the plag minyan and the fixed-time minyan involve halachic tradeoffs. Each rabbi should choose the approach he finds more compelling and schedule services at his shul accordingly; the same applies to someone deciding which minyan in his neighborhood to attend. It should be noted that one can circumvent (almost) all halachic difficulties by praying at a Mincha minyan early in the afternoon and then davening Maariv at a fixed-time minyan, but this solution is impractical for most people.19

 


  1. See, e.g., Mishnah Berurah 267:3 and R. Mordechai Willig, Am Mordechai, Berachot 17:4. 

  2. Berachot 4:1. 

  3. Berachot 27a. 

  4. Rishonim differ on how to interpret this ruling. Some say that one must choose to follow either R. Yehuda or the Sages consistently every single day—i.e., one may never daven Maariv before “evening” if one ever davens Mincha after plag ha-mincha (e.g., Rashba, Berachot 27a). Others rule that one must only be consistent within a single day (e.g., Meiri ad loc.). 

  5. As explained in the previous footnote, some authorities rule that one who sometimes wishes to daven Maariv early, even if only occasionally on a Friday evening, must always daven Mincha before plag. At present, virtually no one is careful to daven Mincha before plag daily. Thus, some poskim forbid making “early Shabbat” nowadays (Tur Orach Chayim 293, in the name of R. Yitzchak Ibn Ghayyat; this was also the opinion of the Vilna Gaon as recorded in Ma‘aseh Rav 65 and 115). However, the accepted opinion is that one may daven early on Friday evening because of the mitzvah of tosefet Shabbat (adding time to Shabbat), even if one normally waits until “evening” to recite Maariv (Mishnah Berurah 267:3). This is also the clear implication of a line in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Berachot 4:1). 

  6. Even on weekdays. See Tosafot, Berachot 2a, s.v. “me’eimatai.” 

  7. Berachot 4:1. See Aruch ha-Shulchan, Orach Chayim 235:2. (Creatively, the Aruch ha-Shulchan claims that the Talmud Bavli agrees, but such a reading contradicts the Rishonim. It should also be noted that in 267:4 he rules that one must pray Mincha on Friday before plag if one wishes to make early Shabbat.) See also R. Yehoshua Buch’s commentary on the Yerushalmi, Or La-Yesharim, p. 343. The Rambam’s presentation of the issue seems to echo the Yerushalmi (Hilchot Tefillah 3:7). 

  8. This is part of the general disagreement as to whether one calculates the halachic hours (sha‘ot zemaniyot) from sunrise to sunset or from dawn to dusk. See a summary of the discussion in R. Chaim P. Benish, Ha-Zemanim Ba-Halacha, chap. 13. Calculating the hours from dawn until dusk is correlated with the opinion of Rabbenu Tam regarding the time of halachic nightfall. According to the common understanding, Rabbenu Tam holds that what we call “sunset,” the disappearance of the orb of the sun below the horizon, is only the beginning of the halachic process of sunset (techilat sheki‘a). Nightfall (tzeit ha-kochavim) is 72 minutes thereafter. If this understanding is correct, the later version of plag ha-mincha (75 halachic minutes before nightfall) would be quite close to sunset—obviating any benefit to praying later than the conventional plag but before sunset. However, as I explained in a previous article, it is much more reasonable to interpret Rabbenu Tam as agreeing that tzeit ha-kochavim is the time that three stars actually appear. Rabbenu Tam means that techilat sheki‘a is 72 minutes before the appearance of stars—not that nightfall is 72 minutes after sunset. Techilat sheki‘a, as well as the closely related dawn-to-dusk plag ha-mincha, would thus take place well before sunset, when the sun’s bright rays start to dim. An analysis of precisely how to calculate the dawn-to-dusk plag is beyond the scope of this article, but it is probably at least 45 minutes before sunset (in New York in the summer). In any event, a fixed-time minyan is certainly much more likely to comply with the later plag ha-mincha than is a minyan that straddles the sunrise-to-sunset plag—even if a lengthy Kabbalat Shabbat delays the start of Maariv proper. 

  9. Many Rishonim hold that when one davens Maariv early, one recites the Amidah only and waits to say the blessings on the Shema until after nightfall (see R. M.M. Karp, Hilchot Shabbat be-Shabbat, chap. 6 n. 12). Contemporary practice is to recite the berachot on Kri’at Shema even when one davens after the sunrise-to-sunset plag ha-mincha (of course, one must repeat the Shema without its blessings after tzeit ha-kochavim). This practice is somewhat difficult since the blessings reference darkness; at the conventional plag, it is still quite sunny out. The later version of plag, though, is connected to Rabbenu Tam’s techilat sheki‘a, when the sun’s light begins to dim. It is therefore likely that it is really only those who accept the later version of plag ha-mincha who also allow reciting the blessings on the Shema at that time. See Mishmeret Shabbat (printed in the back of Hilchot Shabbat be-Shabbat vol. 4), pp. 192-3. Cf. the previous footnote.  

