Issues in Tfillas Maariv

 

A critical look at the Ma’ariv service on Friday night reveals a number of questions and problems that we tend to overlook, simply because we take the form and language of the prayer service for granted.  Among my questions are the following:

 

(1)               Why do we say “Shomer Amo Yisrael La’ad” at the end of Hashkivenu during the week and change the ending to “HaPores Sukkas Shalom Alenu v’Al Kol Amo Yisrael v’Al Yerushalaim” on Friday night?  There does not appear to be anything about “Shomer Amo Yisrael” that would be inappropriate for Shabbos.  Conversely, there is nothing about “Hapores” that is unique to Shabbos that should prevent us from using that ending all week long.

(2)               On Friday, we do not say the psukim of “Baruch HaShem BaYom.”  Why would these be left out?  There are two standard answers for the original insertion.  Either to permit latecomers to become organized so that everyone could leave together; this would not apply on Friday night, because everyone made a point of being in shul on time.  The second explanation is that these psukim provide a mechanism for people who were unable to say the Shmoneh Esrei to fulfill the obligation of the evening prayer.  After all, there are 18 verses in the section and God’s name is mentioned 18 times.  This second view would say that these correlations are evidence that the prayer is supposed to be a mini-Shmoneh Esrei.

Both of these reasons appear problematic.  First, if the reason for inserting the prayer is to let latecomers who were busy working catch up, there should be no need to say the psukim on Saturday night – no one has been at work, no one has any reason not to be at shul on time, as opposed to during the week.  I would suggest that the counter-argument of lo plug fails since we certainly have psukim that we add into the Saturday night Ma’ariv that we never say any other time.  (Interestingly, though, Sefer Minhag Yisrael Torah brings down the Maharam Schick who notes a custom not to say it on Saturday night.)

The arguments against the second reason are a bit stronger, in my view.  The most basic problem is that the Gemara itself gives us an abbreviated version of the Shmoneh Esrei.  If we were merely concerned about people fulfilling a requirement, why would we not use the Havinenu that the Gemara provides, rather than rely on a collection of psukim that is most certainly post-Talmudic?  The second problem is that we hold like Rav who says that Ma’ariv is not a requirement.  Third, even if we can come up with some explanation of why using the Talmudic formula might be inappropriate, at the very least we should have a collection of psukim that are somehow or other related to the shmoneh esrei that it is supposedly filling in for.

(3)               If we accept the second view that there is a connection between the psukim and the Shmoneh Esrei, it seems odd that the prayers Friday night that serve a similar purpose, to permit people to fulfill an obligation, would be structurally different from the weekday version and that the Friday night prayers are in a different position in the service.

(4)               Why do we not say Yiru Eineinu on Friday night?  It’s a nice prayer; there is nothing offensive about it.  Why do we simply ignore it?

 

 



 

To get to any answer for these questions, we need to reach back as far as we can to the earliest versions of these prayers.  By the end of the Talmudic period, as we know, there were independent Jewish communities in Israel and in Babylonia.  The Talmud of each location can provide us insight into the structure of prayer in each place.

 

The Jerusalem Talmud in Tractate Brachos (4, 5) provides us with the following piece of information about the standard text of prayers:  “In Birkas HaMazon, we say “Boneh Yerushlaim,” in Shmoneh Esrei we say “Elokay David U’Boneh Yerushalaim” and in Shema we say, “Pores sukkas shalom aleinu v’al amo Yisrael v’al yerushalaim.”  Apparently, in Israel the standard week round ending for Hashkiveinu was Pores.

 

Rav Natronai Gaon was asked a question about the structure of the Friday night prayers.  Included in his response is “…  This blessing (Yiru Eineinu) is not of paramount significance…as we learn “in the evening….two afterwards, such as Ga’al Yisrael and Shomer Amo Yisrael.  Since the Halacha follows Rav who says that Ma’ariv is not obligatory, the latter rabbis came and put together psukim of praise…and since they were saying psukim they decreed that a bracha should follow it.”

 

So far, we see that the standard formula for Hashkiveinu in Babylonia was “Shomer.”  What the connection is between non-obligatory prayer and the decree of the later Rabbis is obscure, although I want to propose a solution that might not completely answer the problems with this quotation, but which I think sheds some light on perhaps what was going on.

 

Besides this quotation, as I noted earlier, one of the explanations for the introduction of the prayer was to provide a means for people to fulfill their non-obligation of praying at night.  We know that in the 11th century, the Ashkenazic rabbis moved hagba from before the Torah reading to after because people thought that seeing the Torah scroll was more important than hearing the reading so by changing the timing of hagba they effectively kept people in shul during the Torah reading.  It is certainly the case that the relative level of education in Babylonia and possibly in Israel was higher than that in medieval Europe.  Therefore, people are not likely to start doing something out of misinformation, as did the Jews of Europe.  I suggest that people fully well understood that Ma’ariv was non-obligatory; they also would have known that Shema is obligatory.  Therefore, it is entirely possible that people came to daven the Shema and then leave.  The kaddish denoted the conclusion of the reading of the Shema and the Rabbis understood that people would not leave before that point.  Therefore, the insertion of psukim before that kaddish was in fact a surreptitious method of keeping people for some form of T’filla.  It follows then that the reason for not using any of the existing formulas for abridged prayer would be the same – if people saw that they were saying an existing form of t’filla, they would not feel compelled to say it, since they would have known that it was non-obligatory.  However, by couching a replacement in the manner that they did, people stayed, said the verses and the bracha and would then go home, and would have fulfilled a rabbinic mandate of evening prayer.

