What Time Should the Early Minyan Begin on Monday? Recognizing mi-sheyakir: Science, Technology, and Sociology

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Yaakov Jaffe

This short essay attempts to discuss a growing disconnect, largely unfelt and unrealized by many American Jews, between current practice and rabbinic guidance as to when to begin the morning prayers. Though halakhic disconnect is common, most practitioners are at least aware of the compromises they make and costs they incur in conventional cases by rejecting rabbinic guidance.

Yet, when it comes to the earliest time to begin prayers, few modern Jews are even aware of the tradeoffs and factors connected to their halakhic decision making. The disconnect is even more acute when it comes to the timing of the earliest prayers because the change is not the slow redefinition of practice over a long, extended period of social change, but rather a swift shift even when considered within the narrow time range of the last century and a half.

Monday, December 18, 2017, is a noteworthy day for many reasons. It carries with it the twin special distinction of being both Rosh Hodesh—the celebration of the new month—and also Hanukkah. Occurring in late-December, the day also contains very few daylight hours: sunrise is at around 7:15 a.m. in New York City, slightly earlier (7:08 a.m.) in Boston where I reside, and even later in places further west in the time-zone like Cleveland (7:48 a.m.).[1]

The confluence of these many factors will pose an annual problem for congregational rabbis and lay leaders: determining how early these longer morning prayers can begin on the date in question, without them beginning too early.

Though, in theory, many parts of the morning prayers can be recited in early morning (in cases of need, as early as dawn), the ideal scenario is to begin the prayers only after the time when the ambient light outside is sufficiently bright to recognize another human being, known as mi-sheyakir.[2] This is the result of three linked rules:

  1. Talit and tefillin should be donned after the time of mi-sheyakir.[3]
  2. Morning prayers should ideally be recited while wearing talit and tefillin.
  3. Therefore, to ensure they are worn during prayers, morning prayers must begin after the earliest time to wear talit and tefillin, realistically a full five minutes afterward, in order to provide time to lay the talit and tefillin with their blessings, collect one’s thoughts, and then begin prayer.

The Talmud never states the exact time when one can tell the difference between colors or recognize a friend, and one imagines that for much of our nation’s history, this time was determined on an ad hoc basis by Jews living in different places and different times. Writing in the early nineteenth century, about his high-latitude hometown of Danzig, Tiferet Yisrael (concluding comments to the first chapter of Berachot) intuits that the time would be different based on his location and time of year, although he still fails to conclude exactly when it is and how it is computed. This area of Jewish Law remained underdeveloped for centuries, largely judged by each community on the basis of their own determination and sensation, and not codified and formalized in books of Jewish Law.

In modern times, however, Jews have a more acute need to define and establish when this time is reached using more exact formulae. After all, with street lamps and home lighting spilling into the street, it is hard for most Jews to assess when this natural time is reached on their own. And besides, few would be comfortable determining when their friend is “recognized” sufficiently to allow for the donning of talit and tefillin.

This essay will briefly sketch the sources in the Talmud and modern responsa literature about establishing a time for mi-sheyakir, and then examine which views are espoused by the rank-and-file in the twenty-first century.

I will show how American Jews generally follow a more lenient view on this question, despite many authorities who have ruled more stringently. This essay will also briefly offer three avenues of interpretation for the development of the prevalent practice on our question: advancements in science, new creations of technology, and new communal pressures that may have been felt less acutely in past generations.

Mi-sheyakir: The Talmudic Discussions

The Talmud never explicitly establishes an earliest time for the wearing of talit and tzitzit, but Rambam (Laws of Tzitzit 3:8), and Shulhan Arukh (18:3) deduce from the Talmud that the earliest time to recite the morning blessing on tzitzit is mi-sheyakir. This ruling is based on the Talmud’s statement in Menahot 43b that links the entire mitzvah of tzitzit with being able to recognize the difference in the two colors of the tzitzit.

Most today accept that talit and tzitzit are worn only after mi-sheyakir (see Hayei Adam 11:3, Mishnah Berurah and Biur Ha-gra to 18:3), even though Rama (loc. cit.) and others (Arukh Ha-Shulkhan 18:9, Rashi on Menahot 43b, Mordekhai in Megillah no. 801) challenge this ruling. Furthermore, given that this time constraint derives from scriptural derivation of this law, it is possible that being able to see colors is a Biblical condition for the mitzvah of wearing a talit. One would therefore imagine Jews would embrace the stringent views on the question of the earliest time for the blessing on the talit, given that the risks of excessive leniency include non-performance of a Biblical law.

