For the week ending 29 November 2008 / 2 Kislev 5769

Drink before Davening

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Stefan in CA

Dear Rabbi,

I would like to know if there is anything wrong with drinking things like coffee or tea before praying the morning prayers. My question stems from the fact that I seem to recall that it’s forbidden to drink anything other than water, but when I look around, I see plenty of people who seem to be basically knowledgeable in Torah who do have a drink before davening. When I ask for the source of this, none seems to be able to explain why it’s allowed so it would seem to be prohibited. Is this the case, or am I missing something? Thanks.

Dear Stefan,

Technically speaking, you are right. A person may not eat and drink before the morning prayers. The reason for this is stated in the Talmud and fixed in the Shulchan Aruch that one may not “fill his blood” before praying for his blood, and that one who does so is referred to as arrogantly throwing G-d “behind his back”.

The general idea is that the beginning of a new day is a time when we should be aware of and express our thanks to G-d for having rejuvenated our souls and bodies and having given us another day of life and vitality. It is only proper, then, that before eating and drinking we acknowledge the above, as well as recognize and pray for G-d’s fulfilling our daily needs. Eating before praying for our lives and sustenance is tantamount to rejecting our need for G-d.

And this is the meaning of our Sages’ comment that indulging in food and drink is like arrogantly throwing G-d behind one’s back, since such person is taking from G-d’s bounty which He bestowed upon him and using it before its proper time, expressing that he is only interested in what he wants, and not concerned about what G-d wants.

It is for these reasons that the prohibition applies primarily when the eating or drinking is an indulgence. However, water is permitted; and even tea or coffee without sugar or milk is permitted, because this hydrates and warms the body in preparation for prayer.

That being said, the prohibition only applies in normal circumstances when there is no health issue involved, and a person can wait until after the prayers to eat or drink. But if a person is elderly, weak or ill, one is allowed to drink or eat what’s necessary to maintain one’s health and prevent sickness, and in order to be able to concentrate on the prayers.

It is for this last reason, namely the need to be able to concentrate properly during prayer, that in recent times a certain leniency has evolved concerning drinking tea and coffee with sugar. Since people have generally weaker constitutions and are more pampered than in days of old, sugar is viewed as less of an indulgence and more of a necessity. Also, the argument goes, people are not as interested in the sugar as making the coffee or tea palatable. In addition, many feel that coffee in particular catalyzes the body’s need to cleanse itself, which is an important prerequisite for prayer.

So for these reasons, many have become lenient regarding drinking with sugar; and in truth, most extend the allowance to make the tea/coffee palatable to milk as well since they are not drinking the milk for the milk’s sake but rather for the coffee, which is permitted, and which they feel helps prepare themselves before prayer and enables them to better concentrate during prayer. Therefore it would be better to drink only water or plain coffee/tea before davening. However, those who add sugar and milk have basis to be lenient.

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