 

Continuing the quotation – “…this is during the week, but on Shabbos, because there are more Mazikin and Jews need to return to their homes before it gets dark because of the danger of seirim, or because people can’t carry a torch (for protection as they walk home), they withdrew the basic decree and left the prayer as “In the evening make two blessings before and two blessings after”.

 

We can now begin to understand the possibility of eliminating the fifth blessing altogether on Friday night.  The Rabbis had an interest in making sure that people got home as soon as they could, firstly, as noted in the quotation, because of dangers of walking in the dark at night, whether the dangers are spiritual, or probably more commonly, physical.  Additionally, other sources tell us that people often did not eat very much during the day on Friday and there was a desire to get people home so that they could eat a meal.

 

At this point, the author of the quotation begins his own comments.  He writes “…  [The custom in the yeshiva and the Rabbi’s house on Friday night] was to replace “Shomer” with “Hapores” and to proceed immediately to kaddish.  In the balance of the [Babylonian] synagogues they would say “Shomer Amo Yisrael La’ad,” then “v’shamru” and after that the blessing of yiru eineinu.  Based on this and on other sources, we can map out the practices in Babylonia as follows:

 

 

Yeshiva of Sura

Yeshiva Of Pumpeditha

Babylonia

Hashkiveinu

HaPores

Shomer…La’ad

Shomer…La’ad

Psukim

No

No

No

V’Shamru

No

No

Yes

Yiru Eineinu

No

No

Yes

 

In general, the practices of Sura tended to be closest to those of Israel and those of Babylonia the farthest removed.

 

As a side point, during the week, all 3 places concluded with “Shomer Amo Yisrael.”  It appears, though that La’ad was added on Friday night in Pumpeditha and Babylonia.  Perhaps this single word addition is an acknowledgement of Shabbos and our hope that there will be the eternal Shabbos promised.

 

The next step in the evolution of the prayer was taken by Rav Amram.  He attempted to build a compromise position among the three distinct practices by saying HaPores, v’shamru and Yiru Eineinu.  This is starting to resemble the formula that we have today, but still includes the fifth blessing.

 

Our next meaningful record of the formula of prayers according to Ashkenazim is in the 11th century.  In Worms, the final version of “HaPores” was introduced by R. Meir B’R Yitzchak who adopted the variant “Al KOL Amo Yisrael.”  The purpose of this change was to make it clear that the people offering the prayer were in fact part of “His nation of Israel” and not some other group, which was implied by the earlier language.

 

The other change that was made was dropping Yiru Eineinu.  There is no clear reason why this was done and it effectively put Ashkenaz into a category that fit neither any of the earlier practices nor the compromise of R’ Amram.  At this point, I would like to suggest that the early Chachmei Ashkenaz did not know what we know about the earlier versions of the prayer since they otherwise would not have adopted the odd middle position that we are in today.  Further, we can see throughout the 11th – 12th Century period that people like Rashi were trying to build explanations for the weekday/Friday night switch.

 

Rashi asserts that the reason for saying “Shomer” during the week and omitting Shmira on Shabbos is because there was more danger to people during the week than on Friday night and they therefore needed to pray for extra protection.  As part of our assertion of the extra protective nature of Shabbos, Rashi says that they introduced v’shamru.  The primary problem with this view is that it is the exact opposite of what R’ Natronai said.

 

Rabbeinu Gershom Ba’al HaMa’or came up with a similar explanation - that the notion of “layl shimurim” applies to both Shabbos and Yom Tov and therefore there was no need to pray for Shimrah on Shabbos.

 

Implicit in these two views is that the standard language should be that of Friday night, but that because of other dangers we “step up” our request during the week.  If in fact they are asserting that “HaPores” is the standard language, which would of course, put them within the opinion of the Jerusalem Talmud.  Regardless of our ability to associate minhag ashkenaz with minhag eretz Yisrael, it is quite clear that the understanding of the chachmei ashkenaz bore no resemblance to that of Babylonia.  It would appear to be a nusach tfilla that evolved precisely because of the lack of historical information that the Europeans were working with. 

 

At this point, we have developed enough information to address each of the questions at the start of this essay.

 

1)      We have explained the evolution of the practice of saying “shomer” during the week and “HaPores” on Friday night.

2)      I have suggested that the psukim of Baruch HaShem are in fact a replacement for the Shmoneh Esrei, but that fact that it was needed to be obscured in order to gain acceptance for the prayer.  Therefore, the Rabbis did not introduce any variant of Havineinu, since that was a well-known prayer.

3)      With respect to the placement of the psukim and of Bracha Me’eyn Sheva, it is clear that it was necessary to put the weekday psukim before the shmoneh esrei.  Additionally, the primary purpose of the Bracha Me’eyn Sheva is to serve as kiddush, which clearly one isn’t going to make before praying the evening prayer.  The role of the Bracha Me’eyn Sheva is more closely related to the issue of kiddush in shul.

4)      There does not appear to be any reason for dropping this blessing.  It remains unclear why it was dropped and whether the deletion was deliberate or another case of a copyist’s error as we see in other places.

 

Of course, none of this changes our nusach tfilla.  Perhaps we should have remained with the compromise of R’ Amram, but the vagaries of history were not going to let that happen.  Perhaps by understanding the original intent of R’ Amram and R’ Natronai, as well as the antithetical explanation of Rashi and the chachmei ashkenaz we can gain a better understanding of this part of our prayer service.