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The German nusach contains the following explanation of the “Shir Hamaalos” etc said before Maariv.

When ערבית is recited after nightfall, it is preceded by the following פסוקים, which speak of praying at night. They were added to מנהג אשכנז by the Ari z”l, who in fact was only reviving a practice from the Geonic era to say aמזמור leading into ערבית. After this מזמור, the congregation says קדיש before ברכו. If, however, ערבית follows מנחה without a break, there is no need to say קדיש in addition to the קדיש תתקבל following מנחה. At one time, these פסוקים, and this קדיש, were recited only by small groups called חברת מעריב בזמנו

In my experience, minyanim davenning Nusach Sefard say the “Shir Hamaalos” etc before maariv even when maariv is davenned before nightfall.

Is this discussed somewhere?

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That text is interesting in that it says the p'sukim are said after nightfall and not said when maariv follows mincha, but doesn't discuss the case that those rules conflict (as when mincha is said just before nightfall) or the case that neither of those rules applies (as when maariv is said before nightfall but mincha was early). –  msh210 Aug 16 '12 at 22:18
    
@msh210 Isn't the maariv before nightfall case covered (by implication) by the text, "When ערבית is recited after nightfall, it is preceded by the following פסוקים"? –  Avrohom Yitzchok Aug 16 '12 at 22:33
    
I'd say so, were it not for the "If, however, ערבית follows מנחה without a break". –  msh210 Aug 16 '12 at 22:51
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I have found the following sources that speak about this minhag.

1) Shiltei Hagiborim (ShHag), Brochos, [4] suggests that the minhag came about because of the phrase in the gemoroh, “someone who comes in from the field in the evening, should go into the shul or the beis hamedrash and if he is used to read (pesukim from Tenach), he should read” because one should read the shema (of maariv) after studying divrei Torah. The choice of this psalm (134) is because it contains the words, “who stand in the house of HaShem at night” (reference to night) or “lift up your hands in holiness and bless (Borchu) HaShem (reference to Borchu).

2) Mishnah Berurah 237 (1)[2] quotes the ShHag above.

3) Piskei Teshuvos 237 (3) note 11 says that Psalm 134 is not said when mincha and maariv are said one after the other.

4) Taamei Haminhogim 238 says as above.

5) “The Word of Prayer”, Rabbi Dr E Munk, (1961) p198, says that Psalm 134 “serves as a transition from the professional occupation to the evening prayer.”

6) Besomim Rosh quoted by the Siddur Otzar HaTefilos brings the ShHag.

He then quotes the Elya Rabbah who says that we do not say the Psalm if maariv is davenned straight after minchah, because the reason of “if he is used to read” is only relevant if he did not daven just before maariv.

He then quotes the Eshel Avrohom who says the custom is to say the Psalm whenever it is night.

What comes out, again, is that there are two conditions to saying the Psalm – (1) mincha and maariv not together and (2) maariv bizmano.

I suggest that the origin of the association of the Psalm with maariv bizmano may come in source 1. There, it is clear that mincha must have been davenned earlier (otherwise the gemoro should have mentioned mincha). It was already evening and the study of pesukim may well have extended until the time for maariv bizmano.

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