The Talmud’s ruling about tefillin carries less debate: the earliest time to don tefillin (Berachot 9b) is when one is able to recognize a friend—according to the Tosafists, a “middle level” friend—six feet away. This ruling is accepted by Rambam (Laws of Tefillin 4:10) and Shulhan Arukh (30:1). While Arukh Ha-Shulkhan (loc. cit.) understands this requirement as being essential to the core—possibly Biblical—nature of the mitzvah, others (see Mishnah Berurah and Levush) argue that this condition, though vital, is only rabbinic. It is clear, in any event, that no blessing should be recited on the tefillin before this time (Shitah Mekubetzet on Menahot 36b).

Quantifying the Earliest Time for the Blessings on Talit and Tefillin

Few early sources quantify the time of mi-sheyakir with clear, measurable criteria. The ones that do confess their limitations in establishing these times clearly and thus tend towards stringent views. Kaf Ha-Hayyim (Orah Hayyim 18:18) notes that the custom in Jerusalem was to always consider mi-sheyakir to have taken place 60 minutes before sunrise, despite being aware that the time for a certain level of light shifts from day to day and season to season.

Rather than quantifying the exact moment in time or conditions in the environment that constitute mi-sheyakir, the custom was to adopt a set time as a rule of thumb, and use that as an added stringency, even if sometimes the light was sufficient earlier in the morning. Rabbi Yehiel Mikhel Tucazinsky (Sefer Eretz Yizrael v. 1, 18-19) adopts this view as well, saying “These times are not clear to us, and therefore they made the custom of one hour.” Yet, in contrast, Rabbi Shmuel Uminer quotes three different customs within the old Yishuv in Jerusalem—being 40, 52, or 60 minutes before sunrise, and ultimately concludes that the custom was to be stringent and insist on a narrower time frame, beginning prayer at the earliest only 52 minutes before sunrise.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein addressed the question in the 1970s, when various Arab embargos caused a shift in daylight savings time (Orah Hayyim 4:6) and concludes that based on his own inspections, the time in New York City (and in his analysis for Jerusalem as well) for mi-sheyakir was 35-40 minutes before sunrise. Rabbi Hershel Schachter adopts this view as well in his pamphlet on the laws of Shavuot entitled Reishit Bikkurim. This view is also found on the website of the Orthodox Union, explaining “when to pray,” but is ironically not followed by the website’s own calculator for halakhic times.

The mostly widely used American “Luach” of synagogue customs and times, the Ezras Torah Luach, follows the view of Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, that the time when one can recognize colors in New York City is “approximately” one hour before sunrise. The Luach does not explain the position, although Rabbi Henkin later did so in a responsum (1:3). According to Rabbi Henkin, the time of one hour was something he had established both through his own experience, and also through a textual proof from his text of Rambam’s Laws of Shema (1:11).[4]

In the end of this responsum, Rabbi Henkin demurs, however, and writes that it may be that the mi-sheyakir time is later (perhaps only 45 or 50 minutes before sunrise), but prayers can still begin an hour before sunrise, since the recitation of Shema with talit and tefillin comes a few minutes after the start of prayers and would be reached at the later, true mi-sheyakir.

Though Rabbi Henkin never defines exactly what his criteria for light-levels were, the best way to state his position is that mi-sheyakir is measured by when the sun is roughly 10.2 degrees beneath the horizon, a time that is approximately an hour before sunrise but varies, running from 50 to 63 minutes before sunrise in New York City over the course of a year, depending on the exact day. This roughly converts the time of Rabbi Shmuel Uminer for Jerusalem to the higher latitude of New York City.

To summarize, it is hard to find any position that openly permits the wearing of talit and tefillin any earlier than an hour before sunrise. True, most authorities might note that on certain days of the year it might be earlier, but as a need to establish a rule of thumb, 60 minutes was generally considered the upper bound of a reasonable cut off. Even then, there are many authorities who feel like an hour is too early in many times and places.

Current Practice

Turning to our date in question, December 18, 2017, in the New York area, one wishing to follow the views of Rabbi Feinstein and Rabbi Schachter would need to lay tefillin and begin morning prayers 35-40 minutes before sunrise, at or around 6:35 a.m. Following Rabbi Henkin and the Ezras Torah Luach, one would need to begin a maximum of 60 minutes before sunrise, or 6:15 a.m (but preferable 6:20 or 6:25am). If prayers were to begin at 6 a.m., the congregation may have already removed tefillin by 6:35 a.m., and thus would have not even worn tefillin for one moment in the appropriate time, within the stringent view of Rabbi Feinstein.

