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How to Time Vatikin?

When minyanim closed, I started davening vatikin (starting Shemoneh Esrei (=SE) at hanetz hachama (sunrise=netz)). If I do not know precisely when netz is, is it better to err on the side of starting SE before or after netz?
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Question: When minyanim closed, I started davening vatikin (starting Shemoneh Esrei (=SE) at hanetz hachama (sunrise=netz)). If I do not know precisely when netz is, is it better to err on the side of starting SE before or after netz?

Answer: That is a noble approach (see Living the Halachic Process II, A-5 on whether vatikin or a minyan has a greater impact). The gemara (Berachot 9b, see Tosafot ad loc.) considered it a rare feat to do vatikin precisely. While we have clocks and sunrise tables, it is still difficult because: most round to the minute; there are machlokot how to determine sunrise when there are topographical differences between one’s locale and the horizon or between his location and the one in the city used for the table. For this reason, Rav Moshe Feinstein (cited by Tefilla K’hilchata 3:(34)) prefers tefilla with a minyan to an attempted tefilla k’vatikin.

There are many levels of preference for morning Kri’at Shema (=KS) and SE. The consensus of poskim (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 58:1) is that vatikin as practiced is an ideal way to daven and succeeding in being precise is a bonus (see above). (It is unclear what is considered precise and close enough to be vatikin, respectively.) Beyond that, the gradations are, for KS (from best to worst) – after misheyakir (50-60 minutes before netz) (Shulchan Aruch, OC 58:1-3); between netz and sof z’man KS; soon after alot hashachar. Regarding tefilla – clearly after netz before sof z’man tefilla; clearly before netz; soon after alot hashachar; after four hours into the day.

Ostensibly, if one tries for vatikin and misses by a few minutes, this will make KS or SE, respectively not of the highest non-vatikin level. Which is our main goal and/or concern?

The gemara (Berachot 9b) praises vatikin because "they would finish [KS and its berachot] with sunrise, so that they would have the beracha of geula next to tefilla and their tefilla ends up in the day." It continues that this fulfills "they will fear You with the sun" (Tehillim 72:5). Most commentaries (including Rabbeinu Yona) understand that this puts stress on tefilla being soon after the sun appears, and this is the main reason to finish KS at that time. Furthermore, the gemara in Yoma (37a) tells that when the sun made the chandelier in the Beit Hamikdash courtyard sparkle, the masses of people knew it was time for KS. Tosafot (Berachot 9b) says that this refers to those who did not know how to time vatikin. Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafot, Yoma 37b), though, learns from here that the best time for KS is actually right after netz, to be followed by SE, and that "vatikin" is less preferred. He views the pasuk in Tehillim as going on KS. We do not pasken like Rabbeinu Tam. Tosafot (ibid.) posits that it is better for one who cannot implement vatikin to do KS and SE after netz, as vatikin’s proponents agree that KS is fully acceptable then.

Furthermore, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 89:8) views SE before netz as before its time and not justified without a good reason (see Be’ur Halacha to 89:1). The Pri Chadash (ad loc.) argues that if one misses the special level of vatikin, there is no difference between tefilla before and after netz. The Shulchan Aruch’s opinion is more accepted, and there is much discussion as to whether it is better do daven with a minyan before netz or without one after netz (see Piskei Teshuvot 89:4).

Finally, while there may be some value in reciting birchot KS at the time of KS (see Mishna Berura 58:1), it is not critical (see Rama, OC 46:9; Mishna Berura 46:31). This is especially so if one has almost finished them and is waiting near "… ga’al Yisrael," which connects to SE (see Tefilla K’hilchata 3:24; Yisrael V’hazemanim II, 7). Therefore, if you are just a couple minutes late, KS was said at its best time.

Based on the above, when one has a choice, it is better to be off by being late than earlier than the precise vatikin. However, the minhag is to follow one’s best information without worrying that it might be an inexact vatikin, which likely counts as vatikin.
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