When flying from the US to Europe (especially in the summer) one often takes off before the time for arvit has arrived and only a few short hours later the sun already rises over Europe. For practical reasons, a European who has been in the US for only 1-2 days and whose body is still on European time can find it tricky to pray arvit since his body clock is already way past midnight when the plane takes off and he finds it hard to stay awake.

What is the obligation to pray arvit in such a scenario?

I could imagine a few answers

  • One has an obligation to stay awake (or set up an alarm to wake up in the middle of the night) to pray when it is night
  • One should try to stay awake on a best-effort basis
  • One is allowed to go to sleep before the time for arvit has come (since one is not obligated then) and doesn't have to set up an alarm (maybe one who sleeps is not obligated in mitzvot). Would that also apply to the night shema?

I am not discussing the different nature of arvit (d'oraita vs. d'rabannan) since minhag Israel is to pray arvit every night (see here or there in depth).

PS. This is part of my series of questions on prayer in planes, see also Time for morning prayer when flying over Greenland and seeing the sun rise twice and Time for evening prayer when flying eastward over Greenland and the sun doesn’t set?

  • clarification request - what do we mean by 'before the night' in this case?
    – user15253
    Nov 30, 2017 at 12:05
  • I meant before the time for arvit has arrrived
    – mbloch
    Nov 30, 2017 at 12:40
  • 1
    This isn't that different from short nights in northern countries in the summer
    – Double AA
    Nov 30, 2017 at 12:49
  • @DoubleAA only difference is that the traveler feels much later as he is jetlagged - so when the Londoner waits until 1030pm to daven, the traveler feels already much later. I do not know if this would influence the halacha
    – mbloch
    Nov 30, 2017 at 13:04
  • 1
    @mbloch Bravo for your shita!!! I get really annoyed when I hear or read a news story about people who refused to sit down to daven after numerous requests from the crew. It's a Chillul Hashem to have yourself published in this way. Safety is always highest priority, and as a passenger, you must follow airline rules. Have a safe flight and wave to my Manhattan office on the way :-)
    – DanF
    Nov 30, 2017 at 16:46

1 Answer 1


I didn't have an answer when writing the question but the dialogue in comments above gave me an "angle of attack".

Let's focus on the obligation to say shema. This is a mitzva (#10 of the 248 positive mitzvot in Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot, codified in SA OC 61). As such there is no reason to imagine one can voluntarily refrain from performing it.

But does one have to pursue the mitzva if one isn't awake? An answer from msh210 and a link from unforgettableid led me to a very interesting compendium on Sleep in Halacha by R Aryeh Lebowitz. He brings (section V-D, p. 12) the opinion from R Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichos Shlomo, Tefilla, Miluim #12)

that it is obvious that while a person is sleeping he has no obligation to do any mitzvos, including shema and davening, because he is considered like a mentally disabled person (“shoteh”). This exemption from mitzvos, in Rav Auerbach’s view, includes both מצוות עשה (positive commandments) and מצוות לא תעש (negative commandments).

To be clear not everyone agrees with R Auerbach but he is a posek of great significance. He explicitly discusses the fact people who sleep are exempt from shema.

R Lebowitz continues

Similarly, if one were sleeping, and the time for davening or shema arrived, one would not be obligated to wake them up. The sleeping person is simply not obligated in those mitzvos. However, Rabbi Auerbach points out, one should wake the person up in order to provide him with the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah. In short, while he will not be faulted for neglecting the mitzvah, the sleeping person certainly does not get credit for doing the mitzvah. For that alone, it is worthwhile to wake him up.

I am not clear if this means one can let oneself go to sleep and place oneself in such a situation. R Lebowitz addresses the point in the following way

It may be argued that a sleeping person is not considered like a shoteh who has no obligation in mitzvos, but like an ones who is exempt due to circumstances beyond his control. The difference between the two can be explained as follows: A shoteh is simply not an intelligent person and therefore never has any relationship with a mitzvah. An ones on the other hand, may be included in the general obligation of mitzvos, but is exempt because practically he can’t be held accountable.

A simple practical example of where these two analyses diverge is one who went to sleep knowing that he would miss out on a mitzvah as a result of his sleep. If the sleeping person were considered a shoteh he cannot be held accountable. If, however, he were considered an ones, this would be an example of “starting off negligent, but finishing with an accident beyond his control”, and he may be held accountable for his failure to set up a system by which he can be woken up in time for the mitzvah.

After checking with multiple talmidei chahamim, no one believes the above is enough to condone going to sleep without putting an alarm clock. At best, it can allow someone who slept through to make up by saying shmonei esrei twice in the next prayer (tashlumin).

  • BTW, not everyone agrees to Rambam that reciting shema is biblical, and according to most authorities the zmanim; which are the relevant factor, are rabbinic.
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 4, 2017 at 16:37
  • If the sleeping person were considered a shoteh he cannot be held accountable That is of course, debatable. Who says it is permissible to knowingly allow myself to become a shoteh, and not do mitsvot. For example, can I get drunk, knowing that I will not be a bar daat, and then not do mitsvot, no say numerous gedolei aharonim.
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 4, 2017 at 16:41

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