Rav Amital has graciously allowed us to reprint his article in honor of Yom Haatzmaut.
Question: When we are on active duty we are often confronted with the following dilemma. We have a choice between saying Shacharit immediately after we awaken (but then the other observant soldiers in the unit will not have the opportunity to Daven with a Minyan), or we can say Shacharit later, affording everyone in the unit the opportunity to pray with a Minyan (but we would have to do various work activities prior to our Davening).
Response: The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 89:3) states: "One is forbidden to involve himself in his needs or to set out to travel until he has said the Amida [of Shacharit]." The question we must ask is what is the nature of this prohibition? One possibility is to say that the prohibition is absolute, that one may not engage in any work prior to Shacharit. A second possibility is to say that this prohibition applies only to engaging in work that may interfere in one's eventually saying Shacharit. This would be similar to the prohibition recorded in the Mishna (Shabbat 9a) that "one should not go to the barber prior to saying Mincha, nor should he enter the bathhouse, nor go to the tanner at that time, unless he has already recited Mincha." The Gemara explains that the reason for this rule is that Chazal were afraid that people would become preoccupied with these activities and forget to daven Mincha. Accordingly, one can say that activities that will not distract from Mincha would not be prohibited. Indeed, Biur Halacha (232:2 s.v L'boorsiki) cites Rishonim who adopt this lenient approach. Biur Halacha concludes that in case of need one may rely on these authorities who permit one to engage in activities prior to Mincha if these activities will not distract one from Mincha.
However, the aforementioned Shulchan Aruch (89:3) regarding work before Shacharit seems not to allow for such exceptions even in a case of need. Moreover, the Shulchan Aruch not only forbids "work" before Shacharit but even "involving himself in his needs." However, the Tzlach points out that three major Rishonim disagree with the ruling articulated in the Shulchan Aruch. The latter's ruling is based on the Gemara (Berachot 14a) which states, "One is forbidden to tend to his needs prior to reciting Shacharit" (Rashi asserts that this is the correct Talmudical text). Rif and Rosh (2:7), however, have a different reading of the text. Their reading is, "One is forbidden to begin traveling before Shacharit" (see Maadanei Yom Tov no. 19 on Rosh 2:7). According to the Rif and Rosh, no Talmudic source prohibits tending to one's needs before Shacharit. Rif and Rosh would appear to believe that there is no specific prohibition to engage in activities prior to Shacharit, beyond those activities which the Mishna (Shabbat 9a) prohibits to do before Mincha. We have already mentioned that many Poskim limited this prohibition to activities that would distract one from Mincha.
Similarly, the Tzlach argues, Rambam (Hilchot Tefila 6:4) writes that it is prohibited to engage in work prior to Shacharit. Rambam, however, does not write that one may not engage in one's needs prior to Shacharit. It appears that Rambam had the same text as the Rif and the Rosh of Berachot 14a which only prohibits work that would distract one from davening Shacharit.
The Tzlach concludes that even though the Shulchan Aruch records without dissent that one is forbidden to engage in his needs prior to Shacharit, we see that the Rif, Rambam, and the Rosh disagree with this rule. Nevertheless, the Tzlach concludes that in practice one should follow the strict ruling of the Shulchan Aruch.
Chayei Adam (16:1), however, records this halacha accordingly: "One may not tend to his needs unless there is a great need to do so at that time." One may ask what is Chayei Adam's source to permit tending to one's needs in case of great need? One possibility is that he believes that in case of great need one may rely on the lenient approach of Rif, Rambam, and Rosh. Alternatively, he may believe that the source for this halacha is not the passage in Berachot 14a but rather the following passage from Berachot 5b which states that "Aba Binyamin said that on these two matters he was particularly careful - that his prayers be recited 'before his bed' and that his bed should face from north to south." Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Samooch) and Tosfot (s.v. Ela) explain that he was careful not to do work before prayer so that he would say Shacharit soon after he rose from his bed. Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 3:13) rules that as far as the issue of having the bed facing north to south, the practice is to follow the opinion of the Tur that this is a "mere stringency" and not a requirement. It would seem, therefore, that in cases of significant need, the Aruch Hashulchan permits engaging in one's needs prior to Shacharit because the practice of avoiding chores before Shacharit is coupled with the rule of arranging one's bed from north to south. Since the Aruch Hashulchan considers the latter rule to constitute a "mere stringency," it would seem that he would consider the former rule also to be a "mere stringency" which can be waived in case of considerable need.
Another source to be lenient may be found in the Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 89:20), who writes that according to the Rambam this prohibition is rooted in the same reason why one may not eat prior to Shacharit. The Talmud (Berachot 10b) states that "whoever eats or drinks before Shacharit upon him applies the verse (Kings I 14:9) and 'you have shed me behind your body'". Aruch Hashulchan believes that for this reason one may not engage in his personal matters before Shacharit.
Accordingly, there may be room to rule leniently based on Biur Halacha (89:3 s.v. V'lo) who writes that it is not considered to have "shed God behind his body" if he has recited Kriat Shema before eating. Presumably, this leniency would apply to the prohibition of engaging in personal matters before Shacharit, as well.
A third source to rule leniently is Rama's ruling (Orach Chaim 89:3) that "there are those who are lenient [to permit engaging in personal matters] after one a has recited the blessings before Baruch Sheamar, but it is best to be strict regarding this matter." The source given for this ruling is Terumat Hadeshen (no. 18). However, upon investigating this source one finds that Terumat Hadeshen completely rejects the lenient approach. In fact, for this reason Aruch Hashulchan (89:21) and Shulchan Aruch Harav disagree with the Rema and write that one may not rely at all on this lenient approach.
However, an investigation of the newly published long version of Rama's commentary on the Tur, called Darkei Moshe, reveals that Rama's ruling is not based on the Terumot Hadashen (the source given for the Rama's ruling in the Shulchan Aruch were not written by the Rama). Rather, it is based on the opinion of Orchot Chaim who states, "But if he has begun to recite the blessings, since he thereby accepted upon himself the Heavenly Yoke, one need not be concern with [the issue of engaging in personal matters prior to Shacharit] so much."
Based on these three considerations of the Chayei Adam, Aruch Hashulchan, and Rema, one may engage in matters which will not involve excessive effort provided one has recited the Birchot Hashachar (morning blessings) or, preferably, recited Kriat Shema, in order to give the entire unit the opportunity to daven with a Minyan.