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What is the Earliest We Should Say the Evening Shema? (A Study in b.Berachot 2a-b)

What is the Earliest We Should Say the Evening Shema?
(A Study in b.Berachot 2a-b)
By
James Scott Trimm



Lets begin at the beginning, with the very first Mishna in the Talmud (In fact for context I will post the first two):

1:1 From what time may they recite the Shema in the evening?
From the hour that the priests enter [their homes] to eat their heave offering.
“until the end of the first watch” the words of Rabbi Eliezer.
But the sages say, “Until midnight.”
Rabban Gamliel says, “Until the rise of dawn.”
M’SH’SH: His [Gamliel’s] sons returned from a banquet hall [after midnight].
They said to him, “We did not [yet] recite the Shema.”
He said to them, “If the dawn has not yet risen, you are obligated to recite [the Shema].
And [this applies] not only [in] this [case]. Rather, [as regards] all [commandments] which sages said [may be performed] ‘Until midnight,” the obligation [to perform them persists] until the rise of dawn.”
[For example,] the offering of the fats and entrails—their obligation [persists] until the rise of dawn [see Lev. 1:9, 3:3-5].
And all [sacrifices] which must be eaten within one day, the obligation [to eat them persists] until the rise of dawn.
If so why did sages say [that these actions may be performed only] until midnight?
In order to protect man from sin.
1:2 From what time do they recite the Shema in the morning?
From the hour that one can distinguish between blue and white.
Rabbi Eliezer says, “Between blue and green.”
And one must complete it before sunrise.
Rabbi Joshua says, “Before the third hour. For it is the practice of royalty to rise [at] the third hour [thus we deem the third hour still to be ‘morning’.]
One who recites later than this [i.e. the third hour] has not transgressed [by reciting a blessing at the wrong time, for he is viewed simply as one who recites from the Torah.
(m.Berakhot 1:1-2)


Here we have a good example of building a fence around the Torah.

Let me explain what I mean about building a fence around the Torah.

We read in the Mishna (Avot 1:1):

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a fence around the Torah.
(m.Avot 1:1)

Building a fence around the Torah means to make prohibitions which are more strict than the actual requirements of Torah so as to provide a protective barrier around the Torah itself.

If the Torah says "be in by midnight" then the fence would be to be in by eleven. The idea being that if you are trying to be in by midnight and are late, then you have violated Torah. However if you are trying to be in by eleven and are a little late, you have still not violated the Torah itself.

We have here a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer, the sages (that is the majority) and Rabban Gamliel.

The primary dispute is between Rabbi Eliezer and the majority over where (or when) to place the fence, with Rabbi Eliezer holding a stricter view than the majority. While Rabban Gamliel was not in favor of a fence for this mitzvah at all.

In our Mishna (Ber. 1:1) the actual requirement of Torah is to say the Shema before dawn, but our halacha is a "fence" which is to say the Shema by midnight, so that even if we fail to recite the Shema by midnight, we still have not violated the actual Torah itself unless we fail to say the Shema by dawn.

Our Gemara says:

On what does the Tanna base himself that he commences: FROM WHAT TIME? Furthermore, why does he deal first with the evening [Shema’]? Let him begin with the morning [Shema’]! — The Tanna bases himself on the Scripture, where it is written [And thou shalt recite them] . . . when thou liest down and when thou risest up, and he states [the oral law] thus: When does the time of the recital of the Shema’ of lying down begin? When the priests enter to eat their terumah. And if you like, I can answer: He learns [the precedence of the evening] from the account of the creation of the world, where it is written, And there was evening and there was morning, one day. Why then does he teach in the sequel: THE MORNING [SHEMA’] IS PRECEDED BY TWO BENEDICTIONS AND FOLLOWED BY ONE. THE EVENING [SHEMA’] IS PRECEDED BY TWO BENEDICTIONS AND FOLLOWED BY TWO? Let him there, too, mention the evening [Shema’] first? — The Tanna commences with the evening [Shema’], and proceeds then to the morning [Shema’]. While dealing with the morning [Shema’], he expounds all the matters relating to it, and then he returns again to the matters relating to the evening [Shema’].
(b.Berakhot 2a)

Our Gemara opens by posing two questions:

1. It seems unreasonable to debate the time of the evening Shema before first proving that it is a Mitzvah at all! What is the Tana's source for the obligation to recite Shema in the first place?'

2. Why does the Tana first ask about the time for the nighttime Shema? Shouldn't we first ask about the time for the morning Shema? (After all the Torah speaks of the morning Tamid before it speaks of the afternoon Tamid.)

