What’s the source for the prohibition of eating before davening…and what does it include?
The Gemara in Brochos (10b) states that one is not allowed to eat before davening. The Gemara brings two reasons. One is based on the pasuk in Parshas Kedoshim: ‘לא תאכלו על הדם’ – “Do not eat on your blood.” This means, says the Gemara, that one cannot eat until davening for his life. In addition, the Gemara says that one who eats and drinks and then davens is disgracing Hashem. Hashem declares that such a person is first taking care of his own personal needs and only then does he accept the yoke of Heaven, and think about his Creator.
Is it an issur min haTorah or Midrabanan?
Since the Gemara quotes a source from the Torah for this prohibition, we would assume that this is an issur min Hatorah. In fact, the Gemara in Sanhedrin (63a) uses this pasuk as the source for many different issurim, such as not partaking from an animal before it is dead. It is also the source of the prohibition for members of the Sanhedrin being able to eat on the day they would give a death sentence. The Gemara calls this a “lav she’bichlalos – a pasuk which teaches us multiple prohibitions,” and one does not get malkus when he transgresses one of these prohibitions. What about the prohibition of not eating before davening: Is that also included in the Scriptural prohibition?
The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 248) writes about the many issurim that are included in this pasuk, and also makes reference to this prohibition of not eating before davening. The Minchas Chinuch writes that we see from here that the Chinuch considers this prohibition of not eating before davening a Scriptural prohibition as well. The Minchas Chinuch points out that other Rishonim, including the Talmidei Rabeinu Yonah (on the Rif) disagree and consider this a rabbinical issur, and the pasuk ‘לא תאכלו על הדם’ – an asmachta, a Scriptural allusion to the issur of not eating before davening.
The Minchas Chinuch adds that this should depend on the well-known machlokes if davening every day is a Scriptural commandment or a rabbinical mandate. If the mitzvah of davening is Midrabanan, the issur to eat prior to davening must also be Midrabanan, since the Torah is not prohibiting eating before davening if there is no such requirement in the Torah. The Sefer Hachinuch, who rules that the issur before davening is Min HaTorah, fits with his opinion (Mitzvah 433), in following the opinion of the Rambam that davening is a mitzvah Min HaTorah.
The Minchas Chinuch points out that the Rambam (Tefilah 6:4) does not mention the pasuk ‘לא תאכלו על הדם’ as a source for not eating before davening, which would imply that he holds like the opinion that it is only Midrabanan. However, he does quote the pasuk in his Sefer Hamitzvos (Shoresh 9), when he delineates the various prohibitions that are learned from this pasuk, so we see that he also understood that the issur is a Scriptural prohibition.
Why is this different than the prohibition to eat before other mitzvos?
When discussing this issur of eating before davening, one may wonder why a special prohibition is needed for this. In general, before one performs any mitzvah, there is an issur to eat. The Gemara in Sukkah (38a), as well as the Shulchan Aruch (652:2), spell this out clearly when discussing that one may not eat before netilas lulav. That being the case, why is there a need for a specific issur to eat before davening? According to the opinions that the issur of eating before davening is a Scriptural prohibition, we can answer that this is indeed unique, since the issur of eating before other mitzvos is usually of a rabbinical nature, whereas this issur of eating before davening is Min Hatorah. However, according to those who are of the opinion that eating before davening is also a rabbinical one, why is there a need to have a specific issur to eat before davening?
The Yismach Moshe (in his teshuva sefer – Heishiv Moshe) writes that this issur of eating before davening is fundamentally different, as it includes even a te’ima, having a small bite. When it comes to other mitzvos, such as lulav and megillah, the Shulchan Aruch (652:2, 692:4) uses the expression “eating.” The Mishna Berura points this out, adding that a small bite, up to an egg-size of bread, is allowed. However, before davening, even a bite is forbidden, as the Rambam (Tefilah 6:4), and the Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 248) write clearly.
What about drinking a cup of coffee?
The Minchas Chinuch also points to the expression – that even a small bite is forbidden – used by the Rambam and the Chinuch, but wonders where this addition is learned out, since the Gemara only discusses eating. He adds that if the issur of eating before davening is of a rabbinical nature one can suggest that this is how the issur was made, to include even a bite. However, if it is an issur learned out from the pasuk: ‘לא תאכלו’ – “do not eat,” how do we have a right to add that even a small bite is included? The Beis Meir suggests that we can learn this from the fact that even a drink is forbidden, as mentioned in the second source of the Gemara, which is something we do not find in regards to other mitzvos. If even a drink – which is not more than a snack – is forbidden before davening, certainly a snack, or a small bite of food is forbidden, as well.
What types of drinks are forbidden?
As mentioned, even drinking before davening is forbidden? Does that include all drinks? The Shulchan Aruch (89:3) quotes the Rosh, who writes that drinking water is allowed, since that is not an expression of haughtiness to have a drink of water before davening. However, other drinks are forbidden. What about a cup of coffee or tea? The Mishna Berura (89:22) allows coffee or tea if it will help a person daven better, especially in a society where one cannot concentrate well in the morning without a dose of caffeine.
The Mishna Berura adds that the Achronim do not allow adding milk or sugar, because coffee and tea is not the same as water, and is only permitted to help the person concentrate on the davening. He then adds that the prevalent custom is to allow putting in sugar. He explains that if one is only putting the sugar cube in his mouth to sweeten the coffee (a common practice in those days), and make it easier to drink, it is allowed. However, putting the sugar into the drink itself is still forbidden, because that is equivalent to a bona fide drink which is considered haughty when drinking before davening.
The Aruch Hashulchan, however, writes that even adding sugar into the drink itself is fine, since it is still not more than a sweetener. However, he is still not excited about adding milk, because milk is already adding nutrition and is similar to eating. But, he then adds that the prevalent custom is to allow adding milk, since it is just to add taste to the coffee, and make it easier to drink. This is indeed the prevalent custom, and many people drink a coffee – with milk and sugar – in the morning before davening.
Can we drink before other mitzvos?
As we explained, although the issur of eating before davening is stricter than before other mitzvos, and even a drink is not allowed, the minhag is to allow a coffee or tea. That being the case, when it comes to other mitzvos, such as lulav and megillah, one should most certainly be allowed to drink a coffee before performing these mitzvos. In fact, the Aruch Hashulcah writes this clearly. However, the Daas Torah and the Kaf Hachaim write that there are those who are stricter when it comes to drinking before other mitzvos and will not even allow a coffee.
According to this custom, on Sukkos morning, prior to taking the lulav one should not drink anything. However, this is only true before one took the lulav. Once the lulav was taken, even though it is before davening, we return to the regular halacha of every day and one would be allowed to have his cup of coffee.
There are two sources for the issur of eating before davening, and even a small bite is forbidden. One is that one cannot eat before davening for his “blood,” and the second is that one cannot eat before accepting the yoke of Heaven. There is a machlokes if this prohibition is Scriptural or rabbinical.
Regarding drinking before davening, water is permitted, and today the prevalent custom is that coffee or tea, even with milk and sugar, is permitted as it helps one daven better.