In order to measure the current practice, I inspected the online minyan calendars for all the Orthodox congregations in a single representative zip code in the New York metropolitan area, for December 2017. This zip code has more than a dozen congregations, and so inspecting their calendars enables a survey of more than just one or two congregations. Not all of the dozen congregations had daily minyanim on the Monday in question. Still, only two of them planned to begin prayers in accordance with these authorities (at 6:20 a.m. or 6:25 a.m.).

The majority of the synagogues with early prayer services clearly were working with an entirely different system, and many of them began services at a time that might seem too early for most authorities surveyed above. Four congregations come just short of following Rabbi Henkin’s 60 minute view (or an equivalent), as they treated 6:15 a.m. as the time of mi-sheyakir, but then begin services 5 minutes earlier than his cut off and against his guidance, ostensibly pausing in the middle of services to lay talit and tefillin but not laying them before beginning. These congregations essentially followed the 60 minute computation that appears in the luach, but ignore the insistence on a 10-15 minute buffer-time between the one-hour-mark for the start of prayers and Shema that appears in the responsum. Two other congregations began at even earlier times: 5:45 a.m. or 6 a.m., which would be more lenient than all of the views we have seen thus far. Only one congregation was transparent in its insistence to first begin prayers after the time of talit and tefillin, but used an earlier time for mi-sheyakir (6:13 a.m), to enable their starting time (6:15am).

Reasons for a Change: Science

In a recent article, William Gewirtz suggests that advances in science might be the cause of changes in positions for mi-sheyakir. A good portion of the stringency among many of the earlier authorities was attributed to a desire to hedge against improper measurement, or confusion between different days of the calendar. Consequently, earlier authorities leaned towards stringency, in an effort to make sure that despite everything that could go wrong with the subjective measuring of ambient light—the Jew would always be in the correct time and place for prayer.

Yet, in time, improvements in science would allow for greater precision in measuring the standards for necessary light, which had always remained the same. This allows Jews to be more exact and thereby ignore the now unnecessary hedges and stringencies that had led some to develop a later time for mi-sheyakir. In other words, Rabbi Henkin may have felt the need to be stringent and state a rule which allowed him to hedge for times of year when the sky becomes lit later. But with better science today, the times are measured more precisely, and there is no need for a protective strigency for other days of the year when light comes later.

Thus, the synagogues in our sample are likely of the view that talit and tefillin can be worn beginning from when the sun is 11.5 degrees below the horizon—often considered the conversion of Kaf Ha-Hayyim – admittedly, one of the Israeli authorities and not an American one – for the Northeastern United States. Superior science allows them to compute this time exactly and definitively as 6:15 a.m. on December 18, 2017. Earlier authorities had to rely on inferior measurement, leading to stringency or the flat-cutoff of one hour; but today’s rabbinic leaders do not. It is not that modern communities are embracing leniency, so much as they are embracing precision. There is no need for modern communities to embrace earlier stringencies, and communities today have the options to begin prayers earlier.

Reasons for a Change: Technology

It strikes me, however, that new technologies—specifically, twenty-first century technologies—have had a greater effect on the establishment of the time for mi-sheyakir. In this view, the trend towards leniency is less the result of scientific precision, and more the result of the effect of technology becoming the new source for halakhic guidance, in place of tradition, old books, and old responsa.

Someone today wishing to determine the time for talit and tefillin, using traditional methods, would begin with Shulhan Arukh’s subjective or imprecise vague formulation, and likely eventually find their way to the stringent view of Rabbis Feinstein and Schachter and conclude likewise to begin services closer to 6:30 a.m. Perhaps in the late 1980s, they would follow the careful formulation of The Complete ArtScroll Siddur and ensure that “Since these times vary, competent authorities should be consulted on the exact time for each place and season” (page 979 in Ashkenaz edition), or follow Rabbi Henkin’s Luach and make sure to don the tefillin at one hour before sunrise (6:15 a.m.), and begin services shortly afterward (6:20 a.m.).

Yet, in 2017 virtually anyone wishing to determine these halakhic times would take a new shortcut, and use an online app or website which would provide the halakhic times for them. Much like in the world of news and politics, the Internet is the new gatekeeper and pseudo-arbiter of fact from fiction in the world of halakhah, as well. The internet seemingly legitimizes positions found easily on the internet, while undermining the ones that are hard to find therein.

