Maariv as an Optional Prayer
The Gemara (Berachos 27b) makes the following statement: “Rabbi Yehuda says in the name of Shmuel: The Maariv prayer – Rabban Gamliel says it is obligatory, and Rabbi Yehoshua says it is optional. Abaye says: The halachah is that it is obligatory; Rava says: The halachah is that it is optional.” According to another version of the Talmudic text, the disputants are not Abaye and Rava, but Rav and Shmuel.
According to both versions, it appears that the halachah is that the Maariv prayer is optional. In disputes between Rav and Shmuel the halachah follows Rav (in non-monetary matters), and in disputes between Abaye and Rava the halachah follows Rava (with a number of exceptions). Another reason for reaching the same halachic conclusion is that the obligation of prayer (beyond one basic prayer a day) is rabbinic, and in rabbinic matters the halachah follows the lenient opinion (see Shita Mekubetzes, Berachos 27).
This, indeed, is the ruling given by halachic authorities including the Geonim (as noted by the Shita Mekubetzes – though he notes a dissenting opinion), the Rif (Berachos 19a) and the Rambam. The latter (Tefillah 1:6): writes as follows: “They also instituted a prayer to be recited at night, since the limbs of the daily afternoon offering could be burnt the whole night […] The Evening Prayer is not obligatory, as are the Morning and Mincha Prayers.”
The Rif notes that although the prayer is optional, it must nonetheless be treated as obligatory, because the nation “has accepted it as such.” The same principle is stated by the Rambam: “Nevertheless, the Jewish people, in all the places that they have settled, are accustomed to recite the Evening Prayer and have accepted it upon themselves as an obligatory prayer.”
Noting this, the Aruch Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim 235:9) explains that authorities generally omit the halachic ruling of the Maariv prayer being optional, for “there is no difference between it, and Shacharis and Mincha.”
Yet, as we will see below, a number of halachic distinctions remain between the different prayers.
The Mitzvah of Maariv
The Rishonim (Tosafos and others) question the optional nature of the Maariv prayer from two basic sources:
1. The Gemara (Berachos 26a) cites the ruling of Rabbi Yochanan whereby somebody who failed to pray the Maariv prayer must pray the Shacharis prayer twice. The second recitation of Shacharis makes up for the missed Maariv prayer. This halachah implies that there is an obligation to daven Maariv; were it truly optional there would be no reason to make it up if missed.
2. The Gemara (30b) states: “One who omitted Rosh Chodsh from the Arvis prayer does not need to pray again, because Beis Din only sanctifies the month during the day.” The implication is that concerning other mistakes in the prayer service, where this special reason does not apply, there is an obligation to pray once again – implying that the Maariv prayer is obligatory.
The Rif, who raises the questions, explains that although the Maariv prayer is in principle optional, once a person decides to pray he accepts the prayer upon himself as being obligatory, and the regular halachos therefore apply. The Semag (19, citing from Halachos Gedolos) likewise explains that “by praying he accepts it upon himself as obligatory, and if he makes a mistake he must begin once again.”
Yet, this explanation does not answer the question of somebody who forgot entirely to pray Maariv, and who must make up the omission by davening Shacharis twice (the first question above).
In order to answer this question, some explain (Rabbeinu Yonah 18a) that the Rif does not refer to somebody who prayed a specific Maariv prayer, but rather to somebody who generally davens Maariv: Because he is generally careful to daven, the daily Maariv prayer becomes a full obligation, and if he fails to daven he must pray Shacharis twice.
An alternative explanation, which is also mentioned by the Rif, is that even if there is no obligation to daven Maariv, there remains a mitzvah (in the sense of a worthy deed) to do so.
This principle is made more explicit by Tosafos (26a), who write that Maariv is not considered to be an obligation vis-à-vis other mitzvos (so that if the prayer clashes with another mitzvah, one should perform the other mitzvah rather than the Maariv prayer), “but the prayer should not be skipped without reason.” Elsewhere (Shabbos 9a) Tosafos proceed to explain that since Yaakov Avinu enacted the prayer it surely involves a mitzvah, and therefore it is passed over only because of a mitzvah or other substantial concern. Because the prayer involves a mitzvah, we can understand that if Maariv is missed, a second Shacharis should be prayed to make it up.
A third approach to the questions above is that the two quoted halachos were said only according to the view that the Maariv prayer is mandatory (Ra’ah, Berachos 26).
The Maariv Prayer Today
As noted above, even though it is essentially optional, the Evening Prayer receives obligatory status by dint of the universal custom to recite it each day. What is the status of an obligation that is created by means of a custom?
The Tur (Orach Chaim 188) discusses the question of somebody who forgot to mention Shabbos in Birkas Ha-Mazon of the third Shabbos meal, and cites the Raaviah that although the third meal is not obligatory, the custom makes it into an obligation, just as we find concerning Maariv. The Darkei Moshe (8) comments that this concept (of a custom becoming an obligation) applies only where there is a halachic opinion maintaining that there is a full obligation irrespective of the custom, “in which case we say that since he has started, he renders it an obligation upon himself.” Where there is no such opinion, the custom cannot create an obligation.
