MISHNAH: One may not sit before a barber close to the time of Minchah until he has prayed, and may not enter a bathhouse or a tannery nor begin to eat nor begin to judge a case [close to the time of Minchah]. But if one began [any of these activities], one does not need to stop. One stops for the recitation of the Shema, but not to pray.
GEMARA: What does “close to the time of Minchah” mean? If minchah gedolah is intended, why [are these activities] not [permitted]? For there is plenty of time left in the day [for both the activity and prayer]. Rather, close to minchah katana [must be the Mishnah’s intent]. If one began [an activity] one does not have to stop. Shall we say this is a refutation of R. Yehoshua b. Levi, for R. Yehoshua b. Levi said, “Once the time has arrived for Minchah prayers, it is forbidden for a person to taste anything before reciting the Minchah prayers.” No. [Mishnah means] close to minchah gedolah and the haircut of Ben Elashah. “One may not enter a bathhouse” [refers to] the entire process of bathing. “One may not enter a tannery” refers to a large tannery. “One may not begin to eat” [refers to] a large meal. “One may not judge a case” [refers to] the beginning of the case.
Time is a precious commodity that forces us to set priorities. Time management was as crucial in the ancient world as it is today, and no less challenging. Deadlines abounded then as now: the natural world provided deadlines for planting and harvesting, sundown established a deadline for accomplishing daily chores, and the rabbinic obligation of prayer imposed yet another set of deadlines. Minchah, the afternoon prayers, while briefer than either morning or evening prayers, must nonetheless be recited within a specific interval of time. This interval is determined by three factors: (1) Torah; (2) the practices of the priests in the Second Temple; and (3) the Rabbis’ understanding of the phrase bein ha-arba’im (twilight).
The Minchah prayers recalls and replaces the daily Minchah grain offering that accompanied the afternoon sacrifice in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the Mikdash (Temple). Torah tells us the Minchah was offered at twilight, bein ha-arba’im (Exodus 29:39-41 and Numbers 28:4–8). In general, when the Rabbis speak about time, they divide the daylight portion of a 24-hour day into 12 segments, each called an “hour.” Hence the length of an “hour” is not fixed; a rabbinic “hour” is 1/12 of the period of daylight on any given day. “Noon” or “midday,” when the sun is at its zenith, is the sixth hour. In a world without precise time-keeping technology, this system made sense.
The time interval of bein ha-arba’im—literally “between the darkenings”—has come to be defined as one half hour past midday, which is the sixth hour (to insure that it is after midday, when the day has begun to “darken”), until sundown, when the sky begins to darken into night. This expansive interval, from 6-1/2 hours to 12 hours is known as Minchah Gedolah (“large minchah”). However, when the Temple stood, the Minchah offering was routinely completed at 9-1/2 hours (i.e., 3-1/2 hours after midday). This shorter interval, from 9-1/2 hours until sundown, is called Minchah Katana (“small minchah”). Clearly, Minchah Gedolah is a significantly larger expanse of time than Minchah Ketana.
While Shacharit (the morning prayers) can be said before heading out to work and Ma’ariv (evening prayers) recited after dark at the end of the workday, Minchah is said in the middle of the workday, when one’s mind and energy is occupied with many things, then as now. The Mishnah teaches us to plan our time in advance in order to prioritize the Minchah prayers. Activities that might occupy the bulk of the afternoon should not be initiated close to the time of Minchah, because one could become distracted, lose track of time, and miss the interval for praying Minchah. Two questions immediate arise: Isn’t the interval from 6-1/2 hours until sundown sufficient time to complete the activities mentioned and yet pray Minchah? Not all of these activities sound like they take much time—why, then, is Mishnah concerned about them? The Mishnah understands that people are forgetful and may not plan ahead. If someone enters into one of these activities, and subsequently realizes there is insufficient time for Minchah, they must stop temporarily to recite Shema, but can forego the other prayers of the Minchah service.
The Gemara seeks to resolve the questions raised above. First, it determines that the Mishnah speaks of Minchah Ketana, since it assumes Minchah Gedolah leaves plenty of time for both afternoon activities and prayer. Next, the Gemara explores an apparent contradiction between the Mishnah, which says that if one has begun to eat, one may finish the meal, and R. Yehoshua b. Levi, who said that even if one has begun a meal, when the time for Minchah arrives, one must stop and recite the prayers. The Gemara resolves the seeming conflict by saying Mishnah intends Minchah Gedolah and R. Yehoshua means Minchah Ketana. Another voice objects: No, Mishnah is talking about Minchah Gedolah and while normally a haircut is not a lengthy affair, it has in mind Ben Elashah the son of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi who, according to Nedarim 51a and Sanhedrin 22b, went for extraordinarily elaborate haircuts that took an entire afternoon. Concerning the other activities stipulated, Mishnah intends to tell us not to enter into lengthy versions of them if they will interfere with our ability to say Minchah prayers at the proper time.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- The Rabbis want us to plan our day starting with the important temporal fixture: prayer. How do you plan your day? Do you set aside time for prayer or meditation?
- Hillel taught: “Do not say: When I have time, I will study—because you may never have the time.” Shammai advised: “Make your Torah [study time] fixed.” What do you make fixed and immutable in your schedule?
- What can you do to make sure you stop at the appointed time, especially if you do not know how long something will take?