Eating Before Praying

It is generally forbidden to eat (or drink) before praying in the morning.[1] For this purpose “praying” refers to reciting Shema and Shemoneh Esrei. Although most authorities rule that the prohibition against eating before praying is a rabbinical prohibition,[2] some insist that it is actually a biblical prohibition.[3]

The prohibition against eating before praying begins at dawn which is generally assumed to be 72 minutes before sunrise. One who began eating before this time must cease eating as soon as dawn arrives.[4] One who only began eating in the half hour prior to dawn may only eat very little.[5] Drinks (non-alcoholic[6]) and fruit may be consumed without limitations.[7] One should set an alarm[8] or ask someone for a reminder, in order to know to stop eating.[9] Although there is an opinion that one who wakes up early is forbidden to eat before praying even if dawn is many hours away[10] the halacha is not in accordance with this view.[11]

The reason that it is forbidden to eat before praying is because doing so is considered to be “haughty” behavior. It gives the impression that one’s personal needs take priority over God and one’s spiritual obligations, as it says, “you have cast me behind your back.”[12] Furthermore, our sages explain that the verse, “You shall not eat over the blood,”[13] teaches us that it is forbidden to eat before one has prayed “for one’s blood” (i.e. one’s sustenance and livelihood).[14] So too, there is a general prohibition against eating before performing a mitzva that begins immediately with the new day, especially when the mitzva is biblical, such as shaking a lulav or reciting Shema and even when the mitzva is rabbinical, such as reading the megilla on Purim. This latter prohibition against eating before performing mitzvot is an enactment of the rabbis lest one become distracted and forget to perform the mitzva.[15]

Most contemporary authorities, however, permit drinking before praying. It is argued that most people nowadays cannot properly focus on their prayers if they don’t at least drink something beforehand. As such, it is not considered “haughty” to drink before praying if one is only doing so in order to be able to better concentrate on one’s prayers. Therefore, it is permitted to drink coffee, tea, juice, and the like, before praying in the morning. It is also permissible to add milk and sugar to one’s tea or coffee.[16] However, one should not drink fancy, filling, or especially nourishing drinks before praying. Therefore, one should not drink fancy coffees that are served with whipped cream, and the like, before praying.[17]

One who chooses to drink before praying should do so privately and not gather with others to drink together.[18] However, it is permitted for a group of people who gather together to study Torah before praying to also drink together.[19] Some authorities actually encourage one to drink something before praying on Shabbat and Yom Tov when the services are long and one may not get a chance to eat or drink until after chatzot (midday). This is because it is forbidden to go without eating or drinking past chatzot on Shabbat and Yom Tov.[20] One may drink water without limit as water is tasteless and cannot be considered as an act of indulgence before praying.[21] It is permitted to take vitamins and medicines before praying.[22] So too, it is permitted to chew gum before praying.[23]

One who is weak or ill is even permitted to eat (and drink) before praying if doing so is needed in order to be able to pray. This includes one who is extremely hungry or thirsty and is unable to concentrate on one’s prayers unless one eats or drinks something.[24] Some authorities rule that it is better to pray at home alone rather than to pray with a minyan if praying at home will allow one to pray before eating. According to this approach, after praying and eating at home one should go to the synagogue to participate in the congregational responses and to hear the Torah reading (when applicable).[25] Normative practice, however, is not in accordance with this view and one should pray with a minyan rather than pray alone even if one will have to eat before doing so.[26] The Lubavitcher Rebbe actually encouraged people to eat and drink before praying arguing that one will pray better by doing so.[27] So too, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe was known to say that, “It is better to eat in order to be able to pray than to pray in order to be able to eat.”[28] One who must eat or drink before praying should at least recite the morning blessings and Shema before doing so. One should only eat what one truly needs in order to properly pray.

There is somewhat of an unwritten rule, that even when eating before praying is justified one should not eat bread. One should make due with cake, fruit, and the like, instead. This is because eating bread of almost any amount is considered to be a “meal” in halacha while eating almost anything else, in almost any quantity, is merely considered to be a “snack” in halacha. So too, similar to what was mentioned above, it is almost always forbidden to begin a meal before performing a mitzva that is currently binding and, in fact, it is sometimes even forbidden to begin a meal if a mitzvah will become binding shortly. For this reason, eating a meal before reciting Maariv each day, even if one begins the meal before dark, could be problematic. As such, it is clearly preferable to only eat a “snack” before praying in the morning rather than to eat a “meal” before praying.

Women are subject to the same rules and they too should not eat or drink in the morning before praying. To what extent they are required to pray, however, is subject to much debate and beyond the scope of this chapter. Most authorities agree that women should not eat before at least reciting the morning blessings and Shema.[29] High school girls who pray in school may eat something before leaving home if needed. Even in this instance, however, it is best if the morning blessings and shema are recited before eating.[30] Children may eat before praying without restriction.[31] The laws of eating and drinking before praying apply to one who missed Shacharit and is, therefore required to recite Mincha twice. As such, until Mincha is recited, one’s eating and drinking is restricted as per the rules above.[32]

[1] OC 89:3. This chapter only addresses eating before reciting Shacharit. The rules regarding eating before reciting Mincha and Maariv are different. As a general rule, however, it is permitted to eat before reciting Mincha/Maariv as long as the meal is not an elaborate feast and one has a set time for reciting mincha/maariv each day.

[2] Beit Yosef, OC 89:3.

[3] Minchat Chinuch 248; Chayei Adam 16:1; Mor Uktzia, OC 89; Yabia Omer 4:11.

[4] OC 89:5; Mishna Berura 89:27,28,29.

[5] Mishna Berura 89:27

[6] Though, interestingly enough, Piskei Teshuva 261 even allows a shot of scotch/liquer if needed in order to help one pray.

[7] Mishna Berura 232:34, 35; 286:9; Teshuvot V’hanhagot 2:254, 4:125; Rivevot Ephraim 8:22:2.

[8] Emet L’Yaakov, OC 232:2 note 242; Halichot Shlomo 2:12.

[9] Mishna Berura 89:34, 235:18.

[10] Magen Avraham 89:14; Mishna Berura 89:28.

[11] Mishna Berura 89:28; Aruch Hashulchan, OC 89:26.

[12] Melachim 1:14:9. The word “back” can also be read as “haughty.”

[13] Vayikra 19:26.

[14] Berachot 10a; Sanhedrin 63a.

[15] Mishna Berura 89:27.

[16] Aruch Hashulchan, OC 89:23; K’tzot Hashulchan 11:2; Hilchot Shlomo 2:2; Yabia Omer 4:11,12; Tefilla K’hilchata 10:13; Az Nidberu 12:27.

[17] Kaf Hachaim, OC 89:30.

[18] Mishna Berura 89:22.

[19] Yabia Omer 4:12.

[20] OC 288:1

[21] OC 89:3.

[22] Mishna Berura 89:24; Aruch Hashulchan, OC 89:24; Rivevot Ephraim 7:4.

[23] Mishna Berura 90:45.

[24] OC 89:4.

[25] Be’er Heitev, OC 89:11.

[26] Eretz Tzvi 2:1.

[27] Igrot Kodesh vol. 10 pg. 326; vol. 19 pg. 40.

[28] Hayom Yom, 10 Shvat.

[29] Mishna Berura 106:4; Minchat Yitzchak 4:28:3.

[30] Halichot Bat Yisrael 2:10.

[31] Mishna Berura 106:5.

[32] Tehilla L’david 108:2.