Shaharit, Minhah, and Maariv
What distinguishes the three services from each other?
In traditional Jewish practice, the daily tefillot or prayers are divided into three separate services, Shaharit (the morning service), Minhah (the afternoon service), and Maariv (the evening service).
Origins of the Daily Prayer Services
By the talmudic period, the institution of praying three times day was an assumed part of Jewish life.
The Mishnah records that there are three daily services, each connected to a particular time of day (Mishnah Berakhot 4:1).
The Babylonian Talmud also declares that one should pray three times a day, and a famous dispute emerges about the origins of this practice. Rabbi Yose bar Rabbi Hanina says that the weekday prayers were instituted by the patriarchs: Shaharit by Abraham, Minhah by Isaac, and Maariv by Jacob.
In opposition, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi cites Rabbi Hanina, who says that the three daily prayer services were instituted in accordance with the daily sacrifices of the Temple period (Berakhot 26b). Shaharit corresponds to the morning offering, Minhah corresponds to the afternoon offering, Maariv corresponds to an offering made on the evening, and Musaf corresponds to an offering brought on certain special occasions. Though a consensus was never reached, rabbinic authorities agreed that three daily services are the basic requirement of Jewish daily prayer.
For the majority of the rabbinic period, when the Mishnah, Talmud, and other early rabbinic sources refer to "tefillah," they are always specifically referring to the Amidah prayer.
For much of the rabbinic period, the three services most likely only consisted of the Amidah and nothing else. However, by the beginning of the geonic period, and with the assemblage of the first complete liturgy for the synagogue--Seder Rav Amram Gaon in the ninth century--the content of all three services expanded significantly in both breadth and depth.
In terms of content, Shaharitis the most extensive of the three services. The morning prayers begin with a series of blessings meant to start the process of thanking God for our most basic needs. The most notable of these blessings is the Birkot Hashahar. The early portion of the services offers blessings for various fundamental needs, such as clothing, and freedom, and includes textual references to sacrifices and other core Jewish texts. Practices vary regarding how much of these early passages are recited.
The first major portion of Shaharit is Pesukei D’zimra, a series of passages mainly from Psalms that begins with Psalm 50 and concludes with the recitation of Yishtabakh. The purpose of the Peseukei D'zimra is to properly prepare oneself for the central portion of the morning service.
Following Peseukei D’zimra, the main section of the Shaharit service begins with the Barkhu prayer, followed by the Shema in the middle, and ending with the Amidah. This portion of the service is also known as Shema U’Birkhotekha, or "Shema and its subsequent blessings." It is customary for one not to speak or interrupt their prayers from the Barkhu through the Amidah.
After the Amidah comes Tahanun, the penitential prayers. On Mondays and Thursday, the Torah is read in public minyanim (groups of 10 or more). This is in accordance with the practice instituted by Ezra the Scribe in Ancient Judea (Nehemiah 8). The weekday reading is shorter than the one on Shabbat; the first aliyah of the coming week’s parasha is split into three smaller aliyot.
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