Working Before Praying or Praying with a Minyan
While in the army, we were faced with the question whether we should pray first thing in the morning, which would mean that the other religious soldiers in the brigade would not have a minyan, or whether we should delay our prayers so that everyone could pray with a minyan, though this would mean that we would have to complete certain tasks before prayer, e.g., make our preparations for the morning lineup, and the like. What should we have done?
The Shulchan Arukh writes:
It is forbidden for a person to deal with his own needs before he recites the Shemoneh Esreh. (Orach Chayyim 89:3)
The source of this ruling is a Gemara in Berakhot 14a, which, according to Rashi's reading states:
Rav Idi bar Avin said in the name of Rav Yitzchak bar Ashian: It is forbidden for a person to deal with his own affairs before he prays, as it says: "Righteousness shall go before him and then he shall set his steps on his own way" (Tehilim 85:14). Rav Idi bar Avin said in the name of Rav Yitzchak bar Ashian: Anyone who prays and afterwards sets out on a journey, the Holy One, blessed be He, takes care of his business, as it says: "Righteousness shall go before him and then he shall set his steps on his own way."
According to this reading, taking care of one's business before reciting Shacharit (the morning prayer) is a separate prohibition, distinct from what is stated elsewhere in the Mishna:
One must not sit down before a barber near [the time for reciting] Mincha (the afternoon prayer) until he has prayed. Nor may he enter the bath or a tannery, etc. (Shabbat 9a)
As the Gemara there explains, the reason for this restriction is a concern the activity might continue on and he will forget to pray in time. Therefore, even according to the Magen Avraham (232:6), who says that this law applies not only to a tannery, but to all work, there is room to distinguish between different classes of work, as is explained by the Bei’ur Halakha (232:2 s.v. le-vurseki) in the name of the Meiri:
Some commentators write that the prohibition regarding work near the time of Mincha only applies to work that one does not interrupt in the middle, e.g., a haircut or tanning. For inasmuch as a person is afraid that the hides will be ruined, how can he stop? And furthermore, a person ordinarily wears dirty clothing at that time until he completes the work and washes his feet…. But sewing and writing and other tasks that a person ordinarily interrupts in the middle – he is permitted [to start] and when the time of prayer arrives, he stops.
Indeed the Bei’ur Halakha's conclusion there is that in a time of need, one may be lenient. Here, in contrast, the prohibition against taking care of one's business includes things that are not defined as work, and do not involve the fear that a person will become involved in them and miss his prayers.
All that was said above follows the reading of Rashi and those who follow his reading of the Gemara. The Rif, the Rosh and other Rishonim, however, had a different reading:
Rav Idi bar Avin said in the name of Rav Yitzchak bar Ashian: A person is forbidden to set out on a journey before he prays, as it says: "Righteousness shall go before him and then he shall set his steps on his own way" (Tehilim 85:14). And Rav Idi bar Avin said in the name of Rav Yitzchak bar Ashian: Anyone who says his prayers and afterwards sets out on a journey, the Holy One, blessed be He, takes care of his business, as it says: "Righteousness shall go before him and then he shall set his steps on his own way."
See Ma'adanei Yom Tov (ad loc.), who already noted that the reading of the Rif and the Rosh differs from that of Rashi. Whereas according to Rashi the Gemara explicitly prohibits “dealing with one’s own affairs” before praying, on the Rif and Rosh’s version this prohibition only applies to setting out on a journey. Thus, according to the Rif and the Rosh, the only source forbidding taking care of one's business is the aforementioned Mishna in Shabbat. And even though that Mishna speaks of Mincha, surely the same law applies to Shacharit as well. As stated, the prohibition there is restricted to work that there is a concern that it will continue on and the person will end up not praying.
It should be noted that there is another possible talmudic source for the prohibition:
It has been taught: Abba Binyamin says: All my life I took great pains about two things: that my prayer should be close to my bed and that my bed should be placed north and south. (Berakhot 5b)
See Rashi and Tosafot (ad loc.) who understand that this means that Abba Binyamin would not perform any work until he prayed. This does not prove that a person is forbidden to take care of his affairs before reciting Shacharit, but only that one is forbidden to do work, as stated by Rashi and Tosafot. But even if we say that taking care of one's own affairs is included in work – there is room to ask whether this is forbidden by the letter of the law or just as a pious behavior. As for the second half of Abba Binyamin's statement, "that my bed should be placed north and south," this rule is brought as law in the Rambam (Hilkhot Bet Ha-bechira 7:9) and in the Shulchan Arukh (3:5; 240:17). But the Arukh Ha-shulchan already points out that the Tur omitted this law, and he concludes that we follow the Tur, limiting this principle to being one of preferred conduct but not mandatory.
