Question: Until what time may one pray Mincha?
Answer: In order to properly understand the answer, we must preface this discussion by saying that anytime we use the word “sunset”, this refers to the time of sunset as printed in all halachic calendars worldwide.
The Gemara (Berachot 29b) states: “Rabbi Yochanan said: It is a Mitzvah to pray with the rising and setting of the sun, as the verse states, ‘They shall fear you with the sun’-which refers to the Shacharit prayer, ‘And before the moon for all generations’-which refers to the Mincha prayer.” This means that according to Rabbi Yochanan, it is especially preferable to pray Mincha as the sun sets. The Gemara then proceeds, “The sages of the Land of Israel spoke derogatorily of one who prayed [Mincha] as the sun set” lest a situation arise as a result of which one will miss out on praying Mincha entirely.
It seems, therefore, that one should make sure to pray Mincha well before sunset, as opposed to waiting until just before sunset to pray. This would stand in contrast with the prevalent custom among many synagogues which customarily pray Mincha right before sunset and pray Arvit immediately afterwards. Similarly, many righteous women pray Mincha right before sunset, as well.
Indeed, the saintly Ari z”l would likewise pray Mincha slightly before sunset and he would then pray Arvit right afterwards. It would seem that the Ari’s custom is also in contrast of the comment of the Sages of the Land of Israel quoted above. Hagaon Rabbeinu Yosef Haim zt”l writes in his Ben Ish Hai (Parashat Ki-Tissa) that the reason why the Ari z”l was not concerned with the opinion of the Sages of the Land of Israel is because the whole reason they said not to pray too close to sunset is because something may happen and one may miss the time for prayer; regarding the Ari z”l, on the other hand, who had a designated Minyan who prayed with him every day and would wait specifically wait for this time, there was no concern that he (or his Minyan) would neglect the Mincha prayer in any way.
Thus, according to the Ben Ish Hai, one should not pray too close to sunset and one should make sure to pray Mincha somewhat earlier. Only the Ari z”l, who had a special Minyan that prayed specifically at this time, could pray close to the time of sunset.
On the other hand, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l points out in his Halichot Olam (Volume 1, page 248) that it seems from the words of the Gemara that there is no distinction between different people regarding this Halacha and it seems that the law of not praying the Mincha prayer too late applies to all people at all times.
Maran Ha’Bet Yosef (beginning of Chapter 232) quotes in the name of the Hagahot Maimoni that when the Gemara states the Sages of the Land of Israel said that one should pray Mincha as the sun set, this refers to one who prays at the time the sun is already setting. However, if one prays before sunset, even if it is only several minutes before, there is nothing wrong with such behavior. Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l proves that the great Ari would likewise pray Mincha close to sunset but not as the sun actually set, for the saintly Ari would pray Mincha with his Tefillin (according to the Shimusha Rabba’s opinion) on and he was always careful to remove his Tefillin before sunset. Thus, the custom of the Ari to pray Mincha later does not mean he prayed along with sunset; rather, he would pray slightly before sunset.
Thus, when the Sages of the Land of Israel said not to pray Mincha too late, this refers to praying at the actual time of sunset. Thus, the custom observed by many synagogues, as was the practice of the great Ari z”l, to pray Mincha late refers to praying several minutes before sunset and there is no concern in this regard at all.
Halachically speaking, it is permissible to pray Mincha slightly before sunset, as is the practice in many synagogues and that of many righteous women. However, one should not postpone praying Mincha until past sunset, lest something happen and one will miss the time for prayer entirely.
Nevertheless, if the time of sunset passes, one may pray Mincha until thirteen-and-a-half seasonal minutes after sunset (which ranges between ten and twenty minutes after sunset).