The laws of the evening prayer – Maariv.
1. One should try not to pray the evening prayer before the night starts i.e. three average stars can be seen on the sky. However, when it is really needed it is permitted to pray maariv after “Plag Hamincha” – 1 ¼ hours before sundown. As usually, a halachic hour is 1/12 of the day. On a day when one is praying Maariv early, he should try to pray mincha before the “plag hamincha”. As we learn in Parshas Vaeschanan, we need to pronounce certain Torah portions called Shema every evening. Usually these passages are pronounced during the evening prayer, but the one who prayed early needs to pronounce them again once the stars come out.
2. Once the time for evening prayer is approaching, one should not start a meal until he prayed. In general, once the stars come out, one should not delay the evening prayer. At any rate, one should try to pray before midnight. However, if he did not do so, he can still pray the evening prayer until dawn.
3. It’s a mitzvah to wash hands before the evening prayer, but the one who prays Maariv right after mincha does not have to wash hands a second time.
4. It is preferable to learn Torah at least for some time every night. In many synagogues, the congregation prays mincha, then the Rabbi gives a small class until nightfall and then everybody prays Maariv.
5. One should not eat too much before going to sleep. Besides that it is unhealthy, it makes it difficult waking up on time. Overeating can also cause bad nightmares and sometimes a man who overate has his sperm come out during sleep. One should go to sleep early enough to wake up for the morning prayers.
6. Before going to sleep, one should try to think about everything he did during the day. Was he watchful about keeping the commandments? Was he careful to avoid the bad qualities like jealousy, hatred, anger, and pride? Was he careful about his language? Did he use the precious time for keeping the mitzvos? If we find something inappropriate that we did, we need to consider what measures to take so as not to repeat it. Usually, one needs to make extra fences in order to not do the wrong again. We should also ask the Creator to help us avoid doing wrong. One should forgive others who did wrong to him; our sages teach that the one who easily forgives is easily forgiven by the Creator.
7. Before going to sleep, we say Shema again and also pronounce the blessing “Hamapil” – we thank the Creator for sending the sleepiness and ask that we see only good dreams and that we don’t die during the sleep. This blessing as well as other verses that are said before going to sleep are printed in the Sidurs. If one can not fall asleep, he could keep repeating Shema a few times.
The laws of tzedoko – giving charity.
1. One of the fundamental mitzvos of Torah is giving money and property to poor. Many verses of the Torah command us to be generous and not be stingy when giving to the poor. Nobody becomes poor from giving tzedoko – on the contrary, the one who gives gets blessed. Anybody who turns away from the poor and does not give them, breaks a Torah commandment. The Torah constantly tells us that charity is greater than any sacrifice. By giving to the poor we show our trust in the Creator – the world does not belong to us. Everything we earn is His and He only requires us to give a portion promising to bless us. It is for this reason that the word “tzedoko” actually comes from the word “right” and “correct”. It is not simply an act of mercy – rather it is correct to give to those who have less. Generosity is the quality of our nation and those who are stingy to the poor show that they are not descendants of Avraham. One of the mitzvahs that will speed up our deliverance from exile is tzedoko. The Creator is merciful to those who are merciful to the poor. Using tzedoko we can prevent many decrees against our nation.
2. Everybody has to give tzedoko. Even the one who himself lives on other people’s assistance, if he has some extra money he should separate a portion to tzedoko. Moreover, a small donation of a poor person can sometimes be considered a greater mitzvah than a large donation of a rich man.
3. In the ideal case, when there are a lot of rich people and few poor, our communities give the impoverished everything they need. If a poor man is accustomed to eat meat every day, this is provided. The community takes care of his living accommodations, if he is alone, they try to find him a wife and pay for the wedding. Unfortunately, this ideal situation rarely happens, usually there are a lot more poor than rich and then the principles of priority apply. For example, a woman is provided for before a man, feeding everybody comes before providing the proper clothing etc.
4. Regarding an individual, he is not obligated to fully provide for every poor person that comes to him. However, he should not let him go empty handed – he should give at least something. One has to take care not to embarrass or criticize the poor person. Rather one should try to console him. Throughout the year we should separate from a tenth to a fifth of our income for various charity needs. This includes the money we donate to various organizations like Yeshivahs, the organizations that organize weddings for poor, publish religious books used for Torah study and to bring people close to Judaism. In some cases, people whose income is small can even consider the support of their own children older than six or poor elderly parents as charity. However, those that can afford should not use the charity money for supporting parents.
5. Any promise to give tzedoko is considered an oath, therefore a person who is not sure if he will be able to give tzedoko should say “Bli Neder” – without an oath.
6. One of the best ways of tzedoko is helping the one whose business is in trouble. Just as it is easier to help an animal from falling then to lift it after it fell, so too it is easier to help the one struggling before he needs to accept charity. It is also a great mitzvah to take a poor man as a business partner.
7. Whenever possible one should give tzedoko secretly so as not to embarrass the poor. Our sages teach – the one who takes from someone is ashamed to look into his face. In any case one should not be proud or tell others about the tzedoko he is giving.