In the beginning of Parashat Vayeitzei we read that Yaakov “encountered a place” as he made his way from Canaan to Charan, and as night had fallen, he went to sleep. The Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (26b) famously interprets this phrase – “va-yifga ba-makom” – to mean that Yaakov prayed at this site after night fell, thus instituting the nighttime arvit prayer. Avraham and Yitzchak, the Gemara teaches, instituted the morning shacharit service and the afternoon mincha service, respectively, and now Yaakov established the nighttime arvit service.
Many writers addressed the question of why arvit differs from the other two daily prayers in that it is not strictly required. The Gemara (Berakhot 27b) records a famous debate among the Tanna’im as to whether the arvit recitation constitutes an outright halakhic obligation, like the other two prayers, or is an optional prayer. The Amora’im are in disagreement as to which view should be followed, and Halakha accepts the view of Rabbi Yehoshua, that arvit constitutes an optional prayer (Shulchan Arukh, O.C. 237). Of course, as we know, it has been universally accepted to treat arvit as an obligatory prayer, but strictly speaking, it is optional. The question thus arises as to why Halakha treats arvit differently than it treats shacharit and mincha. If each daily prayer is rooted in the prayer introduced by one of our three patriarchs, why should any distinction be made between their respective levels of obligation?
Rav Yaakov Reischer, in his Iyun Yaakov (to Berakhot 26b), points to the Gemara’s discussion later (Berakhot 30b), where it seeks a Biblical source for the requirement to pray with “koved rosh” (solemnity). The Gemara initially suggests that this requirement is sourced in Chana’s prayer for a child, which she recited in a state of anguish and despair (“ve-hi marat nafesh” – Shemuel I 1:10). However, the Gemara immediately dismisses this proof, noting that Chana’s prayer cannot serve as a precedent for the requirements of our daily prayer service. She was especially embittered and pained by her infertility, and so her solemn demeanor when she prayed is not necessarily a model that we must follow in our daily prayers. The Gemara therefore cites a different source for the requirement of “koved rosh.”
Somewhat similarly, Rav Reischer suggests, Yaakov’s prayer differs from those of Avraham and Yitzchak because of the dire circumstances in which it was recited. Yaakov prayed as he was forced to leave his home and travel to a foreign land because his brother planned to kill him. He prayed on the road, as he made his way towards an uncertain future, journeying to his corrupt, pagan uncle where he would have to live for an unspecified period of time. Yaakov’s prayer, then, sets a precedent not of a daily required prayer, but rather of an optional prayer which one may recite when he feels anxious and in distress. Whereas the other two daily prayers, which were instituted by Avraham and Yitzchak under ordinary circumstances, are strictly required, the arvit prayer, which was instituted by Yaakov as he fled from home, is a prayer one has the option to recite in periods of hardship.
We might perhaps extend Rav Reischer’s approach further to shed light on the accepted practice to treat arvit as an obligatory prayer (a custom noted already by Tosefot, Shabbat 9b). This practice might reflect the notion that at all times, we should see ourselves in some sort of “distress,” recognizing the uncertainties we face and the challenges we need to confront. Even when we enjoy general stability in our lives, we all have struggles and problems of one sort or another. At all times, our lives resemble, if only to a very slight degree, Yaakov’s condition as he fled from his brother, because we all have fears and anxieties, and none of us knows with certainty what the future holds. Thus, the obligatory nature of the arvit prayer that applies by force of accepted custom perhaps requires us to recognize the uncertainties in our lives and look to the Almighty for help. Rather than treat arvit as an optional prayer, we have accepted this obligation to reflect each day on the “loose ends” in our lives, our worries and concerns, and turn to the Almighty as Yaakov did, begging for the ongoing assistance that we so desperately need each and every day.