What's in the Name Mincha?

According to one classic view in the Gemara
(Berachot 26b), the obligation of daily prayer is
derived from a verse in Parshat Chayei Sarah, “Vayetze
Yitzchak la-su’ach ba-sadeh lifnot arev
,” “Yitzchak went to meditate in the field toward evening” (Bereishit 24:63). Chazal’s association, however, raises an immediate problem: why is Mincha called by its name? After all, Shacharit and Ma’ariv are each named after the morning and evening hours, respectively. The term Mincha, however, on the surface, is not named after a particular time of day. Why then not call it “lifnot erev” after the episode of Yitzchak or “bein ha’arbayim” after the associated daily sacrifice?

In his commentary to the Mishnah, Rambam
(Berachot 4:1) asserts that “mincha” in fact does
refer to the time of day: specifically, the term refers to menuchat ha-shemesh, the setting of the sun. Although Rambam’s suggestion certainly has merit in that the name “Mincha” refers to the time of day much as Shacharit and Ma’ariv, his interpretation seems difficult in that, given the close connection we generally take for granted between the afternoon tamid and the Mincha prayer, “tefillat bein ha’arbayim” seems like a far more obvious choice.

To resolve the problem, then, we must
challenge the underlying assumption that Mincha is
modeled after the tamid. In particular, Rabbi Yose
(Yerushalmi Berachot 4:1) suggests that the
afternoon prayer is not fashioned after the korban tamid but rather the ketoret, incense offering, and ketoret is in turn referred to as a “mincha,” gift to God. Indeed, Hagahot Maimaniyot (Perek 3 of Rambam’s Hilchot Tefilla) utilizes Rabbi Yose’s view to explain the puzzling position of Rashi (Berachot 26a s.v. ad) that one may recite Mincha until nightfall, not just sunset: according to the Hagahot Maimaniyot, whereas the korban tamid was only offered until sunset (Zevachim 56a), the ketoret could be offered until nightfall.

Rabbi Yose’s linkage between the afternoon
service and the incense offering not only enables us
to resolve Rashi’s opinion as well as the prayer’s
puzzling name, but it also sheds new light on the
nature of Tefillat Mincha. While we might have
viewed Mincha as simply the counterpart of the
morning services, according to Rabbi Yose, Mincha
features a dimension that is distinct from Shacharit
and is especially tied to the symbolism of the
ketoret. In regard to the incense, the rabbis teach
(Tanchuma Tetzaveh 15) that Hashem finds no
offering more pleasing than the ketoret, for it is not offered to atone for the Jewish people but simply as an act of joyous service. Mincha, then, by extension is cut from similar cloth. At first blush, Mincha, recited in the middle of the day, seems like it is inconveniently timed to disrupt our daily activities. For Rabbi Yose, however, that is perhaps precisely the point. By carving out time from our sometimes frenzied daily schedules, we communicate to Hashem and ourselves that our tefillot are not intended selfishly but as a pure gift of love to God.

May our Mincha prayers indeed approach the sense of pure devotion captured by the ketoret, and may God in turn accept our tefillot with love in equal measure.