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Shabbat Parashat Vayeitzei |5770

Ask the Rabbi: Kriat Shema

Question: Regarding the machloket between the Magen Avraham (= MA) and the Gra on the times of the day, why are we lenient like the Gra in regard to questions of d’oryata (Torah-level laws) such as sof z’man Kri’at Shema (=szks)?

Answer: Before discussing the machloket between the Gra and the MA, let us see what is agreed upon. Daytime begins at alot hashachar (=alot), over an hour before sunrise (henetz hachama = netz); night and the new halachic day begin at tzeit hakochavim (=tzeit; when the stars come out) (Megilla 20b). In Talmudic times, daytime hours were counted from 1 to 12, as people determined the time by looking at the sun’s angle. In the middle of those 12 hours, the sun is directly above head (on the east-west axis) (Pesachim 11b), meaning there must be astronomical symmetry between the beginning and end points of the count. The gemara (Pesachim 94a) says that there are 4 mil (the time it takes to walk app. 4 kilometers) in between alot and netz and also between shkiat hachama (= shki’a - sunset) and tzeit.

The basic difference between the opinions is as follows. The MA (see 58:1; 233:2) starts and ends all calculation from the halachic bookends of day and night, alot and tzeit, which adds 4 mil on either end of sunrise-sunset. Therefore, szks (= the end of the 3rd hour of the day), is well before the sun is at 45 degrees above the horizon (1/4 of the time the sun is visible). The Gra calculates from sunrise to sunset, and therefore szks is at 45 degrees. It is indeed astronomically logical that people did not count the progress of the sun from or until a time when it was well beneath the horizon.

While each approach has advantages and disadvantages, it cannot be decided in a vacuum because the machloket is linked to an even more important one (see Am Mordechai, Berachot 2). Days (including Shabbat) lasts until sheki’a, enter a period of halachic doubt known as bein hashemashot, followed by definite night at tzeit (Shabbat 34a). We rule that bein hashemashot is 3/4 of a mil (appr. 15 minutes) long (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 261:2). Since daytime begins 4 mil before netz, there is a lack of symmetry (of 3 1/4 mil) between the beginning and end of daytime in relation to the appearance and disappearance of the sun. Rabbeinu Tam (Shabbat 35a) explains that “sheki’a” is not what we call sunset but is around an hour later, until which time it is still definitely day. (His idea of the sun finishing travelling the “thickness of the earth” fits an ancient astronomical conception but certainly not a modern one). Thus Shabbat does not begin or end until more than an hour after sunset. The Gra (OC 261) posits that sheki’a is the visible sunset and after around a quarter of an hour (in Talmudic latitudes) it is definite night. This machloket is linked to the aforementioned MA (who accepts Rabbeinu Tam) and Gra as follows. According to the MA, sunset, like sunrise, is not a halachic time. According to the Gra, tzeit cannot be a bookend, because it does not mirror alot hashachar and thus we use neitz and sheki’a.

Whose opinion is accepted? The gemara (Shabbat 35a) says that Shabbat is fully over by the time three medium stars are visible (without “light pollution”). Thus, the Gra’s argument that keeping Shabbat at least 72 minutes after sunset is “contradicted by our sight” is powerful. The Gra’s impact (as well as the Rambam and the Ba’al Hatanya) on the greater “Lithuanian” world, the difficulty (including scientific evidence) of Rabbeinu Tam’s approach, and the difficulty of finishing Shabbat so late in northern latitudes probably contributed to the fact that historically most communities accepted the Gra’s basic approach regarding the night. (See a variation in Igrot Moshe, OC I, 24.) This is despite the fact that the Shulchan Aruch (ibid.) and most Rishonim agree with Rabbeinu Tam (see sources in Yabia Omer II, OC 21).

Some people have decided to adopt the MA for szks, which is not so difficult; others keep Shabbat until late due to its severity (not all are aware of the linkage). All of these practices are legitimate.


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