“Hey! Where do you think you’re going?”
Someone stopped me dead in my tracks as I thought I was making a quick exit.
I was leaving synagogue between Mincha and Maariv, the afternoon and evening prayers, which are often done back-to-back in Orthodox synagogues. Now, the person stopping me was a friend and he was half joking. But I believe he was truly curious and concerned as to why I did not stay after afternoon services for evening services like everyone else there. Why walk out of the synagogue before another service was about to start?
Having the two prayer services back to back is the most expeditious and efficient way to do it. It saves people from driving back and forth to synagogue. Which, in effect, also helps the environment. It also assures people will attend both services. And you get “two for the price of one”—the effort of going to one service with “brownie points” of going to two services.
But I try not to take advantage of that. For one, I live only a block away from our synagogue, so that makes it easy for me to quickly hop over there for the afternoon service, leave, and come back for the later evening service. So I do have the logistical advantage to allow me to do that (at least on a Sunday).
With the ease of coming back for the later service, I have three reasons why I do that.
Firstly, there are some nights, especially Sunday nights in the summer, when it can be a struggle to get a minyan—10 men—at that late service. So I figure I should go to help make the minyan.
Secondly, I believe the services should be separated. Years ago, before I was observant, I used to set my (at the time geeky) digital Casio watch alarms to go off three times each day: once in the morning, once in the afternoon and again in the evening. I did that so I could assess the progress of each portion of the day. Morning, afternoon and evening I stopped, reflected and took stock of where I was at with my day. Kind of like walking up to plate with three strikes allowed—three chances to get it right.
Then an observant Jewish friend pointed out that Jews pray three times a day. I had not known that, and—amazingly—I realized I was already doing that in my own way. This turned out to be only one of several prescient things that pointed me in the direction of becoming an observant Jew.
Besides that, coming back to synagogue later in the evening allows me to take one final break from my evening work at home, to get outside, in cold or rain or heat or winds, to take a brisk walk to synagogue. It is a good final outing for the night, a wind-down from the day. It helps me get in the mindset to come back, finish whatever I am working on, and then drop into bed and fall asleep.
But besides my own simple reasons for separating the afternoon and evening prayers, the third reason I try to go to late services is that ultimately we must recognize we are following God’s laws.
Much Biblical exegesis goes into reading the Torah and analyzing when there are extra words or repeated phrases. The Torah does not use extra words. Every word or phrase is there for a reason. God’s Torah is a terse book of laws and stories.
If God wanted us to pray a 15-minute Mincha immediately followed by 15-minute Maariv, He would have made Mincha 30 minutes and there would not be Maariv. That would be more concise, make more sense and have been a lot more efficient. But we have two separate services, and they should be observed that way, in the afternoon and in the evening, with enough time between the two to assure they are separate and distinct.
The Torah is also about recognizing and honoring distinctions—Shabbat and the workweek, kosher and non-kosher, the holy and unholy, to name a few—and praying three separate times each day should be maintained and honored that way as well. The Mincha/Maariv combo means your head is in one state of mind, and you are in the same place in your day; not what God intended.
Just as my soul was once compelled by the tinny beep of my Casio to stop and consider bigger things three times each day; and just as a batter is granted three strikes at bat, don’t we have even more reason to stop and pray not once, not twice but three unique times?