Night Moves

Berachot Daf 3 summary. Rabbi Meir was the author of two opinions about when one may say the Shema: (1) at the same time the Priests immerse themselves before eating Teruma and (2) at the same time people enter their homes to eat their bread on Sabbath Eve. Are these opinions consistent, one with the other? Two students of Meir point out that  there are two positions of Rabbi Eliezer that also seem to disagree with each other; one of the students suggests that one of the positions was not actually Eliezer’s, but was taught in his name by another student who misunderstood what he had been taught. The correct teaching is that the three evening watches on earth correspond to three watches in Heaven. The significance of the signs that signal the transition from one watch to the next are then debated.

After praying in a ruin, Rabbi Yosei learns an halakhic lesson from Elijah: one may not enter a ruin. (Rather, one should pray an abbreviated prayer by the roadside.) There are three reasons not to enter a ruin, which the Sages protest as an excessive number, so they inspect each one critically: would any one of them or any two of them suffice? All three reasons are judged to be valid. They are: (1) the suspicion of prostitution (i.e., that a witness might suspect that the one entering the ruin was seeking a liaison); (2) the possibility that the ruin will collapse; and (3) the possible presence of demons.

The text returns to the question of whether the night consists of three or four watches. Rabbi Yehuda ha Nasi declared the night has four watches; Rabbi Natan said three. Their reasoning is analyzed but neither is declared victorious.

The focus shifts to an apparently unrelated teaching: “Before the dead, one may speak only of matters related to the dead.” Debate commences over what may be discussed in the presence of a corpse.

The debate is interrupted by an account of King David’s habit of rising at midnight to study Torah: how did he know it was midnight? what did he do before midnight? how could David possibly know when it was precisely midnight? (He had a lyre that was suspended over his bed that was stirred by the “midnight wind.”) Once awakened, he would study Torah until dawn and then plot wars of conquest with his advisors.

Comment. Eliezer holds that you can say the Shema until the end of the first watch, but how many watches is he thinking there are in the night– the Greek army has three, the Romans have four? Eliezer, we learn, measures the watches as they are in Heaven, where there are three: “. . . and over each and every watch, the Holy One . . . sits and roars like a lion . . .” When God roars, it is the sound of his mourning over the destruction of the Temple– traditionally interpreted as a moment of “divine compassion” and an optimum time to pray. This is the first aggadic passage in the Talmud.

It is soon followed by another: Rabbi Yosei’s encounter with Elijah. In both instances, supernatural sounds are associated with prayer– God’s roar in the former and the voice that Yosei heard while praying in the ruin (“a Heavenly voice cooing like a dove”) in the latter. Both voices reflect God’s pain that the people must pray in ruins, in exile, anywhere but the Temple.

In this daf there is magic and danger in the night– Heavenly voices, demons, enchanted lyres, and spirits of the dead!

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One Response to Night Moves

  1. elenizl says:

    Indeed magic and danger! Into the Woods – don’t you think? These woods don’t yet have “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, or the slipper as pure as gold” but strange as it may sound (we’re all about sound today!) I don’t think they are too far off. But who will OUR teachers be as we enter these woods? When it’s over and done will we remember the teachings of our teachers in different and contradictory ways as those before us seem to have done time and time again or will we learn similar things from different teachers? Might we imagine the sound of God roaring in pain? And what about the sound of the heavenly voice? What might we learn? Into the Woods! It takes two!

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