In the first Mishnah we learn about the time period in which the evening Shema is recited. While everyone agrees that the starting time is nightfall, a debate ensues regarding that latest time one can recite Shema. R’ Eliezer maintains that it must be recited within the first third of the night, the Chachamim argue that the limit is midnight while Rabban Gamliel maintains that one has until dawn. We learn however, that the Chachamim really agree with Rabban Gamliel and one could recite the Shema the entire night. Nevertheless, the Chachamim ruled that lechatchila (ideally) one should recite the Shema before midnight “in order to distance one from sin.” How do understand this concern and what else is encompassed by their decree?
The Gemara (Brachot 4b) citing a Beraita elaborates:
The Chachamim made a seyag (fence) for their words, in order that a person should not return from the field in the evening and say: I will go to my house and eat a little, drink a little and sleep a little and afterwards I will recite Shema and pray; a deep sleep will then take hold of him, and the result will be that he will sleep the entire night. Rather when a person comes from the field in the evening, he should enter shul, and if he can read pesukim he should read pesukim, if he can learn Mishnah he should learn Mishnah, and he recites Shema and prays and eats his bread and benches...
At first the Beraita appears to be elaborating on the Chachamim’s concern that one will miss reciting the evening Shema.The Tosfot however explain that we also learn from this Beraita that once the time for reciting the evening Shema has arrived, it is forbidden for one to eat a meal prior to reciting Shema and praying ma’ariv. The Rashba extends this prohibition further to other activities that are prohibited close to mincha gedolah prior to praying mincha, e.g. having a hair cut (see Shabbat 1:2). The Rambam(Tefillah 6:7) however explicitly restricts this prohibition to eating and drinking, while the prohibition regarding the other activities as only applying to mincha time. The Aruch HaShulchan explains that since the time to recite the evening Shema is longer than the time to pray mincha there was no concern that one would become preoccupied and miss davening. Instead here their concern was that one might fall asleep. Consequently eating and drinking that can draw one into slumber were prohibited until one recited Shema and davened.
How much eating is prohibited? A quick review of the Beraita seems to suggest that the even eating “a little” is prohibited. Nevertheless the Tosfot explicated stated that a meal is prohibited?
The Tosfot R’ Akiva Eiger understands the even a small amount of food is prohibited and believe the Tosfot agree (while not being particular with their choice of words). He explains that if the Tosfot wanted to derive that having a meal was prohibited, they could have learnt it from an explicit Mishnah (Shabbat 1:2) where we learn that one must stop his meal to recite Shema. The fact that they opt for this Beraita means it is teaching us something else, i.e. even a small amount is prohibited. (See inside for further proofs.)
The Tifferet Yisrael (Boaz 1) argues that the Tosfot should be understood as it is written – only a meal is prohibited. He explains the Tosfot chose the Beraita to learn this law instead of the Mishnah in Shabbat because it teaches us something new. The Tifferet Yisrael notes that at first the Tosfot seems to be restating Beraita – a meal prior to Shema is forbidden. The Tifferet Yisrael suggests that a more careful reading reveals that the Tosfot understand that it is forbidden to eat a meal a half an hour prior to the time one must read Shema - “from the time that the time to read Shema approaches”. Furthermore the directive of the Beraita that one should return from work, learn and then recite Shema implies that prohibition applies even prior to the time to recite Shema. (See inside for further proofs.)
If only a meal is prohibited then how do we understand the plain meaning of the Beraita that appears to be concerned with eating “a little”? The Aruch HaShulchan explains that one cannot derive anything from the first part of the Beraita as it illustrates the way people speak. People have a tendency to say they only eat and drink a bit and a have a little nap – all three together. Nevertheless the Chachamim were concerned that when people returned they would eat more. Furthermore the end of the Beraita provides further proof that only a meal is prohibited. The instruction that one should “recite Shema, pray and eat bread (pat)” implies that the concern is only really with a fix meal and not a snack, because that is to what the language of pat generally refers.
* As always no practical Halacha should be derived from these articles. Consult your local rabbinic authority should any questions arise.
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