Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Turbulent Ma'ariv

On last week's NBN aliyah flight, I organized a small minyan for ma'ariv. We got permission from the flight attendant to take over one of their stations/corridors so we would disturb as few passengers as possible. Just as we finished the blessings after Shema (right before kaddish and Shemoneh Esreh, there was an announcement that everyone had to sit in their seats because of turbulence and a flight attendant came over and told us that we all have to sit down because of "piku'ach nefesh -- life-threatening danger (I'll bet El Al wisely teaches that phrase to every flight attendant). That left us with a dilemma about what to do next. As the person who organized the service, I foolishly took charge and, after making a quick calculation, told everyone to go back to their seats, wait for the "fasten your seat belt" sign to be taken down, and then all return to the same place to pray.

Click here to read moreI think it was Jameel who later said that we could have either all returned to our seats and prayed there or waited, as I suggested. After further thought and discussion, I think the question boils down to the following, which is essentially what I thought at the time: Which concept takes priority -- connecting the final blessing of Shema with the Shemoneh Esreh or praying with a minyan?

I think that a precedent can be found in the much-discussed issue of the common practice in medieval France of praying ma'ariv before dusk, when it is already the time for prayer but not yet the time for Shema. In this case, there are three concepts that compete for priority: 1) Praying with a minyan, 2) Connecting Shema with its blessings, and 3) Connecting the final blessing of Shema with the Shemoneh Esreh. When the the local minyan prays ma'ariv early, one of these three concepts has to yield.

There are essentially four approaches of dealing with this situation:

  1. You can really say Shema early also so there is no problem (generally rejected)
  2. Concept 2 loses so recite the entire service with the minyan and then repeat Shema on its own later (Talmidei Rabbenu Yonah, Berakhos 1a sv ela).
  3. Concept 3 loses so do not recite the Shema's blessings with the minyan and just say Shema and Shemoneh Esreh, and then later repeat Shema and its blessings (R. Hai Gaon, quoted in Talmidei Rabbenu Yonah, Berakhos 1b sv ve-rabenu).
  4. Concept 1 loses so don't even go to the minyan and pray by yourself later (Vilna Gaon, Ma'aseh Rav no. 65)
The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 275:1) rules according to the second approach but many follow the third. Piskei Teshuvos (275:3) quotes the Chafetz Chaim's son's biography of his father as saying that the Chafetz Chaim would follow the third. R. Hershel Schachter does as well.

I was thinking that the situation we faced on the airplane was a subset of the above case. We had only two of those three concepts competing for priority: Prayer with a minyan and connecting the final blessing of Shema with the Shemoneh Esreh. It would seem that according to R. Hai Gaon (the third approach above), we should have waited and prayed together because praying with a minyan takes precedence over connecting the final blessing of Shema with the Shemoneh Esreh. According to the Vilna Gaon (the fourth approach above), we should have returned to our seats and prayed individually because connecting the final blessing of Shema with the Shemoneh Esreh takes precedence over praying with a minyan. Since in my estimation the view of R. Hai Gaon is more normative than that of the Vilna Gaon, we should have waited and then prayed together -- which is what we did.

When I later discussed this with R. Ari Enkin, he questioned whether praying in our seats at the same time is really praying without a minyan. Maybe it is considered praying with a minyan, in which case we should have definitely all returned to our seats and prayed then without waiting.

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