Berachot begins by explaining that the earliest time one can recite sh’ma at night is tzeit ha’kochavim – nightfall. In some communities however, the difficulty in delaying Ma’ariv has forced the service to be scheduled close to Mincha before nightfall.1 Rashi asks, if so, how can we say sh’ma during Ma’ariv when we pray early? Rashi therefore concludes that the obligatory evening sh’ma is the sh’ma that people recite before they go to sleep. The Yerushalmi further supports this position explaining that people say the sh’ma during Ma’ariv so that they read sections from the Torah just prior to praying the sh’monah esrei.2
One may ask, if someone does not fulfil the mitzvah of kriyat sh’ma during an early Ma’ariv, how can they recite the berachot kriyat sh’ma? The Rashba (או"ח ס' א') explains that the berachot kriyat sh’ma are not like normal berachot connected to the performance of a mitzvah, rather they were instituted independently and placed in the siddur before and after the sh’ma.
Rabbeinu Tam argues however, that the sh’ma recited during Ma’ariv is the obligatory one. The Chachamim and R’ Yehuda argue about the latest time that one can pray Mincha. The Chachamim maintain that Mincha can be recited till sunset. R’ Yehuda on the other hand argues that the latest time is “plag ha’mincha” – 1.25 (relative) hours before nightfall. After that time, one can pray ma’ariv. Rabbeinu Tam explains that praying ma’ariv before nightfall means that people rely on the opinion of R’ Yehuda and since they consider it night for ma’ariv, it is consider night for sh’ma as well.
The Rosh however argues the ma’ariv and sh’ma are based on two different ideas. He explains that the tefillot were instituted to match the times when the korbanot were offered. One prays shacharit during the same period of time as the daily morning sacrifice was offered; Mincha when the afternoon daily sacrifice was offered, and Ma’ariv during the time when the different sacrificial parts were allowed to burn. The time for reciting sh’ma however is based on "ובשכבך ובקומך" – the times when people wake up and go to sleep. Therefore the appropriate time for ma’ariv and sh’ma must be dealt with separately.3
The Shulchan Aruch therefore rules that if the tzibur prays ma’ariv before nightfall, one should recite the sh’ma with the berachot and pray with the minyan. After nightfall however, one should ensure that they recite the three chapters of sh’ma again with the intention of fulfilling the mitzvah of kriyat sh’ma. The Mishnah B’rurah adds, in such a case one should not rely on reciting sh’ma before going to sleep even if they generally recite all three chapters since one ordinarily does not intend to fulfill the mitzvah at that time.
1: See the Orach HaShulchan (235) for an alternative explanation of the origin of this custom.
2: See the Ba’alei Tosfot (ברכות ב. ד"ה מאימתי) a number of questions raised against this opinion.
3: See the Ba’alei Tosfot (שם) for another explanation about how one can fulfill the mitzvah of kriyat sh’ma before nightfall.
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