Eating and Personal Tasks Before Davening
The gemara in Berakhot (14a) mandates that tefilla should be the first event of the day; a person should not attend to personal duties or tasks before tefilla. The gemara cites a pasuk from Tehilim (85) forecasting a successful day for someone who davens prior to personal tasks, but the pasuk DOES NOT indicate the nature of the prohibition. Are personal tasks prohibited prior to davening for merely technical reasons – because a person may be distracted by those tasks and ultimately forget to pray? Or is the prohibition more symbolic, because attending to personal duties causes tefila to be “slighted?” Perhaps by not prioritizing tefilla, one acts dismissively toward the mitzva.
The Rif's version of the gemara suggests that only travel – and not GENERAL tasks – is forbidden prior to prayer. Evidently, he felt that the nature of the prohibition is merely TECHNICAL, due to fear of forgetting tefilla. Presumably, only involvement in an activity as distracting as travel would endanger tefilla.
An interesting Rashi (Berakhot 5b) implies the exact opposite of the Rif’s position. While the Rif claimed that ONLY travel is forbidden before tefilla, Rashi asserts that EVEN Torah study is forbidden! Ironically, the positions of Rashi and the Rif may be based upon the same logic. If tasks performed prior to tefilla are forbidden because they demonstrate disrespect for tefilla, Torah study should not be included in the prohibition, as it does not trivialize tefilla or religious interest. If the prohibition is based upon the fear of distraction, however, we may extend the fear even to Torah study, as Rashi does. While both the Rif and Rashi may have determined the issur to be technical, to the Rif this mandated a very LIMITED issur while to Rashi it mandated a very broad prohibition. It was based, however, upon similar definitions of the prohibition.
The majority of Rishonim, however, assume that ALL general tasks (not only travel) are forbidden prior to tefilla, but they did allow Torah study before tefilla. Do they view the prohibition as technical and based upon the fear of distraction, or did they sense a more fundamental problem with tasks performed prior to davening?
An interesting question raised by the Terumat Ha-Deshen (siman 18) highlights the different models of this prohibition. He questions whether personal tasks can be performed after the INIITAL part of tefilla has been recited (for example, after reciting birkhot ha-shachar). While he forbids this, the Terumat Ha-Deshen cites some opinions who allow this sequence. Presumably, this debate surrounds the two different manners of defining the prohibition. If the concern is SYMBOLIC, prioritizing even a segment of davening prior to task performance should be sufficient to avoid the problem. By davening part of tefilla, one has demonstrated tefilla’s supremacy. The fact that the Terumat Ha-Deshen was opposed to this practice probably indicates that he felt that the prohibition was (also) based upon technical concerns – namely, forgetting tefilla. Starting the first part of davening does not assure that the end of davening will be completed after the tasks are performed.
A potentially parallel prohibition is stipulated by the gemara in Berakhot (10b) regarding EATING before davening. The gemara provides two different sources as basis for this prohibition. Since the first source is a Biblical verse, many Rishonim maintain that the prohibition is de-oraita in nature. A similar question to the aforementioned issue can be raised about this issur as well. Does the issur stem solely from the practical concern of forgetting davening while becoming engrossed in eating? Or is there something more inherently wrong about eating before davening? The gemara cites a pasuk from Melakhim I:14 that Chazal interpret to mean that eating before davening is arrogant; it demonstrates inappropriate self-confidence, breeding a more complacent personality. Since the basis of tefilla is a sense of vulnerability and fragility, eating is antithetical to the entire mental and emotional basis of tefilla.
Several unique questions about the parameters of this issur may be based upon its nature. For example, must a person discontinue eating if he began prior to the onset of zeman tefilla? The Rosh claims that one must stop eating, but the Ritva claims that eating may continue. Perhaps they differ as to the true nature of the prohibition. If the issur stems from a technical concern that a person will become immersed in eating and neglect davening, eating should be forbidden even if initiated before zeman tefilla, as the Rosh claims. In contrast, the Ritva may have believed that commencing eating prior to davening is a display of arrogance, or at least a compromising of vulnerability. If eating began prior to zeman tefilla, no assertion of arrogance has occurred.
A second issue surrounds the TYPE of eating permissible prior to tefilla. The Rosh cites an early addressing the question of drinking non-alcoholic beverages prior to tefilla. The Ravya, a 13th century German posek, indeed defines the prohibition as "arrogance," and therefore only prohibits intoxicating beverages that induce boastfulness; water would certainly be permitted. From a halakhic standpoint, the gap between beer and water demands investigation and famous small controversies regarding tea and sugar evolved. Some fascinating compromises have been suggested (such as omitting the sugar!).
However, from an analytical standpoint, one thing is clear: the Ravya limited the prohibition to certain drinks based upon viewing the issur as an inappropriate display of arrogance. Had he viewed the issur as more technical (not to neglect tefilla) or even as more FORMAL prohibition against ANY food prior to davening, he probably would not have distinguished between intoxicating drinks and water.