The Time for Praying Mincha
Translated and adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass
Determining the time for praying mincha involves three separate questions:
1. When can one start mincha?
2. Until when can one pray mincha?
3. When is the ideal time for mincha?
This article only relates to the first and third, from when can one pray mincha and the ideal time for mincha.
WHEN IS THE IDEAL TIME FOR MINCHA?
The gemara in Berakhot (26b) says that the time for mincha gedola (literally, the early mincha - referring to the first portion of the afternoon) starts from six and a half hours after sunrise (an hour here refers to one twelfth of the sunrise-to-sunset period), and mincha ketana (literally, the small mincha - referring to the last portion of the afternoon) starts from nine and a half hours after sunrise. The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 3:2-3) explains that the daily afternoon sacrifice was offered at nine and a half hours in order to enable individuals to bring personal sacrifices before the daily communal offering, but when Erev Pesach fell on Erev Shabbat the daily sacrifice was offered at six and a half hours in order to leave time for all of the Pesach sacrifices to be offered before nightfall. It is therefore PREFERABLE to pray mincha (modeled after the afternoon sacrifice) at the time when the daily afternoon sacrifice was normally brought - namely, at nine and a half hours, mincha ketana. It is PERMISSIBLE to pray mincha from the time that it is permissible to offer the afternoon sacrifice - at six and a half hours which is mincha gedola.
The Rambam mentions a widespread custom of praying mincha twice, once at mincha gedola and once at mincha ketana, one of them as an obligatory prayer and the other as voluntary. Some of the Geonim instructed people to pray the second, mincha ketana, as obligatory. The Rambam agreed with their position because the obligatory mincha should correspond with the time the afternoon sacrifice was normally brought.
The Rambam, in this source, sees mincha ketana as the preferable time for mincha. The Shulchan Arukh (OC 233:1) also concludes that, "the optimal time for mincha is from nine and a half hours [after sunrise] and onwards."
One opinion cited in the talmud Yerushalmi is that mincha was established to correspond with the ketoret (incense) offered daily. In line with this opinion, the time for mincha should be mincha ketana as the ketoret was brought after mincha.
There are three possible ways of debating this position and maintaining that the main time for mincha is mincha gedola (even though the afternoon sacrifice was usually brought at nine and a half hours):
1. The times for prayer are modeled after the times for the sacrifices, based on when they CAN be brought, not when they were NORMALLY brought. This seems to be what the Rif says (She'eilot U-teshuvot Ha-Rif #320).
2. The times for prayer are based on when the forefathers prayed, and Yitzchak prayed mincha at the beginning of the afternoon, at six and a half hours of the day (see the second part of this article). According to the verse that the Talmud connects with the three prayers, "Evening, morning, and afternoon I speak [in prayer] and call out," mincha corresponds to "afternoon," more in line with six and a half hours than nine and a half. Based on this, it is preferable to pray mincha gedola (She'eilot U-teshuvot Ha-Rosh 4:9 and Ritva Yoma 28b).
3. We might rule that the prayers' times were determined by both the times of the sacrifices and the times the forefathers prayed. As our teacher Hagaon Harav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l writes in "Thoughts on Prayer:"
"The statement 'Prayers were instituted by the forefathers' does not contradict the statement 'Prayers were instituted to correspond to sacrifices.' The Rambam brings both of them; they are complementary."
Based on the forefathers, mincha gedola is preferable. Based on the times of the sacrifices - mincha gedola is a legitimate time. Even though there might be merit to praying when the sacrifice was normally brought, namely, at mincha ketana, mincha gedola is still preferable in order to do the mitzva at the earliest possible time ("zerizim makdimim le-mitzvot"). This halakhic principle might take precedence over other enhancements of the mitzva which in our case would be praying when the sacrifice was normally brought. For further discussion on this point, see the Torah Temima on the verse, "Watch the matzot," from which the sages derive the rule, "When a mitzva comes into your hands do not let it become chametz, do not delay performing it." The Torah Temima deals with clashes between performing mitzvot in the best possible way ("hiddur mitzva", literally, beautifying a mitzva) and performing them as early as possible.
The Rambam and, following his lead, the Shulchan Arukh, rule that mincha ketana is preferable over mincha gedola. A number of Rishonim disagree with this. Rav Ovadia Yosef claims that if the Shulchan Arukh had seen all the authorities who rule that mincha gedola is preferable he would have ruled like them. Rav Ovadia therefore rules that where there is some other important factor - a minyan that meets for mincha gedola or a meal early in the afternoon - it is preferable to pray at mincha gedola. See Yechaveh Da'at 4:19.
