The First Five Days: Berachos, 2-6
From when may we fulfill the obligation to recite the Shema in the evenings?
When Rabban Gamliel's sons come home from a banquet after midnight (2a), they are most likely drunk. Yet Rabban Gamliel affirms that they are obligated to recite the Shema. Does he assume that it has a sobering effect?
Skipping ahead two folios, we see that Rabban Gamliel understands that the Shema could be recited any time during the night but that the rabbis generally put the time for reciting the evening Shema only until midnight "for the purpose of distancing a person from sin." Isn't it precisely because of sons like Rabban Gamliel's that the rabbis erected such a "fence"?
How does this sugya define the boundaries between day and night? On 2b we have competing definitions: does the evening begin when the Kohanim can begin eating Terumah or when the poor person sits down for his evening meal? In either case, in practical terms, doesn't the definition appear to be dependent on when the workday ends? Is the critical question whether we measure the workday according to the most privileged or the most common?
The absence of clocks makes the task of differentiating day from night a real challenge. On 3a the Gemara suggests common signs that may provide clues that night has ended:
Once a woman begins speaking with her husband and a child begins nursing from its mother's breasts, let him arise and recite the Shema, for the night has ended.On 3b and 4a the Gemara questions whether Biblical figures were able to determine the time by extraordinary means. For example, David would be awakened at midnight when a harp suspended over his bed would vibrate from a Divine breeze. Moses, who knew the exact moment when it was midnight, nevertheless spoke to Pharoah of events that would occur "about midnight."
Moses thought that Pharaoh's astrologers might err in their calculation of the precise midpoint of the night and say: "Moses is a liar."The Gemara follows this example with a teaching that Mike Rappeport singled out as particularly troubling:
Teach your tongue to say "I do not know," lest you be caught in a falsehood.When should we hesitate to say something when we are certain of its accuracy?
If it comes to the time to recite the Shema and one is far from home, one must not put oneself in danger in order to pray (3a). Rather, one should say an abridged prayer by the side of the road. The danger of being out and about in a world that is predominantly not Jewish is a strong subtext in this image of the vulnerable traveller. It arises again on 5a and 5b in the discussion of "afflictions of love"-- the suffering that is visited upon each of us to ensure that we will remain mindful to vigilantly observe the mitzvot. Can a modern reader see beauty in this image of human frailty or get stuck on the fearful superstition that is clearly present? Can the concept of "afflictions of love" have any standing in a post-Holocaust world?
There is in fact a poignant metaphor in the cases on 5b where rabbis's sufferings are relieved when they accept help from other rabbis, teaching:
A captive cannot release himself from prison. He needs help from someone outside.Even so, in this Gemara that insists that all suffering is earned, the text (5b) has the courage to inquire whether there are afflictions that cannot be "afflictions of love," and to suggest that there are two: (1) tzaraas and (2) "deprivation of children." The latter must mean something more narrow than one might glean from a surface reading, since 5a has already stated:
Whoever engages in studying Torah and in bestowing kindness, and buries his sons, is forgiven for all his sins.That which serves no purpose, that which does not fall within the definition of an "affliction of love," is on 5b "one who did not have children at all." But I must say again that the spectre of the holocaust suggests that such pilpul can no longer stand.
The use of Scriptural passages to establish the law or to settle a dispute will take many forms. We get our first strong hint of this on 4b, where R'Yochanan and R'Yehoshua disagree, but the text cannot establish whether they disagree over the interpretation of a verse or their disagreement is based on a rational argument. Such distinctions in such an ancient text are exhilerating to discover!
A major topic introduced in these first folios is how to "refrain from sinning." On 5a we learn that reminding oneself of the day of his or her death is an effective strategy but should only be used when all else fails (from ArtScroll fn 8):
By reminding himself that upon death he must face the Heavenly court and give an account for all his actions, he will surely refrain from sinning (Iyun Yaakov; cf Maharsha). This last strategy (of reflecting on death) has a detrimental side effect-- it can lead to sadness and depression. The Gemara therefore suggests this course only as a last resort. (Iyun Yaakov).Torah study should usually be sufficient defense against sin.
On 6a and 6b the text seeks to delineate how to ensure that one's prayers will be heard. This includes an extended consideration of where the individual stands in the universe. Is it necessary to be in a synagogue for one's prayers to be heard? Must one stand in a particular place? Must one stay on until one's companion has completed his prayer? This leads to larger questions (6b): Was the entire world created for the sake of one person (R'Elazar)? Is the entire world equal in importance to the individual (Abba bar Kahana)? Or was the world created solely as an accompaniment for this person (R'Shimon ben Azai or-- some say-- R'Shimon ben Zoma)?