This is the case in regard to halakhic times for davening more than any other halakhic issue. Whereas normally, a questioner might rely on memory or the last time a question was asked, in this case each query is resolved on its own sui generis and must be re-asked each time a new scenario arises. Yet, since the question rarely involves halakhic nuance and mostly involves practical computation, Jews are less likely to consult Rabbinic authorities each time, and will instead use a technological shortcut.

Many of the congregations that I consulted had website with widgets for halakhic times, and had not computed their own halakhic times by hand. Similarly, boasts its being a resource for halakhic times for “over thousands of communities.” But the average Jew consulting these websites is not exposed to the various opinions and stringencies, the names and status of the authorities, and the costs and benefits. Instead, these websites often present a smorgasbord of options for the earliest time for talit (6:13 a.m., 6:15 a.m., 6:20 a.m), and a choice is made by the user without that halakhic context.

The phenomenon here may also relate to “price anchoring” in the sphere of economics, which has demonstrated that people determine the “correct” price by comparing to what we are presented in context, and not by considering the essential factors. Human psychology demonstrates that people’s choices are made based on the options they are offered relative to each other, and so the presentation often prejudges the conclusion. Thus, if the websites and apps had offered a different array of possibilities for mi-sheyakir (e.g., 6:15 a.m., 6:20 a.m., 6:35 a.m), the consumer would likely have have chosen a later time, and would have been resigned to starting prayers a little later and finishing them a little later.

However, this interpretation is only one piece of the puzzle. Though many of the apps and zmanim widgets may differ, and still set the default time on their homepage for talit and tefillin at 6:20 a.m. So, I might offer a third factor to explain why major websites and major poskim all would set a later time, but an entire community of synagogues would fully embrace an earlier one.

Reasons for a Change: Sociology

There may be another factor in the tendency towards leniency: sociology. As the years go by, daily commuting time for New Yorkers working in New York City gets longer and longer with further traffic. Some Jewish workers might sit through the automotive logjam, and others might try to drive earlier to avoid it. Still others might spend longer on public transportation, but it is unavoidable for a Jew driving in and out of the city one way or another. As a result, many New York-area congregations build the times for their prayers backward, in order to ensure an ending time of 7 a.m. This enables prayer-goers to begin their commute or catch a train on time, and may provide the pressure to be lenient about the earliest time to worship.

In an earlier era, with more Jews living in New York City proper, and with less vehicular traffic throughout the region, shuls may have been comfortable being more stringent about the times for prayer. But today, they may feel that the counter pressures are far too great, and so necessity becomes the reason for adopting a lenient view about the earliest times for prayer.

This, then, is the dilemma. True, communal prayer is obviously a key aspect to Jewish living, but risking the recitation of three blessings in vain by donning talit and tefillin very early at the onset of each day may constitute a halakhic cost that is greater than benefit. Perhaps, instead, Jews should commute first and pray privately in their offices afterward, or get into the custom of donning talit and tefillin for Minhah and not at the early Shaharit. Maybe prayers should begin later and end later, and those with early commutes should be encouraged to leave davening early, or to forgo their morning coffee stop. Or perhaps, the sacrifices made around davening times is itself a factor to consider when determining where to live, prompting increased settling in places like Boston, where the skies light at an earlier hour enabling earlier prayers.

Some of these changes would obviously be drastic shifts in the current assumptions about which values the community is prepared to compromise on and which are non-negotiable. But Jewish living is often about the balancing of different values, and one wonders whether all Jews have thought through how they strike this balance, and the costs they pay as a result of the choices where to live and when to pray. Jewish communal leaders may need to explain more transparently the circumstances under which talit and tefillin should be worn early, by whom and when, and empower people to make their own choices, instead of having technology or traffic schedules make choices for them.

[1] Sunrise gets as late as 7:20 a.m. in early-January in New York City before turning earlier. In actuality, the latest sunrise of the year is usually in early November, just before the changing of the clocks, when sunrise can get as late as 7:30 a.m. in New York City. Sunrise in Boston is never later than 7:14 a.m. in the winter, and around 7:20 a.m. in late November.

[2] We assume that one can recognize a friend and distinguish colors at the same time in morning, see Mishnah Berurah 18:9.

[3] Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Orah Hayyim 1:10) does discuss scenarios in which this is impossible and when this rule must be waived. Still, even if certain individuals may at times don their tefillin early, it is rare for an entire congregation to be in a position to waive this requirement. Also, even if the rule might be waived for the donning of the tefillin, the Shema still needs to be recited each day after mi-sheyakir under all circumstances.

[4] The authoritative text of the Rambam does neutralize this proof however, as the time measurement of one hour does not appear in that halakhah at all.