Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Living Liminality / Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 2b

Many years ago, the daughter of dear friends became a bat mitzvah. Her family held a reception in their home that evening. Standing on the front porch, her father said, “Would you lead Havdalah?” I told him I would be honored and delighted. “Do you think it’s time? Wait, I’ll go check my computer,” he said and turned to walk into the house. Chuckling, I grabbed his arm, pointed to the sky, and counted stars, “One, two, three. It’s time.”

The Rabbis in Eretz Yisrael ask what constitutes “night time” for the purposes of saying the Shema. They choose an astronomical sign provided by God and visible everywhere (except on an overcast night). The luminaries in the firmament are their clock. Would that we could live a life so intimately tuned to the physical universe in which we abide, but which we largely ignore thanks to feats of human engineering.

When the stars appear, night has descended.

But how many stars must appear for it to be considered night? R. Pinchas in the name of R. Abba bar Pappa says that when one star is visible it is definitely still day; when two stars are visible, it is uncertain whether it is day or night; when three stars are visible, it is night.

It would seem then that the short period when two stars are visible is liminal time. It is bein ha-shemashot (twilight), neither day nor night. For a tradition that categorizes everything (permitted/forbidden, ritually clean/ritually unclean, holy/mundane, kasher/traife), time that stands outside the day/night dichotomy causes discomfort and anxiety. What is it? How do we consider it? What is permitted? What is forbidden?

There are two times a week when we are concerned with whether it is day or night with respect to the prohibition of melachah [work forbidden on shabbat]: when shabbat arrives and when it departs. When must we cease work, and when may we recommence work?

The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) offers two formulations, one that accepts liminal time, and one that attempts to obviate it. The first formulation is that of the same R. Pinchas mentioned above.
On the eve of shabbat, if someone saw one star and performed melachah [work that is forbidden on shabbat], he is exempt [from bringing a sin offering]. [If he saw] two [stars], he brings a conditional guilt offering. [If he saw] three [stars] he brings a sin offering. At the conclusion of shabbat, if someone saw one star and did melachah [work that is forbidden on shabbat] he he brings a sin offering. [If he saw] two [stars] he brings a conditional guilt offering. [If he saw] three [stars] he is exempt.
R. Pinchas’ interpretation is consistent with what he says above. The cases of one star and three stars are clear: on erev shabbat one star means it is still day, so no violation has occurred; three stars means it is shabbat, and therefore a violation has occurred. On the other end, motza’ei shabbat (the conclusion of shabbat), one star is still shabbat so a violation has occurred, but three stars is no longer shabbat so no violation has occurred. In between, for that short period of time that we cannot define, a conditional guilt offering is brought, acknowledging that perhaps a violation has occurred, but we don’t really know.

The second formulation is that of R. Yosi the son of R. Bun. R. Yose feels compelled to pin down the two-star moment and place it in either the day or night category on both ends (erev shabbat and motza’ei shabbat).

R. Yose the son of R. Bun explained:

If you say that when there are two stars, it is a questionable [situation] [here are the two possibilities to analyze]:

If he saw two stars on the eve of shabbat and they warned him, but he did melachah [work that is forbidden on shabbat], and if he saw two stars at the conclusion of shabbat, and they warned him but he did melachah [work that is forbidden on shabbat], whatever your desire [to say about the period when two stars are visible, he has transgressed the prohibition of melachah [at either the beginning or conclusion of shabbat].

If the first [two stars] [mean that it is still] day, then the latter [two stars at the end of shabbat] [also mean that it is] day, and he will be liable [for what he does] during the latter [stars]. If the latter [stars] [mean that is] night, then also the former [two stars on erev shabbat] also [mean that it is] night. And he will be liable [for what he does] during the former [stars].
R. Yose gives us two options:

Option #1 is where we claim that two visible stars is still daytime. One who does melachah during this period, both during the arrival and at the conclusion of shabbat, is violating the prohibition at both ends. But how can this be? If two stars before shabbat is day, he is not in violation. R. Yose adds the condition that he was warned that his work might be considered a violation. If it is not a violation before shabbat, then it certainly is at the end of shabbat. In this case, the liminal period of bein hashemashot (twilight) is defined as day.

Alternatively, Option #2 is where the first star is considered day, and the second and third star are considered night. Consistency demands that we apply the same standard at the beginning and conclusion of shabbat. If he is not guilty at the first star before shabbat (because it is day), he must certainly be guilty at the first star at the conclusion of shabbat (because it is day – it is still shabbat). In this case, the liminal period of bein hashemashot is defined as night.

We can applaud R. Yose for his consistency and logic. The first scenario strains logic, but R. Yose repairs that by adding the dimension of the warning. I think his reasoning is not a case of “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (those immortal words of Ralph Waldo Emerson), but rather a case of discomfort. R. Yose cannot live with the uncertain, undefined, uncategorized two-star moment. The liminal state of bein hashemashot makes him anxious.

British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner (1920-1983) studied liminality in rituals. (Turner published “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage” in his 1967 book The Forest of Symbols.) Liminality is an in-between state characterized by being outside established structures (including hierarchies). It is, at its core, a state of uncertainty, defying clear definition. It is unstable. This is why it is a source of discomfort and anxiety to many in authority.

Yet Jewish life and tradition are filled with liminal moments, even extended liminal periods of time. The ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a liminal time when we, like Jonah in the belly of the big fish, are suspended between life and death. The Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness – neither slaves in Egypt nor free people in Eretz Yisrael – was a liminal time. In a sense, our entire lives can be seen as lived in the liminal time between Creation and ultimate redemption, the Messianic Age.

What is it that R. Pinchas can live with, and indeed honor, but which makes R. Yose so uncomfortable? It is uncertainty. Yet life is filled with uncertainty. Perhaps it is more honest to say, as author Ursula LeGuin observed, “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.” If uncertainty brings discomfort, it is also, according to Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Ilya Prigogine, “at the very heart of human creativity.” It is uncertainty – and our willingness to invite it into our lives – that opens our minds and hearts to new ideas, new experiences, and new ways to conceive the world and our place in it. Living with liminal, uncertain time, is an excellent training ground.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, March 18, 2011


(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.