As we learned (above, 1:7), the Yaakov ordained Ma’ariv, and on this basis, the Men of the Great Assembly established praying Shemoneh Esrei at night. They fixed the time for Ma’ariv to correspond to the burning of the limbs and suet of the sacrifices, for whatever was not offered during the day was burned throughout the night (Berakhot 26b). In essence, however, Ma’ariv is voluntary (reshut), that is, a mitzva but not an obligation. Shaĥarit and Minĥa are different from Ma’ariv because they were instituted to correspond to the Tamid offerings, that is, corresponding to the sprinkling of their blood. Just as one who does not sprinkle the blood does not fulfill his obligation of bringing the offering, so too, one is obligated to pray Shaĥarit and Minĥa. However, Ma’ariv was instituted to correspond to the offering of the limbs and suet upon the altar. Although it is a mitzva to bring them, if they were not brought, the offering still remained valid. Therefore, Ma’ariv is voluntary. That is, one who was interested in engaging in a different mitzva, had already gone to sleep in bed, or found it difficult to pray Ma’ariv for any other reason, was not required to do so.
Nevertheless, throughout the generations, all Jewish men regularly prayed Ma’ariv, and by the time of the Rishonim it was already established as an obligation. Even so, because of Ma’ariv’s voluntary character, as the Sages did not institute Ĥazarat Ha-shatz for it, as it is designed to help the uneducated fulfill their obligations (SA 237:1).
Women are exempt from Ma’ariv even according to those who maintain that women must pray all the prayers instituted by the Sages. A woman’s obligation pertains to Shaĥarit and Minĥa, which were established as obligatory. She is exempt from Ma’ariv, which is voluntary, and the men’s acceptance of the practice as an obligation does not extend to her. A woman who wants to pray Ma’ariv is praiseworthy, and this is the practice of some righteous women. 1
- There are several opinions about the status of men vis-à-vis Ma’ariv. According to most Rishonim, including Tosafot, Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona, and Rosh, the mitzva to pray Ma’ariv should not be skipped for no reason but may be skipped for a slight reason. This is my ruling above. However, Behag maintains that it is truly voluntary and may be skipped for no reason. See Peninei Halakha: Prayer 25:2.
Based on this, it seems that according to the majority of poskim who maintain that women must pray all the prayers, as cited above, chapter 2 n. 1, women may not skip Ma’ariv without cause. This is implied in Kaf Ha-ĥayim 299:62, which states that women who know how to pray regularly pray Ma’ariv. Halikhot Beitah 6:3 nn. 1 and 4 state that this is also implicit in the words of Rabbeinu Yona and Shlah. Indeed, there are righteous women who pray three times a day. However, it seems that even Rabbeinu Yona and Shlah would concede that women did not accept Ma’ariv as an obligation; the most one can say is that according to their opinion Ma’ariv is voluntary for women and may not be skipped without cause. However, in practice, the accepted ruling and practice is that women are exempt from Ma’ariv because: a) according to many poskim women are only obligated to pray once daily, as explained above, 2:3; b) the prevailing interpretation of the majority view, that women must pray all the prayers, is that it only refers to obligatory prayers; c) even if this view extends to voluntary prayers, according to Behag, men, too, may skip Ma’ariv for no reason; d) even according to Tosafot, who maintain that Ma’ariv should not be skipped without reason, women may be completely exempt from Ma’ariv since they are often preoccupied with childcare.
The time for Ma’ariv, according to the Sages, begins at tzeit ha-kokhavim, and that is the prevailing practice. R. Yehuda maintains that the time for Ma’ariv begins at plag ha-minĥa (one and one-quarter seasonal hour before the end of the day). Those who wish to follow R. Yehuda may do so, on condition that they pray Minĥa before plag ha-minĥa. The prevalent custom today is to follow the Sages. This is explained at length in Peninei Halakha: Prayer 25:6-7. Regarding the latest time to pray, Derekh Ha-ĥayim states that le-khatĥila it is until ĥatzot, whereas according to Pri Megadim, even le-khatĥila it is all night. ↩