Regarding our question, the Rambam writes:
A person is forbidden to taste anything or to do any work from dawn until after he has recited the Shacharit prayer. He should also refrain from visiting the house of a friend to greet him before he has recited the Shacharit prayer; nor should he set out on a journey before he has prayed. However, one may taste food or do work before reciting Musaf or Mincha, although he should not have a full meal close to the time for Mincha. (Hilkhot Tefilla 6:4)
The Kesef Mishneh writes that the Rambam's source is the Gemara in Berakhot 14. But the Tzelach rejects this and writes that the Kesef Mishneh failed to notice that the Rif, the Rambam and the Rosh had a different reading, and that this can be inferred from the fact that the Rambam does not mention taking care of one's own affairs. He therefore argues that the Rambam's source is the statement of Abba Binyamin and then concludes:
Accordingly, the prohibition to take care of one's own affairs, though it is mentioned by the Tur and the Shulchan Arukh, with no dissenting opinion - in my opinion three great rulers and pillars of halakhic decision- making do not accept it. For according to them, it might be proposed that Abba Binyamin was strict only about work, since it involves effort and might drag on, but regarding other affairs, there is no concern. Nevertheless, regarding the law, one should be stringent and act in accordance with the Shulchan Arukh…
The Arukh Ha-shulchan also writes that the Rambam's reading was like that of the Rif. Only that he understands that the Rambam learned that one is forbidden to perform work before Shacharit from the verse, "You have cast Me behind your back" (I Melakhim 14:9), from which we learn that a person is forbidden to eat before prayer, and working is like eating in this regard. He adds that the Gemara in Berakhot 5b also implies that prayer must be "close to one's bed:"
It is clear that it is not only work that is forbidden, but any type of business, for what difference is there between the one and the other.
According to the Arukh Ha-shulchan, the Tur and the Shulchan Arukh must be understood as following the Rif and the Rambam, but this seems forced. The Vilna Gaon (in his Bei’ur Ha-gra), in reference to the Shulchan Arukh's ruling that a person is forbidden to deal with his own affairs before praying, points to the Gemara in Berakhot 5b, and Rashi's explanation, ad loc. He appears to agree with the Arukh Ha-shulchan's understanding, apart from the latter's inclusion of work in the prohibition of "You have cast Me behind your back." According to this we can understand the wording of the Chayyei Adam in kelal 15 that one is forbidden to engage in one's own affairs "unless it is necessary." This addition seems to have no explicit source. The Chayyei Adam apparently understands that the source of this law is the statement of Abba Binyamin, and not that of Rav Idi bar Avin, following the Rif and the Rosh. According to him, Abba Binyamin's statement is not mandated, strictly speaking (similar to the Tur’s understanding of Abba Binyamin’s other statement regarding placing a bed north and south), and therefore he writes that it applies only when taking care of one's affairs is not necessary. Now even if we accept the Arukh Ha-shulchan's novel position that engaging in one's own affairs falls under the prohibition of "You have cast Me behind your back," there is room to be lenient after one has accepted upon himself the yoke of God's kingdom with Keri'at Shema. This distinction is based on the Bei'ur Halakha (89:3 s.v. ve-lo le-ekhol), who writes that there is a practical difference as to whether the prohibition of eating before one prays is based on a problem of arrogance (putting one’s own needs before God’s) and the reason of "You shall not eat anything over the blood" (Vayikra 19:26, cited in Berakhot 10b as a source for the prohibition to eat before praying – “Do not eat before you have prayed for your blood”). He explains that in a case where a person has accepted upon himself the yoke of God's kingdom in Keri'at Shema there is no problem of arrogance, though one has not yet “prayed for one’s blood,” and this latter reason applies. See also the Rema's comment there (89:3):
There are those who are lenient after saying some of the blessings before saying Barukh She-amar, though it is good to be stringent.
The source for this ruling that is cited there is the Terumat Ha-deshen (no. 18). When one examines the Terumat Ha-deshen, however, we see that he clearly forbids this practice, only that he concludes by saying that he has seen those who act in this manner, but it is against talmudic law. Based on this the Arukh Ha-shulchan writes that it is not clear who are the lenient authorities alluded to by the Rema, or why the Rema writes that "it is good to be stringent," implying that this is merely a stringency, when this is required by the letter of the law, and thus he rules stringently, against the Rema. The Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav also rejects this comment of the Rema. However, one who examines the complete Darkhei Moshe (Furth printing) that has now been reprinted, rather than the abridged version found in the published editions of the Tur, will see that his words are not based on the Terumat Ha-deshen, for after bring the Terumat Ha-deshen, he concludes:
From the words of the Orchot Chayyim cited earlier, it seems that one need not be so concerned.
The Rema is referring to the Orchot Chayyim's ruling cited in the previous paragraph regarding the prohibition to greet another person prior to one's prayers, where he writes:
But if he started to recite the blessings, since he has accepted upon himself the yoke of God's kingdom with the blessings, one need not be so concerned.
In conclusion, it seems to me that with respect to activities regarding which there is no concern that they will drag on and which do not involve excessive effort, there is room to be lenient in a time of need, if a person has already recited the morning blessings, and all the more so if he has also recited Keri'at Shema.
(Translated by David Strauss)