The custom in many communities, including ours, is to allow reciting the Arbit prayer early, before sundown, during the summer months, especially on Friday night. How exactly does this work, and under what circumstances is this permitted?
The primary source of this discussion is the Mishna in Masechet Berachot which brings a famous dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and the other Sages in identifying the point at which one can no longer recite Minha, and can already recite Arbit. According to the majority opinion, this point is sundown. This means that one may recite Minha until sundown, and may not recite Arbit before sundown. Rabbi Yehuda, however, maintains that this transition occurs earlier, at the time known as Pelag Ha’minha. This view is more stringent in that it requires reciting Minha before Pelag Ha’minha, but more lenient in that it allows reciting Arbit already at Pelag Ha’minha.
The Gemara, interestingly enough, concludes that one is able to choose which view to follow in this regard. If one wishes, he can follow the view permitting the recitation of Minha until sundown and requiring the recitation of Arbit after sundown, or the view requiring the recitation of Minha before Pelag Ha’minha and allowing the recitation of Arbit already at Pelag Ha’miha.
The Shulhan Aruch brings the Gemara’s conclusion as the Halacha (Orah Haim 233:1), but he adds that the custom is to follow the majority opinion, which permits reciting Minha until sunset, but requires reciting Arbit only from sunset. As such, the Shulhan Aruch writes, one should not recite Arbit before sunset, except in a She’at Ha’dahak – situations of dire need.
Many communities, however, including ours, do not follow this custom mentioned by the Shulhan Aruch, and permit reciting Arbit before sundown. According to our custom, it is acceptable, even Le’hatehila (optimally), to recite Arbit before sundown, as long as it is recited after Pelag Ha’minha.
The Mishna Berura (Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin, 1839-1933) adds a crucially important point, noting that one must ensure not recite both Minha and Arbit in an inherently self-contradictory manner. If one recites both Minha and Arbit within the period between Pelag Ha’minha and sundown, then he is following neither Rabbi Yehuda nor the majority opinion. According to Rabbi Yehuda, he is reciting Minha later the final time for Minha, and according to the majority opinion, he is reciting Arbit before the earliest time for Arbit. Therefore, one who wishes to recite Arbit before sundown must ensure to recite Minha that day before Pelag Ha’minha.
However, many synagogues – including synagogues in our community – have the practice of reciting both Minha and Arbit within the period between Pelag Ha’minha and sunset. This practice is based upon the custom mentioned by the Magen Abraham (Rav Abraham Gombiner, 1633-1683), who explains (233:6) that a synagogue is allowed to recite both prayers within this period, due to the concern that people would not return to the synagogue for Arbit. Since people might not return after sundown for Arbit, a special dispensation was made for congregations allowing them to recite both Minha and Arbit between Pelag Ha’minha and sundown, despite the inherent contradiction of such a practice. Significantly, Rav Yisrael Yaakov Algazi (Turkey-Jerusalem, 1680-1757), in his work Shalmeh Sibur, writes that this was the practice of the Arizal (Rav Yishak Luria, Safed, 1534-1572). This custom was also observed in Baghdad, as mentioned by the Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim, 1833-1909), in Parashat Vayakhel (Shana Alef, 7).
It must be emphasized, however, that this practice is acceptable only when praying together with a Minyan. If one prays privately, and he wishes to recite Arbit before sundown, he must ensure to recite Minha before Pelag Ha’miha.
The Ben Ish Hai makes an exception for women, who, due to their obligations in the home, are very busy and thus less flexible when it comes to their prayer schedule. Just as Halacha permits a congregation to recite both Minha and Arbit in the period between Pelag Ha’minha and sunset due to the difficulty involved in forcing the congregants to return after sundown, the Ben Ish Hai similarly permits women to recite both prayers during this period.