The Gemara first offers an answer to both questions. The Tana expounds upon the Torah "[And thou shalt recite them] . . . when thou liest down and when thou risest up" (Deut. 6:7) Therefore, he first asks about the time of Shechivah (lying down).

The Gemara then answers the second question. We learn from creation of the world that night comes first, like it says "there was evening and there was morning, one day."

The Gemare then asks another question looking ahead at m.Berackot 1:4: In the morning, there are two Berachot before Shema and one after; at night, there are two Berachot before and two after. Why does our present Mishnah (1:1-2) begin with the evening and goes to morning, when later the Mishna (1:4) begins with morning and then goes to evening?

According to both answers, the Tana should speak of the Berachot of the nighttime Shema first.

The Answer is that the Tana begins our Mishnah with the nighttime Shema and then concludes it with the morning Shema (1:1-2). Once the Mishna speaks of the morning Shema, it goes on to cover all of the laws pertaining to the morning Shema, and then the Mishna returns to speak of the nighttime Shema again.

The Master said: FROM THE TIME THAT THE PRIESTS ENTER TO EAT THEIR ‘TERUMAH’. When do the priests eat terumah? From the time of the appearance of the stars. Let him then say: ‘From the time of the appearance of the stars’? — This very thing he wants to teach us, in passing, that the priests may eat terumah from the time of the appearance of the stars. And he also wants to teach us that the expiatory offering is not indispensable, as it has been taught: And when the sun sets we-taher (and he/it is clean), the setting of the sun is indispensable [as a condition of his fitness] to eat terumah, but the expiatory offering is not indispensable to enable him to eat terumah. But how do you know that these words ‘and the sun sets’ (literal Hebrew: the sun comes) mean the setting of the sun, and this ‘we-taher’ means that the day clears away? It means perhaps: And when the sun [of the next morning] appears, and we-taher means the man becomes clean? — Rabbah son of R. Shila explains: In that case, the text would have to read we-yithar (and the rest). What is the meaning of we-taher (and he/it is clean)? The day clears away, conformably to the common expression, The sun has set and the day has cleared away. This explanation of Rabbah son of R. Shila was unknown in the West, and they raised the question: This ‘and the sun sets’, does it mean the real setting of the sun, and ‘we-taher’ means the day clears away? Or does it perhaps mean the appearance of the sun, and we-taher means the man becomes clean? They solved it from a Baraitha, it being stated in a Baraitha: . Hence you learn that it is the setting of the sun [which makes him clean] and the meaning of we-taher is the clearing away of the day.
(b.Ber. 2a-2b)

Now our Gemara turns to the statement in our Mishna FROM THE TIME THAT THE PRIESTS ENTER TO EAT THEIR ‘TERUMAH’ and the question of when the Cohenim (priests) who have become unclean and undergone T'villah (immersion) may eat the Terumah.

The question is posed as to why the Mishnah does not instead say "at the time that stars appear" instead of "at the time when the priests enter to eat the Terumah". Because the Mishnah is written very concisely and so a second halachot is embedded here in our Mishnah. This Mishna also resloves another issue, as to whether the Cohen who has become unclean and been immersed can eat the Terumah that same evening, or must he wait until daytime the next day for the cohen to undergo any needed sin-offering in connection with his uncleanness before he can eat the Terumah?

Our Mishnah tells us that since our context speaks of the evening, the priest who had become unclean and was immersed, may eat the Terumah before his sin-offering the next day.

Our reference is Lev. 22:7

6 The soul that touches any such, shall be unclean until the even, and shall not eat of the Set-Apart things, unless he bathe his flesh in water.
7 And when the sun is down, he shall be clean, and afterward he may eat of the Set-Apart things, because it is his bread.
(Lev. 22:6-7 HRV)

However the Gemara records a dispute over the meaning of Lev. 22:7, does this verse refer to sunset or sunrise, and does it refer to the man or the day being "clean"?

The Sages resolved this dispute relying on a baraita (which is actually Tosefta Ber. 1:1D) which says "The sign of the thing is the appearance of the stars".

Thus our Mishnah has "killed two birds with one stone" by also teaching us that the Cohen may eat the Terumah in the evening "at the appearance of the stars".

From this we learn an important element of halacha that we ourselves can apply each week: evening, and therefore a new day begins with the appearance of the stars. (This is understood as three stars).

Thus Sabbath begins when three stars are visible and ends when three stars are visible.

The Shabbat lights must be lit before three stars appear, and havdallah must not be done until after three stars appear.

