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Recent Questions:

Earliest Time for Morning Prayers (Shacharit)

I’ve noticed that our synagogue has morning services (Shacharit) quite early during the workweek, after which most of the congregants hurry off to work. During the winter months it is still dark outside for most of the services. Shouldn’t morning services be held when it is daytime already?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

What you describe is a fairly universal practice – very early morning services after which the congregants hurry off – trying their best to beat rush hour traffic. However, yes, there are a few issues in Jewish law of concern.

There are 3 relevant times when discussing the earliest times for morning prayers. I list them here together with the prayers which may be said at each time:

(a) Dawn – when the first light of day appears on the horizon. Most of the blessings and prayers at the beginning of morning services may be said at this time. This is roughly 90 minutes before sunrise (more on the precise times below).

(b) Partial light - when one can recognize an acquaintance standing 4 cubits (6-8 feet) away (Talmud Brachot 9b). This is the earliest time for reciting the Shema, the first blessing preceding the Shemah, and for donning Tallit and Tefillin (Shulchan Aruch 18:3, 30:1 & 58:1; see also Biur Halacha s.v. “b’lo brachot”). This is roughly 50 minutes before sunrise.

(c) Sunrise: This is the ideal time to recite the Shemona Esrei (Amidah), beginning it the moment of sunrise. It should preferably not be recited before this time. It is also permissible to recite Shema Esrei for the first 4 hours of the day (Shulchan Aruch 89:1).

Regarding the Shemona Esrei, there is one important exception. One who is about to embark on a journey (and in Talmudic times would have no choice but to take the outgoing caravan), may recite Shemona Esrei from dawn (Shulchan Aruch 89:8). Contemporary rabbis extend this to people who have need to commute to work early, even though they do so on a daily basis (see e.g. Igrot Moshe O.C. 4:6).

Putting all of this together, a synagogue may have early Shacharit services (beginning after dawn), but they must be mindful of a few things:

(a) People should not put on their Tallit or Tefillin or begin the blessings of the Shema until the time of “partial light.” Many congregations which want to start as early as possible will begin services before that time, and then right after Yishtabach (before the blessings of Shema) put on Tallit and Tefillin and continue. In other congregations, the congregants put on Tallit and Tefillin without a blessing at the start, and then after Yishtabach touch each of them and recite the appropriate blessings (Rema 18:3; Shulchan Aruch 30:3). (First touch the Tallit strings and recite a blessing on it, then touch the Tefillin boxes and recite the blessings on them.) I feel the first method is preferable since when following the second, people not familiar with the issues will put on their Tallit and Tefillin with the blessings too early.

(b) All of the above is not advisable for someone who does not have early work obligations. Someone who does not need to commute to work early but who just wants to get an early start on his day should really not attend services which recite Shemona Esrei before sunrise.

When exactly are all of these times? The best and most accurate resource for worldwide times is myzmanim.com.

Definition of a Jew

I am Jewish, but the other day someone asked me: “What is a Jew?” I was a bit shocked that I could not articulate a proper answer. So... what is a Jew?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

This answer has two aspects: Technically and philosophically.

Technically, Jewishness is passed on via the mother. If the mother is Jewish, the child is 100 percent Jewish. At the same time, if someone's father is Jewish (but not the mother), then the child is 100 percent not Jewish. Jewish identity passed on through the mother has been universally accepted by Jews for 3,000 years, and was decided by God. This is recorded in the Five Books of Moses in Deuteronomy 7:3-4. The Talmud (Kiddushin 68b) explains how this law is evident from those passages, and the Jewish people have collectively adhered to this law throughout the generations.

Philosophically, the Jewish legacy is called “Tikkun Olam” – literally “repairing the world.” In looking back at the first 3,000 years of Jewish history, we don't recall the names of any great entertainers or athletes or corporate executives. We recall the great teachers of the Jewish message: Moses, King David, Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon. That is the essential Jewish legacy. The message was engrained in our souls at Mount Sinai and it is the single defining characteristic of our people.

And the world needs that message now more than ever. Just look at the institution of marriage. In Western society, the rate of divorce is over 50 percent. That is a crisis of immense proportion. Family structure is crumbling, and dysfunction in relationships is at an all-time high. And it seems that nobody has a clue how to stem the tide.

Not so long ago, "morality" was a dirty word. It implied an imposition of conscience and a curtailment of personal freedom. But today, the leaders of Western society realize that morality is the key to human survival. The great civilizations of Greece and Rome fell due to moral decay. Now our globe is increasingly more complex, and to navigate the maze we need solid moral direction.

Today, the great universities – Columbia, Harvard, Hebrew University – are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop curriculum for teaching "morality" to primary and high school students. They're scouring centuries of philosophical texts to try to find an effective approach.

Yet the answer is right in front of our eyes! Our very own Torah contains time-tested tools for personal and communal success: How to give and how to receive... When to be strict and when to be compassionate... Individual rights versus communal responsibility... How to show appreciation and respect... When to lead and when to follow... Balancing family and career... The boundaries of modesty in actions and in dress... How to listen and converse effectively...

Torah methodology is universal – for Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, Israel and the Diaspora, left and right. The Torah is alive and relevant for today. And for the Jewish people, the ability to effectively communicate this message is our single most important undertaking.

Race or Religion?

I will be giving a speech on the topic of "Jews: Race or Religion?" My mother always taught me that it is a race. I want to get expert advice, so would you consider Judaism as a race or a religion? And what precisely is the basis of Jewish belief and nationhood?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

To categorize Judaism "only" as a religion is a misunderstanding. The Jewish people are a nation, who share a common land (Israel), a common religion (Judaism) and a common history (dating back to Abraham).

What is amazing is how the Jews have maintained their distinct national identity having been scattered to the four corners of the globe. This achievement was possible only because of our adherence to the Torah, the "constitution" of the Jewish people. The Torah lays out the scope of personal rights and obligations, as well as laws covering lifecycle, business practice, medical ethics, parenting, married life, etc. Observance of the Torah was thus the thread which kept the Jewish people alive, and thriving, in every place and time.

Judaism cannot be classified as a race, because anyone can become a Jew by converting. The convert is considered a Jew in every regard, and his relationship with God is the same level as that of every other Jew. Come to Israel and you will find black Jews, oriental Jews, Indian Jews, etc.

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