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Studying the Talmud – Berachot 2a, First Mishnah

Chapter 1, page 1b:

Mishnah (I struggled with the layout, so forgive me for the result, I simply couldn’t get it better):

מאימתי קורין את שמע בערבין (?). משעה שהכהנים נכסים לאכול בתרומתן עד סוף האשמורה הראשונה דברי ר’ אליעזר. וחכמים אומרים עד חצות. רבן גמליאל אומר עד שיעלה עמוד השחר. 

מעשה(:) ובאו בניו מבית המשתה),) אמרו לו (:) לא קרינו את שמע(,) אמר להם(:) אם לא עלה עמוד השחר חייבין אתם לקרות  

ולא זו בלבד אמרו אלא כל מה שאמרו חכמים עד חצות מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר(,) הקטר חלבים ואברים מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר וכל הנאכלים ליום אחד מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר

א”כ למה אמרו חכמים עד חצות(?) כדי להרחיק אדם מן העבירה: 

The recital of the confession of faith Shma’, Qriyat Shma’ שמע
The Qriyat Shma’ is the compilation of three Biblical passages, which is considered the confession of the Jewish people. It is introduced with the sentence “Shma’ Yisrael, HaShem Elohenu, HaShem Ehad,” declaring the belief in the complete unity of God. It is recited twice daily, morning and evening.
The priests of the Kohanic family, being descendents of Aharon, A”S. Kohanim כהנים
During the times of the Temples, the Kohanim was the priestly family which was responsible for performing the sacrifices. They are part of the tribe of Levi, the other Levites working as assistants for the Kohanim, as well as being assigned in teaching the Torah. It is only a Kohen who could become High Priest, and they hold certain privileges, such as having certain sacrifices prescribed them for food, which only could be eaten in a pure state.
The Crop Offering Terumah תרומה
One of the twenty-four Kohanic gifts, which only was to be eaten by the Kohanim, their near family, and their servants, and only in a state of ritual purity. It is the first part of the crop, which was given to the Kohanim. The practice didn’t stop with the destruction of the Temple, but continued years after.
The First Shift HaAshmurah HaRishonah האשמורה הראשונה
The Temple-service was organized in shifts. Rabbi Eli’ezer here states that the time of the reciting of the Shma’ could be done until the end of the first shift.
The Sages achamim חכמים
This term is used to cover the majority of the Sages’ opinions, and the ruling is normally following the majority decision, though few examples on a minority decision can be found. The term doesn’t cover specific persons, but always the majority. Hence one rabbi can in one example be one of the Sages, and in other being talked about on his own.This is an important term in the study of the Talmud, always hinting at what decision to follow.
Halachic Midnight atzot חצות
The halachic midnight is based on how many hours with sun there is during the day, and will such rarely fall precisely on the time of the midnight of the twenty-four hour day. In order to estimate the length of a halachic hour the Sages took the number of hours during the day and divided it with twelve.
Leader of the Sanhedrin Rabban רבן
A title used for the head of the Rabbinical council during the time of the Tannaim.
“If so” Im Ken אכ
Literally “if yes.” Meaning “If this is the case, then why…”

“From when do we recite the Shma’ in the evenings? From the time that the Kohanim enter in order to eat their T’rumah until the end of the first shift, words of R. Eliezer. And the Sages say until midnight. Rabban Gamliel says until the dawn rises.

And it happened: And his sons came from the drinking house, they said to him “We did not recite the Shma’,” he said to them “If the dawn still has not risen, you are obliged to recite.”

And not this alone did they (the Sages) say [until midnight] but in all that the Sages commanded until midnight are we commanded [to perform] until the dawn rises. The incenses, the fats, and the limbs. And (we) are commanded until the dawn rises in all the eating on one day.

If that is so, why did the Sages say until midnight? In order to keep man from the sin.”[1]

 “From when,” does the Talmud start, following the Mishnaic order. We are from the first word presented with a question which leads us directly into a practice still followed today, but nevertheless also involving rituals not possible to follow today, and not even at the time of Yehuda HaNasi, when the Mishnah was written down. “From when do we recite the Shma’?” The question relates to the daily recitation of the Qriyat Shma’, what is considered to be the Jewish declaration of faith per excellence. Here the question is about the recitation of the evening Shma’, asking from when we can begin to recite it. The answer has implications also for the modern Jew, but the answer is already outdated when it was written. “From the time that the Kohanim enter to eat their T’rumah.” The T’rumah is the sacrifice designated for the Kohanim, the Levite family in charge of taking care of the sacrificial rituals at the Temple. But when Yehudah HaNasi wrote the Mishnah, the Temple had been in ruins for around 130 years, leaving the contemporary Jew confused as of when the Kohanim did just that. It doesn’t seem to bother the author though, since he continues to focus on until when we can recite the Shma’, even without stating the question. What is of more importance is the ending times of the Mitzvot, forming the discussion in the rest of the introductory Sugya. We will see later on that this does bother the Amoraim, the Talmudic Sages, spending some time and energy on the question of “why in the evening first?”