Our Gemara continues:

The Master said: FROM THE TIME THAT THE PRIESTS ENTER TO EAT THEIR ‘TERUMAH’. They pointed to a contradiction [from the following]: From what time may one recite the Shema’ in the evening? From the time that the poor man comes [home] to eat his bread with salt till he rises from his meal. The last clause certainly contradicts the Mishnah. Does the first clause also contradict the Mishnah? — No. The poor man and the priest have one and the same time.
(b.Ber. 2b)

Our Gemara begins now to deal with the subject of when is the earliest time for reciting the Shema in the evening.

One thing about the Talmud is that it is not always linear, at times it deals with parts of matters which have not yet been revealed to the reader. In this case the Gemara references a Baraita of Rabbi Hanina that is not actually stated and attributed to him until much further down page 2b.

The poor man comes home to eat his bread before it is completely dark, because he must conserve the oil for his lamp, and his meal is short.

We might conclude from this baraita that the earliest time to recite the Evening Shema, is from the time that a poor man eats his meal. One might conclude that this baraita is addressing the the latest time to recite the Shema, but that conclusion is not clear, because it can be said that a poor man eats at the same time that the Kohenim eat the Teruma.

Our Gemara Contniues:

They pointed to a contradiction [from the following]: From what time may one begin to recite the Shema’ in the evening? From the time that the people come [home] to eat their meal on a Sabbath eve. These are the words of R. Meir. But the Sages say: From the time that the priests are entitled to eat their terumah. A sign for the matter is the appearance of the stars. And though there is no real proof of it, there is a hint for it. For it is written: So we wrought in the work: and half of them held the spears from the rise of the dawn till the appearance of the stars.(Neh. 4:15) And it says further: That in the night they may be a guard to us, and may labour in the day.(Neh. 4:6) (Why this second citation? — If you object and say that the night really begins with the setting of the sun, but that they left late and came early, [I shall reply]: Come and hear [the other verse]: ‘That in the night they may be a guard to us, and may labour in the day’). Now it is assumed that the ‘poor man’ and ‘the people’ have the same time [for their evening meal.] And if you say that the poor man and the priest also have the same time, then the Sages would be saying the same thing as R. Meir? Hence you must conclude that the poor man has one time and the priest has another time? — No; the ‘poor man’ and the priest have the same time, but the ‘poor man’ and the ‘people’ have not the same time.
(b.Ber. 2b)

The Gemara (believe it or not) seeks to minimize conflicts, and resolve issues where ever possible. Thus previously the Gemara had proposed that perhaps there is no conflict between the tradition that says we say the evening shema from the time the priests eat their terumah and the tradition that says we say the evening shema from the time a poor man eats his dinner, because perhaps these are two ways of referring to the same time.

But after proposing this conclusion, our Gemara will now question that conclusion, and yet still propose an effort to reconcile the traditions.

Some will find the Talmud difficult to follow, because it will seem to come to a conclusion and settle a matter, then reopen it, then settle it again, then reopen it and come to a different conclusion entirely. This is because the Gemara is preserving for us its complete thought process.

Here our Gemara suggests that our previous resolution cannot stand, because of another tradition (preserved in the Tosefta to Berachot 1:1) of a dispute between the sages (the majority) and Rabbi Meir. If we assume that poor men eat dinner at the same time that "[average] people" eat their dinner, then we find a conflict with this baraita, because the Tosefta is recording a dispute between the sages and Rabbi Meir, so they cannot be saying the same thing.

Our Gemara proposes another way of resolving the conflict. Perhaps we could conclude that poor men do not eat at the same time as average men. Then poor men could eat at the same time that priests eat the Terumah but not at the same time that average men eat their dinner.

Many so often quote the Talmud out of context. They quote the Talmud as proposing a conclusion that it goes on to question and dismantle before coming to a completely different conclusion. If you do not understand how to read Talmud, you can completely miss this process, or be hopelessly confused by what appear to be contradictions.

And that is the Gemara's resolution... but not for long, as we will find, as our Gemara continues....

