Does Anybody Ever Really Know What Time It Is?

Berachot Daf 2 summary. Mishnah. The question is posed: when to recite the Shema in the evening. R’Eliezer says no earlier than when the priests may eat their Terumah (when the stars emerge in the evening) and no later than the end of the first watch. The Sages say it may be recited until Midnight. Rabbi Gamliel says it may be recited until the first light of dawn. The Mishnah notes that Gamliel is correct because the Sages always say Midnight when Biblical law makes it dawn (to defend people from inadvertent transgressions).  Gemara. What is the source of the Mishnah’s question and why is this the first question rather than when one may say the Shema in the morning? Perhaps it is modeled after Deut 6:7 (“when you lie down and when you arise”) or Gen 1:5 (“and there was evening and there was morning, one day”). The significance of timing the Shema by the Priest’s meal is debated. An alternative text sets the time “from when a poor person enters to eat his bread with salt until the time he gets up to take leave of his meal.” Another alternative: “From the time the people enter to eat their bread on Sabbath eves.” Or shall we say from when the workday ends and, if we do, how would we determine when that occurs? The question is raised regarding whether the Kohen, the poor person, and people are in fact on the same schedule. It is decided that they are not and the Gemara seeks to determine which time is later. Conclusion: the poor eat later.

Comment 1. There’s a whole world here: Priests who are not allowed to eat until they have made proper atonement for unspecified transgressions; poor people whose meal consists only of bread and salt; and all the people whose Sabbath meal begins with bread, followed by a weekly feast. Somewhere in this diverse population there is an optimum daily moment to discover when all of them can together affirm their common faith.

Comment 2: Rabban Gamliel, who declared that the evening Shema may be said until the first light of dawn, was once temporarily removed from the leadership of the Sanhedrin because of the strictness of his rulings. Note that here his ruling might be considered the most lenient. Whenever one of the Sages appears to be behaving uncharacteristically, it is worth considering that there is something more happening than is immediately apparent.

Comment 3. We will find in the Talmud many instances of what we now consider to be sexism. There are no obvious ones in the first daf, but the first name cited in this first daf, R’Eliezer, is also known to have declared, “Who teaches his daughter Torah is teaching her promiscuity.” I suppose one could argue that this statement could be interpreted to the effect that such a daughter would be unusual in her time and thus surrounded by men in the study hall, and this would not turn out well for her. Sigh.

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3 Responses to Does Anybody Ever Really Know What Time It Is?

  1. neillitt says:

    A friend wrote me offline: “It seems to me that one obstacle to Talmud study is the feeling that the Rabbis are continually digressing. I was struck with the sense that whenever we feel that way, we ought to concentrate on why this feels like a digression, or more precisely, what is the purpose the speaker finds in taking the path he takes” I agree completely. Since this is a redacted document and not a conversation, we have to assume that these did not seem to be digressions to the redactor. Some suggest that they are designed to support or undermine the ostensible argument.

    • neillitt says:

      The author of “It seems to me . . .” responded, “I understand that Rosenzweig accepted the results of the latest Biblical scholarship, except that he called R not Redactor but Rabbenu. If we think of the Redactor in that way, as our teacher and guider, it may help us.”

      • elenizl says:

        It’s not clear that “they” will be guiding us … paradoxically we may be guiding them as they come alive by our reading and engaging with them …..

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