There is some discussion as to whether there is perhaps greater room for leniency on Friday afternoon. The Shulhan Aruch, who – as we saw earlier – generally discourages reciting Arbit before sunset, writes (267:2) that it is permissible to recite Arbit earlier on Friday night. The Magen Abraham explains this ruling based on the Gemara’s teaching that the evening Arbit prayer corresponds to the placing of animal sacrifices on the altar in the Bet Ha’mikdash. Although no sacrifices were slaughtered in the Bet Ha’mikdash at night, the sacrifices which had been slaughtered during the day would be placed on the altar at night to be burned, and our evening Arbit service corresponds to that stage of the sacrificial offerings. On Friday night, however, it was forbidden in the Bet Ha’mikdash to place on the altar the sacrifices which had been slaughtered on Friday; this had to be done before sundown. Correspondingly, the Magen Abraham explains, we recite Arbit earlier on Friday evening than we do during the week.
Would there be greater room for leniency on Friday according to our custom, which permits reciting Arbit before sundown even during the week, but requires when praying privately not to recite both Minha and Arbit in the period between Pelag Ha’minha and sunset?
A number of Poskim cite the Peneh Yehoshua (Rav Yaakov Yehoshua Falk, Germany, 1680-1756) as claiming that one may, indeed, be lenient on Friday night, and recite both Minha and Arbit during this period, even when praying in private. He contends that on Friday night, once one accepts Shabbat, he establishes that Halachic "night" has begun. And thus, even if one recited Minha after Pelag Ha’minha, following the majority view, by accepting Shabbat he begins the nighttime even though the sun has not set, even according to the majority view. The Peneh Yehoshua’s position is cited by the Magen Abraham, who writes that one should not rely on this leniency. However, the Aruch Ha’shulhan (Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein of Nevarduk, 1829-1908) writes (233:3) that one may, indeed, rely on this view, and recite Minha and Arbit between the period of Pelag Ha’minha and sundown on Friday night, even when praying privately.
In practice, one should not rely on this leniency, and so if one prays privately, and he wishes to recite Arbit before sundown, even on Friday night, then he must recite Minha before Pelag Ha’minha.
Rav Yisrael Bitan (contemporary) writes that an exception may be made if one forgot on Friday to recite Minha before Pelag Ha’minha, and forcing his family to wait for him to recite Arbit after sundown would cause a great deal of inconvenience, and thus compromise Shalom Bayit (marital harmony). In the summertime, waiting until sundown to recite Arbit on Friday night means delaying the meal until a very late hour, which could make the family unhappy, and therefore, in the interest in maintaining peace and joy in the home, one may rely on the Aruch Ha’shulhan’s ruling if he forgot to recite Minha before Pelag Ha’minha on Friday.
It must be emphasized that even though Arbit may be recited early, as discussed, the Torah obligation to recite the nighttime Shema may be fulfilled only after Set Ha’kochabim (nightfall), defined as either 72 minutes after sundown (according to Rabbenu Tam) or 40 minutes after sundown (according to the Geonim). Therefore, even when one is allowed to recite Arbit early, he must remember to repeat Shema later at night, after dark. This applies as well to Sefirat Ha’omer.
Summary: According to our community’s custom, one may, if he so wishes, recite Arbit before sundown, as early as Pelag Ha’minha. However, if one is praying privately, and he wishes to recite Arbit before sundown, he must ensure to recite Minha before Pelag Ha’minha. This is in contrast to a Minyan, which is permitted to recite both Minha and Arbit in between Pelag Ha’miha and sunset. Women may also recite Minha and Arbit within this period, if their schedules do not allow reciting Minha before Pelag Ha’minha. On Friday, if a man is praying privately and he forgot to recite Minha before Pelag Ha’minha, he may recite Arbit before sundown if waiting until sundown to begin Arbit would cause his family great inconvenience. It must be emphasized that if one recites Arbit before Set Ha’kochabim (nightfall), he must repeat Keriat Shema (and count the Omer) after Set Ha’kochabim.