WHEN MINCHA TIME BEGINS
The gemara in Yoma (28b) says: "Avraham prayed when the walls began to darken (show shadows)." Though the gemara speaks about Avraham (usually associated with the morning prayer), the Arukh (quoted in the margin of the Vilna Shas) and other Rishonim see this passage as referring to mincha - which Yitzchak later instituted as a family practice. Rashi and most of the Rishonim explain that this time begins exactly halfway through the day. The Ritva adds that the author of the statement intends to instruct us when it is preferable to pray mincha.
The gemara (explained by Rashi) then asks, if this is so, why was the daily afternoon sacrifice was brought only a half hour after midday? Why not bring it at midday if possible? The gemara replies: "What is the question? Maybe the walls of the Temple (appeared to have) darkened at six and a half hours because they did not calculate precisely."
Most of the Rishonim (the Ritva, Rabbeinu Tam in Sefer Ha-yashar #308 and others) learn from here that according to the letter of the law the afternoon sacrifice could be brought at midday, for it was only pushed off another half hour out of doubt.
Rashi in Pesachim (58a, s.v. Ela Amar Rabba), in contrast, says that this law of bringing the afternoon sacrifice at six and a half hours is biblical (though Rabbi Akiva Eiger in the Gilyon Ha-shas shows other seemingly contradictory passages in Rashi). The Meiri comes to a similar conclusion based on the same passage in Pesachim.
Tosafot infer from another passage in Pesachim that the extra half hour is a rabbinical addition. The gemara on Pesachim 5a quotes Rava's opinion that chametz is forbidden on Erev Pesach from the time the Pesach sacrifice could be offered. Tosafot there (s.v. Lo Tishchat) ask why chametz should be forbidden (biblically) starting at midday? After all, the Pesach sacrifice was offered only after the daily afternoon sacrifice and therefore prohibition against chametz should only begin the amount of time after midday that it would have taken to offer the daily sacrifice. It seems that this passage also assumes that the time for the afternoon sacrifice is midday and the extra half day is a rabbinical addition. This presents a difficulty for Rashi and the Meiri (pointed out by the Even Ha-azel on Rambam's Hilkhot Temidim U-musafim 1:3).
The gemara Yoma (28b, quoted above) concludes that Avraham's prayer did indeed begin at midday while the sacrifice was only brought at six and a half hours. Avraham was especially gifted in astronomical knowledge or Torah wisdom and was able to make a precise calculation, while the sacrifice's time, on the other hand, is designed to be measured by anyone. It seems, though, that the time for mincha should match that of the sacrifice, namely six and a half hours and not at midday.
The test case for how we rule in the dispute between Rashi and most of the Rishonim is the case of someone who mistakenly prayed mincha in the half hour right after midday. If the time for the daily sacrifice begins biblically at six and a half hours, like Rashi and the Meiri say, mincha prayed before six and a half hours should be considered totally invalid.
On the other hand, if, as Tosafot, the Ritva and other Rishonim say, the afternoon sacrifice could, on a biblical level, theoretically have been brought at midday and the extra half hour is a rabbinical addition to avoid miscalculations, mincha prayed after midday but before waiting the extra half hour should be considered valid.
The Shulchan Arukh (OC 233:1) says that one who prays mincha after six and a half hours of the day fulfills his obligation ("yatza"). This indicates (as inferred by the Magen Avraham and the Derekh Ha-chaim) that if one prayed before six and a half hours, even though it was after midday, he does not fulfill his obligation. This seems, as the Magen Avraham and the Mishneh Berura reason, to follow Rashi and the Meiri's approach, that the sacrifice could not be offered before six and a half hours on a biblical level.
This is difficult for two reasons:
1. Most Rishonim oppose this position - [see the Magen Avraham in OC 458:1 and the Chok Yaakov there.] The Arukh Ha-shulchan (OC 233:13) in fact rejects the Magen Avraham's inference because the half hour wait is rabbinic. The only possible way of reconciling a rabbinic level half hour while retaining the position that one does not fulfill his obligation if he prayed before six and a half hours is to assume that the sages especially decreed that before that time, prayer is invalid (see Tosafot Sukka 3a).
2. Based on the forefathers' prayers, one should at least fulfill his obligation starting at midday - did not Avraham pray at midday?
Most Rishonim think that the time the daily afternoon sacrifice could be brought on a biblical level started at midday. Rabbinically one should wait another half hour. The Meiri holds that it could not be brought before six and a half hours on a biblical level. Mincha should therefore not be prayed before six and a half hours into the day. There is a dispute among the Acharonim about whether one who prayed during the half hour between midday and six and a half hours of the day fulfilled his obligation, or whether he must repeat mincha later.
Daf Kesher #264, Tevet 5751, vol. 3, pp. 206-208.