From When Do We Recite the Sh’ma in the Evening? Finding a Talmudic Theory of Jewish Practice

Alex Braver
December 8, 2011
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Where do we begin finding a Jewish practice?  How about the first page of the first book of the first section of the Talmud, ostensibly the how-to guide for being a religious Jew?


In most instruction manuals, you would expect to begin with an introduction, a table of contents, a definition of terms, some sort of systematic approach to whatever it is you’re about to learn.  Yet, the Talmud begins seemingly in the middle of a discussion.  It assumes a vast amount of background knowledge from the very first sentence.  Without this background knowledge, the following discussion would be incomprehensible:


From when do we recite the Shema in the evening?


From the hour when the priests would enter to eat their terumah [grain offering], until the end of the first watch [one-third of the night]–these are the words of Rabbi Eliezer.


The sages say: until midnight.


Rabban Gamliel says: until the pillar of dawn rises. A story: his sons came [home late] from the drinking-house. They said to him, we did not recite the Shema. He said to them: the pillar of dawn has not risen, you are responsible for reciting.


And not only about this matter alone did they speak, but regarding all that the sages said “until midnight,” they are commanded until the pillar of dawn rises.…

If so, why did the sages say “until midnight”? In order to distance a person from sin.

(Mishna Berachot 1:1)


The first page expects you to know who the priests were, what the terumah is (ritual food donated to the priests in Jerusalem), when they ate their food, what the “pillar of morning is” (probably the first rays of sunlight at sunrise), and who all of these different rabbis are, not to mention that it assumes you know what the Shema is and that there exists an obligation to say it both in the morning and in the evening.  The text begins with law, is interrupted by narrative, and ends with explanation.  Perhaps not the clearest way to begin an instruction manual.  Yet, I would argue that this text is the mission-statement of the Talmud, telling us in one succinct paragraph the goal of the entire rabbinic system.


The assumption is that there is a required, limited amount of time during which to recite the Shema in the evening, so right away, we can tell that the Talmud is meant to be a guide to everyday life, to the integration of the ritual and the sacred into the daily life of the Jew, telling the individual with exacting detail how to carry out the often broad and generalized commandments in the Torah.  But, where do these specific instructions come from?  How is this intricate system derived, and what is its purpose?


We are given three answers.  The first answer is tied to the priesthood:

From the hour when the priests would enter to eat their terumah, until the end of the first watch–these are the words of Rabbi Meir


Rabbi Meir believes that the religious system of the Talmud, compiled by the first generations of Jews to live without the priestly cult centered in the Temple in Jerusalem, is attempting to reach back and in some way re-create that ancient system, tied to sacrifice and the precise ritual of the Temple, of the elite few engaging in the main act of worship.  R. Meir seems to be saying, “we, the rabbis of the Talmud, are the priests now–we have access to God’s holiness through study, and we will develop a system for the rest of the people to follow.”


The second position is simple:

The sages say: until midnight.


The word for midnight in Hebrew, chatzot, comes from the same root for “half”–essentially, midnight cuts the evening in half.  The unnamed sages, who hold the majority position, bifurcate time in two, impose order on a system of chaos.  You say the Shema, the declaration of the essence of Judaism–of God’s one-ness–either during the right half of the evening, or the wrong half.  And, just like the evenings, our lives are often divided in two–our mind and our heart; our secular lives and our religious lives; the first half of the night, where we feel and may proclaim the oneness of God, and the second half midnight and onward, the time of deepest darkness when we feel most scared and most distant from God, and when we are actually not supposed to recite the Shema to fulfill our obligation!  Is it possible that there is a time or place where God is (or seems) absent?


Yet Rabban Gamliel, the leader of the rabbinic fellowship in exile, says otherwise:

Gamliel says: until the pillar of morning rises


The Shema, our obligation to say it, and God’s presence are carried over throughout the entire evening, through times when God seems distant, or when we feel most dark, until the pillar of dawn rises–the first hopeful rays of light over the horizon signal that the time for saying Shema is over.  At least, the time for saying the EVENING Shema is over–the obligation for the MORNING Shema begins moments later at “netz ha’chama,” the full “blossoming of the sun.”


The story of Rabban Gamliel’s sons goes a step further in showing us that our Jewish practice, and the potential to feel connected to the divine presence, is carried throughout the entire metaphorical “evening”.


A story: his sons came [home late] from the drinking-house. They said to him, we did not recite the Shema. He said to them: the pillar of dawn has not risen, you are responsible for reciting.


His sons, who are out drinking (I always anachronistically envisioned them at a bar, but more likely they were at a wedding celebration), come back home late.  Their father is waiting up for them.  And yet, he says, the Shema must still be recited–it must be integrated into the fabric of everyday life.  Not just when you feel pious, not just when you go to synagogue, not just on Shabbat, not just in moments of deep spiritual connection.  Your Jewish practice is always a part of your life, and you can find a way to make it fit in, no matter what you are doing–whether you are the elite head of the rabbis of your generation, waiting up for your children to come home, or whether you are simply out drinking for the night.  The potential for holiness is there, and Rabban Gamliel envisions a system of Jewish practice that is bound up in the nitty-gritty of daily life.


And finally, the narrator of this text says, that the sages’ position–that the obligation to say Shema, and by extension Jewish practice, only exists for half the evening–does not in fact actually exist!  They actually agree with Rabban Gamliel!


And about this matter alone did they speak, but regarding all that the sages said “until midnight,” they are commanded until the pillar of morning rises…If so, why did the sages say “until midnight”?  In order to distance a person from sin.


In effect, the narrator of this text calls out the anonymous sages on their bluff.  They don’t actually mean to limit the time set aside for the Shema to midnight, they simply want to put up a fence to protect people from accidentally not doing the ritual, from failing to recite the Jewish creed, from missing a moment to bring holiness and Jewish practice into their lives.  By limiting the deadline to midnight and being strict, they hoped that those who like to delay everything to the last minute might still be covered, even if they perform the ritual “late.”  This is a stunning admission–someone who bends the words of the sages, and says Shema too late (after midnight), is actually FINE, according to this re-interpretation of their own statement.


This, I think, is the mission statement of the Talmud, the guiding principle from this first page of the first text in the Jewish legal canon.  The rabbis spend pages and pages writing rules and regulations, meant to provide us with a spiritual pathway, a Jewish practice, a way of walking with God that brings intentionality, gratitude, and holiness to our lives.  This path is difficult, and strict.  Yet, even if you can’t cross every i and dot every t in the rabbinic system, even if you’re late for some ritual one time, skip it another time, wrestle with a particular practice or commandment–it’s all okay.  The rigidity of the system is meant to keep us from transgression, to combat the human tendency to be lazy, to delay, to postpone; it is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.


The goal is to distance ourself from sin–not just from the sin of missing the correct time for saying Shema, but the sin of failing to elevate our actions, the sin of failing to see the potential for holiness at every moment in our lives, from sun-up to sundown, from when we go out to a party until when we arrive home late at night, and hear the voice in our heads saying “the pillar of dawn has not yet risen, you are responsible for reciting”.

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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

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