The Sages established three daily prayers: Shacharit in the morning, Minchah in the afternoon, and Arvit (Ma’ariv) in the evening. Why do we need three prayers?
“Rabbi Helbo taught: One should always be careful regarding the Minchah prayer, for Elijah was only answered in this prayer.
Rabbi Yochanan said: Also with the evening-prayer, as it says, “May my prayer be like an incense-offering before You, as I lift my hands in the evening offering” (Psalms 141:2).
Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzchak said: Also with the Shacharit morning-prayer, as it says, “God, hear my voice in the morning. In the morning I will arrange my prayer to You and wait expectantly” (Psalms 5:4).” (Berachot 6b)
This Talmudic discussion is peculiar. It starts by stating that the Minchah afternoon-prayer has advantages over the other prayers and requires special attention. Then the rabbis note that the morning and evening prayers are also special. If so, all three prayers are equally important. What does this mean?
Some organs in the human body, like the kidneys, are doubled. This is not because we need two in order to live, but in case one should stop functioning, we can rely on the second as a backup.
One might think the same holds true for the three prayers. We pray three times a day in the hope that at least one prayer will be sincere and inspiring. The Talmud, however, rejects this idea. The rabbis note that each of the three prayers has its own special value. Each prayer meets a particular spiritual need.
What then is the purpose of each of these prayers?
Our major spiritual need is to counteract negative and corrupting influences. During the working day, we encounter all types of people, including some who are crass and unprincipled. These social interactions affect us, and not for the good. They can reinforce negative traits and lead us to frivolous and empty goals.
Prayer comes to restore our spiritual purity. We pour out our hearts to God, and the words of prayer lift us to pure and holy aspirations. Prayer washes away the superficial attraction of falsehood and the temporary loss of our moral compass.
This spiritual restoration is the purpose of the Minchah prayer. It is prayed in the middle of the day, when we have the greatest involvement with society.
Now we can understand why Rabbi Helbo brought proof to the importance of Minchah from Elijah. The prophet’s midday prayer was pivotal in his victory over the false prophets of Ba’al. In his prayer, Elijah sought Divine assistance to overcome the evil and idolatrous beliefs rampant among the numerous followers of Ba’al. Our Minchah prayer is a similar plea for help to overcome false and corrupting influences.
What is the purpose of the evening prayer? Why is it compared to an offering of ketoret-incense?
The ketoret offering was not performed publicly. The incense was burnt within the inner chamber of the Temple. The Sages taught that the incense atones for sins that are ‘hidden’ — private thoughts of malice and hatred and surreptitious slander (Yoma 44a, Zevachim 88b). The inner service of incense was a source of inspiration to cleanse malicious thoughts lurking in the heart’s inner chambers.
The evening prayer is recited at a time when we have withdrawn to the solitude of our homes. The root-cause of social sins is the corruptive influence of an egocentric self-love. Like the inner service of ketoret, the goal of the night-time Ma’ariv prayer is to elevate the spirit and prevent our souls from being sullied in selfish and petty thoughts.
What about the third prayer, the morning-prayer of Shacharit?
When we first rise in the morning, the soul’s powers have not been corrupted by external sources. But they lack vitality and strength, having been dormant while sleeping. Therefore it is necessary to awaken these spiritual powers. We must arrange them so they will be ready to contemplate elevated matters — justice and integrity, awe and love of God. This spiritual preparation is the goal of the morning-prayer.
For this reason, the verse categorizes the morning-prayer as a time when “I arrange my prayer to You and wait expectantly.” It is the hour when we direct the aspirations of the heart and order the powers of the soul. After this preparation at the start of the day, we anticipate God’s assistance to gain spiritual fortitude. As the Sages taught, “Those seeking to purify themselves are granted assistance from Above” (Yoma 38b).
(Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I, pp. 17-18 (introduction); Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 27)