But let us start with what is at hand. The mishnah is presenting one asked and one unasked question, one answer to the asked question, and three answers to the unasked: From when? From the Kohanim enter. And until the end of the first shift, until midnight and until the dawn rises.

The first of the three answers are credited to Rabbi Eliezer, but it isn’t clear whether he also states the first question and answers it, or it is only the answer on “until when,” which is credited to him. Nevertheless, the answer on “from when” is accepted as being “from the Kohanim enters,” but in the matter of “until when,” we have the opinions of Rabbi Eliezer (until the end of the first shift), the Sages[2] (until midnight)[3], and Rabban Gamliel (until the dawn rises). As we normally follow the majority opinion, the opinion of “The Sages,” that is understood to be the case here as well. But then we are presented for a story. Rabban Gamliel’s sons come home from the “drinking house.”[4] It is after midnight and they still haven’t recited the Shma’, so they ask their father what to do, and since the dawn still hasn’t started to rise, they are still obligated to recite.

This story leaves me with a slightly different understanding of what Rabban Gamliel had in his thoughts. Maybe he did indeed agree with the Sages, that we should recite before midnight, but if something kept us from it, then we are still obligated until the dawn begin to rise. Clearly the sons have an understanding of the demand to recite the Shma before midnight, otherwise they would not feel the need to ask their dad about whether it is expected of them or not, so I would think that it isn’t too far stretched to believe that it was the practice at their place to recite the Shma’ before midnight. Based on that I believe that we can see Rabban Gamliel being part of the majority here, but that he adds an addition, following both the rationality of the Sages (as we will see be explain), as well as following the limits of the Biblical Commandments.

The mishnah continues. “And not only that, but every time the Sages said until midnight, we are commanded until the dawn starts to rise.” What is going on here? Apparently the Sages tend to restrict the time limit of the Biblical Commandments, which happens not only in this case, but in any case when the Sages say “until midnight.” And then it follows up by telling that we are commanded until the dawn begins to rise in various incidences, but why is that? Wouldn’t it be enough just to say that when the Sages say until midnight, then we are from the Torah commanded until the dawn begins to rise? The thought here seems to be, that the Mishnah wants to teach us something. We will return to this later.

The mishnah concludes by asking why the Sages stated until midnight, when the Torah commands until the dawn starts to rise. Should we not follow the Torah? The question is ‘yes,’ and that is what we can learn from the happening with Rabban Gamliel and his sons, that even if we pass the rabbinical commandment of reciting (or fulfilling any of the other commandments, which is until the dawn begins to rise, but which the Sages have said until midnight), then we are still obliged to fulfill them. The reason, the mishnah explains, is that the limit of midnight is established in order to keep man from sinning, that is, better that he does it early while he is still awake, than delaying himself and then risking falling asleep. The rabbinic commandment, which is called mitzwah d’Rabbanan (commandment from the Rabbis) is a “fence,” placed around the Torah, in order that we don’t do wrong by mistake (the Pirqei Avot talks about this fence in chapter 1:2). The commandment from the Torah, on the other hand, is called mitzwah d’Orayta (commandment from the Source).

This concludes the first mishnah in the Talmud Bavli, Seder Zera’im, Massechet B’rachot.


[1] My translation has been kept very strict to the text, unless where I had no choice but alter it in order to give meaning. I will give a more meaningful translation, as well as insert in the original text additions, which will render it easier to read for a modern reader. There will be made differences between the original text and my own additions.

[2] The Hebrew term is more correctly translated to “The Wise,” but I would believe that “The Sages” gives more sense. It isn’t a fixed group of people, but should be understood as the majority of the Sages, according to which opinions the Halachah (legal decision) normally is set, though there are examples on the opposite. But as a guiding rule, we should see the majority rule as being the Halachah.

[3] It is important to note that we are not necessarily talking about 12 o’clock, as the end/beginning of the 24 hour day, but about the Halachic midnight, being fixed according to the hours of sunlight, which moves the midnight according to the time of the year.

[4] This is the literal translation of “Beyt Mishteh,” but there are various thoughts stating that it should not be understood as a pub or the like. RaMBaM, Z”L, states that when the word is used, it is always understood as being a gathering where there has been focus on the wine (in his commentary to the Mishnah, same place). Likewise the Tosefot Yom Tov explains that whenever the term is used, it is in regards to a wedding.


1 Comment

  1. […] the first Mishnah we are presented for the question “From when can we recite the Shma’ in the evening,” to […]

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