(Note: With this posting we begin a new tractate in our on-going study. We are turning to the opening tractate Berachot (Prayers) of the Yerushalmi, also known as the Talmud of the Land of Israel.)
The Talmud opens with a question of time: “From what hour may one recite the Shema in the evening, that is, when does nightfall occur so we can fulfill the obligation to say the Shema “when we lie down.” In our contemporary world a question of time focuses us on the clock, but I believe that leads us in the wrong direction as we consider the Sage’s answers. The responses found in the Mishnah and the two Talmuds (from Babylonia and from the Land of Israel), uncover new dimensions to this question of time. They mark this time in distinctively different ways from what we might expect.
The Mishnah defines nightfall as that moment when the Kohanim, in the time of the Temple, would enter to eat their terumah. Some definition is needed. If a Kohen, a priest who served at the altar in the Holy Temple, encountered some form of impurity, they needed to immerse in a mikveh, a ritual bath, and wait until nightfall before they could re-enter the Temple and eat from the terumah, the portion of the offerings reserved for the priests. The priests, apparently, would parade back to the Temple after purifying themselves in the mikveh, providing a visible, public moment which could define nightfall. When these kohanim could once again eat their due, it was considered nightfall.
Fine, but neither the author of the Mishnah, nor anyone who he knew had ever seen this moment. The Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, fully 130 years before the Mishnah’s composition by Rabbi Judah HaNasi. While the answer may have been useful in Temple times, by the time of the Mishnah the reference must have had other resonances. One possibility is that it serves to remind us of the tragedy that accompanied the loss of the Temple and which gave birth to this new way of observance. I suspect, however, that there is a more elegant lesson to be learned.
The Talmud of the Land of Israel (Yerushalmi) responds to the mishnah, offering its own definition of nightfall. Rabbi Hiyya teaches that it is simply when people ordinarily enter to eat their bread on Shabbat eve. This sounds like a reasonably direct restatement of the Mishnah, just translated into a more common experience. Dinner time marks evening; evening is the time for the Shema; once people begin dinner, you may begin the Shema. Except that is not quite what Rabbi Hiyya says.
Note that neither the Mishnah nor Rabbi Hiyya answer by referencing ordinary time. Why not simply say that one may recite the Shema when people ordinarily eat dinner? That would offer the most widely recognized time – everyone eats dinner. They opt instead for a less common experience – the Mishnah relates it to the Temple while Rabbi Hiyya relates it to Shabbat. One is holy space while the other is holy time. The issue may not be the particular hour at all, rather the crucial element may be that one enters into a time or place of holiness when reciting the Shema.
In our contemporary world we often focus on the words of the Shema, proclaiming them to be the watchword of our faith. The Mishnah and the Talmud seem to have a different focus. The opening teachings on how to recite the Shema in the first two chapters of the Mishnah emphasize the performance of the prayer – the times, the posture, the orientation of our bodies. If not the words, what is the significance of the Shema?
The opening passage of the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 2A) addresses the mishnah’s question in a manner that bears little resemblance to the other answers we have considered. Rather than offering a definition of when nightfall occurs, they ask why the mishnah begins by talking about the evening Shema rather than the morning recitation. It seems like a no-win question; if they had begun with the morning the question would have been about the evening. But there is a point to this seemingly pointless question.
The gemara first considers whether the verse in the Shema, “and you shall recite them … when you lie down and when you rise up”, explains the order. Could it simply be a matter of word order? But that explanation is rejected in favor of a different proof text drawn from Genesis 1:5: “And it was evening and it was morning, Day One.” (Genesis 1:5) The Babylonian Talmud suggests that we begin discussing the evening Shema first because that places us in God’s time frame. Reciting the Shema in its proper order and time, this suggests, aligns us with the holiness of Creation.
These three responses to the Mishnah’s question agree that there is an intimate connection between the recitation of the Shema and holiness. They offer distinctly different understandings of that holy moment. For the Mishnah we imaginatively enter the holy precincts of the Temple, the place of meeting and atonement between God and Israel. For the Yerushalmi, we mimic Shabbat, the moment that unites Creation and Redemption. For the Bavli we place ourselves onto the Divine clock; if God sustains the cosmos at every moment, our recitation of the Shema morning and evening allows us to become God’s partners as we sanctify each day.
What might change if we approached the recitation of the Shema in this way? This understanding suggests that the recitation of the Shema is not an intellectual experience, but one that involves our entire being. In pronouncing the Shema, we commit ourselves – body, soul and strength – as partners in the holy work of Creation. It is not an act to be taken lightly.