In a 24/7 world such as ours what does it mean to do something, anything, at a certain time or during a certain timeframe? We live in a world where we can do so very many things at any time. Furthermore, as a society we seem to have lost the need to come together to do anything at a certain time.
So the Mishnah we encounter asks what must be a strange question for one whose sensibilities are more in tune with the contemporary world than with that of her grandparents, namely: “From when may we fulfill the obligation to recite the Sh’ma in the evenings?”
And I wonder why we would want to limit the recitation to any particular time or time period? In fact wouldn’t it be better to encourage people to say the Sh’ma all the time (that is, at all times) so that the Sh’ma might become a second consciousness alongside our everyday one? So maybe here is a piece of wisdom – the notion that a human being might be able to hold such a double consciousness of the sacred and the profane in her mind at all times is acknowledged (subtextually at least) as remote, if not impossible. What might be possible though is to say the Sh’ma twice a day “when we lie down at night and when we arise in the morning”.
So when may I fulfill the obligation of reciting the Sh’ma in the evenings? Would it be right before I go to bed? Or perhaps before flossing and brushing my teeth? I am often much too sleepy and more often than not I forget – that is the simple truth. But how much earlier would be okay? How about right after dinner, but before changing into my night shirt? Or maybe at dinner? Or before?
Why does this matter? The paradox seems to be that despite the question being a question of “when”, the answer to the question matters less than the fact of what it implies. It doesn’t really matter when. What matters is that it be done. And what the recitation of the Sh’ma does is encourage the acknowledgement of the “echad” (oneness) of the consciousness required to see the unity in all of the brokenness, unity in all of the fragments. When is the time that would most likely guarantee that I would indeed say it so that that wisdom of that oneness might leave a trace on my soul?
That’s the question this Mishnah invites me to ask.