As we continue our study in Tractae Berachot:

But have the ‘poor man’ and the priest really the same time? They pointed to a contradiction [from the following]: From what time may one begin to recite the Shema’ in the evening? From the time that the [Sabbath] day becomes hallowed on the Sabbath eve. These are the words of R. Eliezer. R. Joshua says: From the time that the priests are ritually clean to eat their terumah. R. Meir says: From the time that the priests take their ritual bath in order to eat their terumah. (Said R. Judah to him: When the priests take their ritual bath it is still day-time!) R. Hanina says: From the time that the poor man comes [home] to eat his bread with salt. R. Ahai (some say: R. Aha). says: From the time that most people come home to sit down to their meal. Now, if you say that the poor man and the priest have the same time, then R. Hanina and R. Joshua would be saying the same thing? From this you must conclude, must you not, that the poor man has one time and the priest has another time. — Draw indeed that conclusion!
Which of them is later? — It is reasonable to conclude that the ‘poor man’ is later. For if you say that the ‘poor man’ is earlier, R. Hanina would be saying the same thing as R. Eliezer. Hence you must conclude that the poor man is later, must you not? — Draw indeed that conclusion.
(b.Berachot 2b)

Up to this point our Gemara has managed to reconcile all of the views, but that is about to change, because there is another Baraita to consider. This Baraita records five different views as to what is the earliest time to say the evening shema.

Our earlier proposal, that the poor and the Kohen eat at the same time, but that the poor and the regular people eat at different times, can no longer be upheld, because then Rabbi Haniah and Rabbi Joshua would be saying the same thing.

Obviously they cannot be saying the same thing, because this is a record of a dispute.

So now our Gemara asks which of these times is later. Why do we want to know which is later? Because we want to know when is the earliest time to say the Shema, so we need to know which if these times is latest.

The Gemara and concludes that the poor man must eat later than priests. This is because we know he eats at a different time from the priests (the appearance of stars) and it cannot be earlier, because the only time earlier than the appearance of stars is sunset, but that would put Rabbi Hannia in agreement with Rabbi Eliezer. And since the Baraiata is a disagreement, they cannot be the same. We know that poor men don't quit work and eat before everyone else, so they must eat later.

Our Gemara continues:

The Master said: ‘R. Judah said to him: When the priests take their ritual bath it is still daytime!’ The objection of R. Judah to R. Meir seems well founded? — R. Meir may reply as follows: Do you think that I am referring to the twilight [as defined] by you? I am referring to the twilight [as defined] by R. Jose. For R. Jose says: The twilight is like the twinkling of an eye. This enters and that departs — and one cannot exactly fix it. There is a contradiction between R. Meir [of one Baraitha] and R. Meir [of the last Baraitha]? — Yes, two Tannaim transmit different versions of R. Meir's opinion. There is a contradiction between R. Eliezer [of the last Baraitha] and R. Eliezer [of the Mishnah]? — Yes, two Tannaim transmit two different versions of R. Eliezer's opinion. If you wish I can say: The first clause of the Mishnah is not R. Eliezer's.
(b.Berachot 2b)

The Gemara will now pick up the debate between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah, which in essence becomes a debate over how we define twilight. We are told that Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Meir used different definitions of twilight. Rabbi Meir, the tradition holds, followed a tradition of Rabbi Jose that twilight was an undefined point, which could not be fixed.

Now our Gemara admits that this makes a contradiction between our traditions as to Rabbi Meir's view. One tradition cited earlier in our Gemara was:

"From what time may one begin to recite the Shema’ in the evening? From the time that the people come [home] to eat their meal on a Sabbath eve. These are the words of R. Meir."
(b.Ber. 2b)

"R. Meir says: From the time that the priests take their ritual bath in order to eat their terumah."
(b.Ber. 2b)

But we have already established that one of these times is before twilight and the other is after twilight. These cannot both be the view of Rabbi Meir, so one of these traditions is wrongly attributed to Rabbi Meir.

Out Gemara also points out an appaearnt contradiction regarding the position of Rabbi Eliezer.

On the one hand we have just read:

"From what time may one begin to recite the Shema’ in the evening? From the time that the [Sabbath] day becomes hallowed on the Sabbath eve. These are the words of R. Eliezer."
(b.Ber. 2b)

But our Mishna says:

"From what time may they recite the Shema in the evening?
From the hour that the priests enter [their homes] to eat their heave offering.
“until the end of the first watch” the words of Rabbi Eliezer."
(b.Ber. 2a / m.Ber. 1:1)

These views may at first appear to contradict, however it may be argued that only the phrase “until the end of the first watch” is the view of Eliezer and the phrase ""From what time may they recite the Shema in the evening? From the hour that the priests enter [their homes] to eat their heave offering." is simply anonymous.

I am often asked how we can trust the oral traditions. Are they not subject to mistransmission?" I am asked.

Of course they are, just as the text of Scripture is susceptible to scribal errors. Just as we must compare variant readings to determine which readings are most likely the original, so the Talmud recognizes that the transmission of Oral Tradition is subject to error, so we must compare the traditions and determine which ones are most likely to be original.

This wraps up the Gemara's treatment of the first precept in our Mishna (m.Ber. 1:1), the Gemara will move now move onto the next precept.

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