The fourth chapter of Berakhot begins partway down the first side of today’s page with a mishnah discussing the times one is obligated to recite the three daily Amidahs:
The morning prayer [i.e. morning Amidah] may be recited until noon.
Rabbi Yehuda says: Until four hours after sunrise.
The afternoon prayer [Amidah] may be recited until the evening.
Rabbi Yehuda says: Only until the midpoint of the afternoon.
The evening prayer [Amidah] may be recited throughout the night.
Let’s begin by clearing up a common point of confusion. When the mishnah says “prayer” (תפלה) in this context, it means specifically the Amidah. The Amidah — the core set of 18 benedictions recited while standing — was, for the rabbis, the prayer.
According to this mishnah, the morning Amidah can be recited until midday (though Rabbi Yehudah gives a slightly earlier deadline). But the Gemara immediately raises an objection based on another teaching that the morning Shema must be said precisely at sunrise.
But even if one holds that the Shema must be recited at sunrise, why not say the Shema then and wait a few hours for the Amidah? The reason is a desire to juxtapose two components of morning worship: redemption and prayer. Prayer, as we stated, means the Amidah. Redemption refers to the Shema — and specifically the blessing recited right after it, which emphasizes God’s promise to redeem Israel. The rabbis considered it important to join these two components by reciting one immediately after the other. So if the morning Shema must be said at daybreak, so must the morning Amidah.
This is a curious, and seemingly onerous requirement. Prayers typically have ranges of times during which they can be said. The first chapter of Berakhot established a range of times for the evening Shema. And in this very same mishnah, the rabbis argue over whether the afternoon prayer, minchah, can be said until the evening or if the cutoff is earlier, but no one suggests there’s a specific hour of the day when it must be recited. Even more leniently, maariv, the evening prayer, can be said anytime after dusk. So is it really possible that the morning service must be said precisely at the moment of sunrise?
Fortunately for observant Jews who like to sleep in, the Gemara tells us reciting precisely at sunrise is not required, though this was the practice of the vatikin (ותיקין) — those most scrupulous in their observance of the commandments. These punctilious folks would begin the morning service while it was still dark, arrive at the Shema prayer just as the sun was appearing, and then recite the Amidah immediately upon daybreak.
Vestiges of this practice remain today in communities that hold very early services — often referred to as hashkamah (השכמה) services, from the Hebrew for “waking up.”
If you want to follow the vatikin and get a jump on your morning prayers, you’ll have to begin the Shema just prior to sunrise. Fortunately, most Jews who pray the morning service do so at a slightly more sensible hour.