  10. The fact that the standard chronometric device in the ancient world was a sundial, which obviously works only from sunrise to sunset, would seem to be an exceedingly strong support for the common practice. See J. Jean Ajdler, “Talmudic Metrology VI: Sabbath’s Limits and the Jewish Time Reckoning,” BDD 24 (March 2011), section B. 

  11. In theory, one could schedule early Shabbat services straddling the later plag ha-mincha, but it is somewhat difficult to determine this time with exactitude (see above, note 8). In any event, this would not solve the problem of tartei de-satrei for those who maintain that plag is earlier. 

  12. Berachot 27b, codified in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 267:2. Of course, it is preferable to wait until after the dawn-to-dusk plag ha-mincha to recite Kiddush even if one prays at a minyan that straddles sunrise-to-sunset plag (Hilchot Shabbat be-Shabbat chap. 7 n. 3.). This is usually not such an imposition; at least in places that are not very far north, it will generally be after the later plag by the time services conclude and one is ready to begin the meal. 

  13. Rav Hai Gaon categorically forbids reciting Kiddush until “kadeish yoma”—when Shabbat officially begins (Otzar ha-Geonim, Berachot p. 63,65). Halachot Gedolot holds that one may only recite Kiddush early if one will not have wine available once Shabbat begins (Hilchot Kiddush ve-Havdalah; see Responsa Pri Yitzchak 9). See also Pri Megadim, Mishbetzot Zahav 299:1, but see Tzlach, Pesachim 105a. It should be noted that everyone agrees that one may recite Kiddush during bein ha-shemashot (the transitionary period between day and night); no one requires waiting until tzeit ha-kochavim (nightfall). Nevertheless, there is a strong possibility that bein ha-shemashot actually begins a bit later than what we call “sunset.” See here. In practice, however, it seems that even those who wish to be stringent may recite Kiddush right after sunset since refraining from reciting Kiddush immediately after plag ha-mincha is already quite a chumra (heard from R. M.M. Karp). Furthermore, one could perhaps argue that since universal practice nowadays is to begin Shabbat at sunset, sunset is now considered the official beginning of Shabbat and even Rav Hai Gaon would allow Kiddush thereafter. Further analysis of Rav Hai’s opinion is required. 

  14. This is the implication of Rambam, Hilchot Shabbat 29:11. 

  15. Mishnah Berurah 267:5. 

  16. One potential problem with davening at a fixed-time minyan is running afoul of the prohibition to begin a meal within the half-hour before tzeit ha-kochavim, due to a concern of neglecting the recitation of the nighttime Shema at its proper time. However, there are reasons to allow beginning the Shabbat meal until tzeit ha-kochavim (at which point one must certainly recite Shema before commencing). See Mishnah Berurah 235:19 and 267:6. 

  17. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 263:4. But see Responsa Eretz Tzvi 113. It should be noted that there is room to be stringent not to light candles before the later version of plag, but in a case of necessity one may rely on the earlier version (Shemirat Shabbat ke-Hilchatah chap. 42 n. 63). Cf. n. 10 above. 

  18. In my shul, the normal time for Friday night services in the summer is 7:00 p.m. But on weeks when plag ha-mincha is very late—it gets as late as 6:58 in New York—we delay the start of Mincha to allow those who live alone to light before services (an additional advantage of this is that it delays Kiddush and the meal a bit when sunset is at its latest). Allowing for lighting before coming to shul is also the reason Mincha at KAJ (Breuer’s) is at 7:10 all summer long instead of 7:00. 

  19. There is also an entirely different method of making “early Shabbat,” which is to recite Kiddush and eat the Friday evening meal after plag ha-mincha and then pray Maariv after sunset or nightfall. This method avoids the problems inherent with davening Maariv early, but is less convenient for most people and controversial for other reasons. See Ma‘aseh Rav 117, Pe‘ulat Sachir ad loc. , and Hilchot Shabbat be-Shabbat ch. 7 n. 3*. Cf. n. 12 above. 

About Yaakov Hoffman

Yaakov Hoffman is the rabbi of Washington Heights Congregation and a member of the Kollel L’Horaah of RIETS. He has had a lifelong interest in the history of halacha and is a practicing sofer. He can be reached at [email protected]

One comment

  1. The issue of how to determine nightfall and how to determine 1.25 hours before that is more complex than Rav Benish explains. The old method used in Yerushalayim, ruled against despite being defended by RYCS ztl, slightly corrected is only one of many. There are 4 credible options for nightfall theoretically and a few more practically. calculating 1.25 hours also has at least 2 alternatives. If one wanted to utilize all those options, many zemanai tefillah are justifiable with mincha and maariv before and after plag.

    My article on the minhag to light candles 40 minutes before sunset on the Seforim blog sheds light on this issue, as does a much earlier article in the TuMJ 2013. I hope to write something extensive on this topic in the future.

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