Based on this understanding, it appears that the concept of the custom becoming an obligation is defined as an undertaking to act according to the stringent opinion; thus, where there is no stringent opinion, the obligation will not apply. According to this, it follows that once Israel accepted upon themselves to daven Maariv, the common custom brings us back to the Talmudic opinions ruling that the prayer is a full halachic obligation.
However, the Rambam writes (Tefillah 10:6): “…a person who remembers that he has already prayed while he is in the midst of the Shemoneh Esreh should cease [praying] immediately, even if he is in the midst of a blessing. [However,] if he was reciting the Evening Service, he need not cease [praying], for even at the outset, he did not begin that prayer service with the thought that it was an obligation.”
This ruling clearly indicates that even after the general custom to pray Maariv, the prayer remains distinct from other prayers, and it is undertaken “with the thought that it is not an obligation” (so that even if one remembers that he already davened, the prayer is completed). Chiddushei Rav Chaim Ha-Levi explains that although the custom renders the prayer obligatory, it is considered an obligation to daven an essentially optional prayer: the essence of the prayer does not change. The Raavad, however, disputes the ruling of the Rambam, and maintains that the prayer is considered fully obligatory.
The Rambam (3:7) further rules that the Maariv prayer can be prayed even before sunset, explaining the reason for this as the fact that the Evening Prayer is optional, and therefore we are not particular about its time.
Juxtaposing Redemption to Prayer
The rishonim dispute whether one must juxtapose the mention of the Redemption with the beginning of the Shemoneh Esreh prayer even for Maariv. Tosafos (Berachos 4b) write that one must, and explain that the Hashkiveinu blessing that separates the Redemption from the prayer is not considered an interruption because it is “one long [mention of] redemption.” Tosafos also explain that the longer Baruch Hashem Le-Olam prayer does not constitute a hefsek, though some are careful not to recite the blessing for this reason (see Maaseh Rav no. 67).
Yet, Tosafos mentions that according to Rav Amram the reason we recite Kaddish between the blessing of redemption and the beginning of the Shemoneh Esreh is that there is no need to juxtapose the two in the Maariv prayer, explaining that the Maariv prayer is optional. This is also recorded by Tosafos elsewhere (Berachos 27b), and the Rambam, who rules that Maariv can be prayed before sunset, apparently agrees.
The Shulchan Aruch (236:2) rules that one must not separate between Redemption and prayer even for Maariv, yet adds that it is permitted for the shaliach tzibbur to announce before the Shemoneh Esreh that it is Rosh Chodesh, because this is required for the prayer itself. The Magen Avraham (1, citing from the Rashba) writes that this halachah (the permission to announce Rosh Chodesh) applies specifically to Maariv, and not to Shacharis. Indeed, the custom is to avoid making a similar announcement in the Shacharis prayer. (It is customary to bang on a table/shtender instead.)
This ruling indicates once more that although we have accepted the Maariv prayer upon ourselves as obligatory, this does not render its status similar to Shacharis and Mincha, and therefore the halachah of juxtaposing Redemption and prayer does not fully apply.
It is noteworthy that the Ateres Zekeinim (236, citing Maharshal) disputes the statement of the Magen Avraham, and argues that once the Maariv prayer was accepted as mandatory, there is no difference between Maariv and the other daily prayers.
Women and Maariv
Because the obligation of Maariv is contingent on the acceptance of Israel, who accepted the prayer as binding, it follows that those not included in the acceptance do not share the obligation.
This principle is stated by the Peri Megadim (Introduction to Laws of Prayer) with regard to women: Even if women are obligated in more than one prayer a day, they remain exempt from the Maariv prayer, because Maariv is essentially optional. Although by force of custom Maariv is mandatory, this obligation does not apply to women, who did not accept the prayer upon themselves. This ruling is also cited by the Mishnah Berurah (106:4).
There is room to argue, however, that according to Tosafos, who write that irrespective of the custom there is a mitzvah (though no obligation) do pray the Maariv prayer, this mitzvah will apply even to women. It is thus proper even for them to daven Maariv, where doing so does not clash with another mitzvah, or with some other need. Indeed, the Aruch Ha-Shulchan (106:6) rules that (Ashkenazi) women should daven three prayers a day, and should not suffice with Shacharis and Mincha alone.
However, the common custom is that women do not daven Maariv, as the Mishnah Berurah rules.
Chazaras Ha-Shatz for Maariv
The Rambam (9:9) gives the following ruling: “When they conclude [the leader of the congregation] recites Kaddish and they depart. He does not repeat the evening Shemoneh Esreh out loud, since the evening service is not obligatory. Therefore, he should not recite blessings in vain, for there is no one who is obligated [to recite these blessings] whose obligation he would fulfill [by his recitation].”
It appears that the explanation given above, whereby there is “an obligation to recite an essentially optional prayer” is not sufficient to explain this ruling: If there is an obligation to pray, why should the shaliach tzibbur not repeat the Shemoneh Esreh for those who have not fulfilled their obligation? Rather, it appears that although the prayer was accepted as mandatory, the obligation remains distinct (and lesser) than the obligation of other prayers.
An alternative explanation is that only those who know how to pray on their own (beki’im) accepted the prayer upon themselves. There is therefore no need for the shaliach tzibbur to repeat the prayer for those who don’t know how to pray, for they have no obligation.