Evening the Evening – Ma’ariv Aravim

Night is scary! It’s no coincidence that Elie Wiesel called the memoir of his Holocaust experiences Night. B. E. (Before Edison) people found nighttime so intimidating that few people ventured out after sunset. In reality, many cities had already been illuminated with gas lights before we had lightbulbs, starting around 1800, but people continued to fear the night. ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ is the prototypical beginning for purple prose. Jack the Ripper was called the Terror of the Night. So, it makes sense that people would want to pray at night for God to protect them, right? But not so fast, the Talmud concludes that prayer at night is optional (Berachot 27b).

 Most of us would consider that voluntary nature of Ma’ariv to be a demotion to the stature of the evening prayer, but not Rav Kook: On the other hand, precisely its optional character gives the evening prayer an advantage over the other two prayers. Essentially, prayer must flow spontaneously from the walls of the heart. Obligation threatens spontaneity. Prayer that is free of all imposition is referred to as a PEGI’AH, a ‘happening’. The verse which recounts how Ya’akov Avinu initiated the evening prayer states, VAYIFGA B’MAKOM (he happened upon the place, MAKOM can also mean God, Breishit 28:11). Our Sages taught, ‘Don’t make prayer KAVUA (a set or fixed thing, Pirkei Avot 2:18)

Evening davening can, therefore, be a more spiritual experience, because it’s a free will activity. However, over the centuries our Sages decided that MA’ARIV has become obligatory. Maimonides understood that on a technical level, prayer emanates from the service in the Beit HaMikdash, therefore the only reason prayer at night is a reasonable option is because the remains of the daily offerings were continuing to burn (‘They also instituted a prayer to be recited at night, since the limbs of the daily afternoon offering could be burnt the whole night’, Mishne Torah, Laws of Prayer, 1:6). Then he says that the Jewish nation has accepted this obligation.

So, here we are watching the sky above us darken and we turn to God in prayer. The Torah does mandate a nightly recitation of the SHEMA, ‘when you arise and when you lie down’, as a result our Sages incorporated their prayer service to accompany the SHEMA. Just like in the morning, we will have Rabbinic blessings surrounding the recitation of Shema. In my next few articles I will examine those blessings.

In the morning, the first BERACHA is a relatively long celebration of Creation and God’s powerful continued control over it. In the evening, the corresponding blessing is more modest in scope: Who by His fiat brings on the evenings.

We will mention daytime in another line, but we must emphasize that the God Who rules by day is the very same God holding sway in the darkness. The time of our Sages was filled with the philosophy of ‘dualism’. There’s a god of good/day and another god of night/bad. We totally deny any such concept: the Eternal, our God controls everything!

God, through CHACHMA (wisdom, science) controls the entire Cosmos, which includes those phenomena through which we keep track of time. Initially, we employ a fascinating metaphor that God controls SHE’ARIM (gates) through which the appropriate celestial participants make their entrances and departures. 

We then make an interesting reference to the system by which our ancestors knew the nightly watches (MISHMAROT): He orders the stars (and constellations) in their nightly watches according to His will. In other words, a smart soldier or officer knew when to take up their post based on the rotation of the stars (and well known MAZALOT, constellations) through the night sky, revolving around Polaris, the North Star.

Now we declare that God creates day and night, and our Director of Heavenly events rolls out (GOLEL) the light to replace the darkness, and then rolls out darkness to replace the light. What a marvelous metaphor! Then God distinguishes between the day and the night. The Eternal is micromanaging all Creation.

I love the image of God spreading this carpet of darkness across the sky. Especially now that I’m davening outside, I love the onset of night. Personally, I believe that many authorities made a mistake when they ordained that ARVIT should only be when the sky is totally dark (TZEIT HAKOCHAVIM). Historic habit and the prayer’s actually wording are about ‘as the darkness mixes’ (EREV comes from the word for mixing).

The best time to start davening in the AM is before the sun has risen, only arriving at Shmoneh Esre with sunrise. I think that the very terminology MA’ARIV and ARVIT hints at an early period than LAYLA (full night), and historically people were afraid to walk around when it was totally dark. Let’s daven (except MOTZEI SHABBAT, when there is a Mitzva to add time to Shabbat) while the sky’s light continues to linger. I strongly believe that our Sages had a profound appreciation of nature.

This management personna of God in our blessing is referred to as the God of TZ’VA’OT, usually translated ‘Hosts’. Hosts means a massive assembly of something. There are those that say this ‘host’ is the Jewish people, while others believe that the reference is to celestial beings, either stars or angels. Rav Kook suggested that it means ‘God of all particles’. God’s armies even include the subatomic particles throughout the Cosmos. God controls them all and can recombine in any way to accomplish the Divine Will.

So, we conclude this blessing: May the living and enduring God continuously reign over us for all eternity. God just controls it all. In Psalm 19 we recite that ‘Day to day there is talking; night to night profound knowledge is revealed (verse 3). This really means that it is night when we truly solve problems and discover the truth. In the recesses of the darkness there often reside the clarity which harsh light can obscure. 

Often when we have a problem, someone will say, ‘Why don’t you sleep on it?’ When God spreads the cloak of night over us, we can often find what we have been searched for. Embrace the night; appreciate this Divine gift, and bless God, Who evenings the evenings (MA’ARIV ARAVIM) for this boon.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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