My teacher, Rabbi Judith Abrams, taught me to ask why the redactors of the Talmud placed certain discussions in the precise places in which they are found. The reasonable assumption is the Talmud is not merely a vast anthology, randomly thrown together, but a composition brought together with subtlety to teach lesson embedded within lesson.
Her assumption bears fruit when you consider the section on suffering found in the opening pages of the first tractate of the Talmud, Berachot – Blessings. How and more importantly why, did we move so quickly from the simple question of when one can begin reciting the Shema, the affirmation of God’s unity, in the evening, to the metaphysical contemplation of deserved and undeserved suffering? On one hand we are discussing definitions, when does a certain time period, suitable for the evening Shema, begin. On the other hand we are exploring the existential experience of suffering. It seems quite a stretch.
At the end of daf 4b Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asserts that even though “one has recited the Shema in the synagogue, it remains a mitzvah, an obligation, to recite it at bedtime.” The verses brought to prove his point, both from Psalms, hint at something more than a pious act of affirmation. The first advises, “Tremble and sin not…”, while the second speaks of redemption. When you lay down at night are you focused on sin and redemption? I am not. If I have the time to clear my head from the thoughts of the day past and the anticipation of the day ahead, I consider myself lucky. Yet the sages saw a greater drama playing out at bedside.
Just a bit farther down the page (5a) Rabbi Isaac reveals what is really at stake. “If one recites the Shema at bedtime, the demons keep away from him.” A friend told me that in her Confirmation class, circa the late 60’s, the rabbi taught that if you recite the Shema before bedtime you will never have nightmares – and she swears that the teaching has been true for her over the decades. This must be the source.
Rabbi Isaac hints that at night, when we are unaware and unable to protect ourselves, malevolent forces, demons, gather to cause us harm. While asleep we are unable to protect ourselves as we might during the day, so our best line of protection is to call down God’s power through the recitation of the Shema.
Here we find the connection between the recitation of the Shema and the contemplation of suffering. It is a small step from recognizing the damaging forces that surround us to contemplating the effect of those damages, what we call suffering. It is an obvious step to move, as the Gemara will soon do, between those sufferings we understand, because we can trace their sources within our own behavior, and those which come upon us undeserved.
This extended discussion, ushered in by Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and Rabbi Isaac, poses a challenge. What are you doing when you recite the Shema? Is it an affirmation or a protection?
(c) 2009 by Rabbi Louis Rieser