Berakhot 2a: The First Page of the Talmud

The Talmud treats the law as a given; its agenda is to see how the different understandings of that law relate to each other.

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Although the Talmud's sense of scope and sequence hardly accords with contemporary understandings of an ordered presentation, the very first page of Talmud sets the tone and agenda for the entire document. The Talmud begins with an attempt to connect the Torah she'b'al Peh (oral Torah or conversational Torah) with the written Torah (the Pentateuch). It continues by marshalling a variety of different opinions to explain the Mishnah, not with the intention of extracting from the mix the "correct" opinion, but rather to see how the different opinions inter-relate. These two goals, identifying or creating the connections between the Mishnah and the Torah, and understanding the relationship of the various Tannaitic traditions, can be seen as the Talmud's major goals. Reprinted with permission from Back to the Sources, edited by Barry Holtz.

Mishnah Berakhot 1:1:

"From what time [may people] recite the evening shema? From the hour that the priests come in to eat of their Heave-offering, until the end of the first watch; [these are] R. Eliezer's words, but the Sages say, Until midnight. R. Gamaliel says, Until the first light of dawn…."

Gemara Berakhot 2:2:

open book"Where is the Tanna [scholar of the Mishnaic times, the first and second centuries] standing that he teaches 'From when,' and further why is it that he starts with the evening? Let him start with the morning! The Tanna 'stands' on Scripture, as it is written, 'When you lie down and when you rise up' (Deuteronomy 6.7), and he teaches thus: When is the time of the Shema-recitation of lying down? From the time that the priests come in to eat of their Heave-offering.

(The "I" in the next sentence can be understood as the editor adding his own observation to the ongoing discussion. Since all this material did in fact originate as oral give-and-take, such semiparenthetical remarks could very easily be inserted as extended treatments of any particular mishnah continued to develop. There is usually no way to determine who any given "I" is, or when any such insertion actually found its way into the text.)

"And if you like I can say he learns [this] from [the story of] the creation of the world, as it is written, 'And it was evening, and it was morning, one day' (Genesis 1.5)."

The Talmud begins simply, with an attempt to fill in the gaps in the Mishnah's presentation. Assuming that the author of the Mishnah must surely have biblical warrant for his rules—a warrant the Mishnah itself makes no effort to provide, and indeed for which it seems to feel no need—the gemara quotes the relevant verses from the Torah.

Thus, the mutual independence of Written Torah and Oral Torah, which the Mishnah so clearly establishes in its very first chapter, appears to the Talmud a weakness that it equally quickly sets out to rectify. On the other hand, the basic terms of the Mishnah's discussion—the need to recite Shema at all, the connection with Heave-offering—are once again simply taken for granted.

Having identified the Tanna's biblical warrant, the Talmud pro­ceeds to question his consistency in applying it.

"If so, later on, where he teaches 'In the morning one re­cites two blessings before it and one after it, and in the evening he recites two blessings before it and two after it' (Mishnah 1.4), let him teach about the evening first!"

People normally live their lives from morning to night: That is the natural way to conceive a "day." Yet our mishnah begins with a question about the evening Shema! The gemara began by demanding an explanation of this odd procedure, and by way of explanation provided a pair of biblical verses that reverse the sequence and put evening or "lying down" before morning. But now it turns out that the Tanna himself goes on to disre­gard these same precedents, because in mishnah 1.4 he treats the morning before the evening!

What's going on?

The answer to this question has to do with literary techniques. The biblical verses induced the Tanna to start with the evening, but he did not wish to keep skipping back and forth. Thus, once he began to speak (in 1.2) of the morning, he decided to complete that discussion before he returned to his first topic. In technical language, this is called a chiastic structure, and rabbinic literature employs this pattern in a variety of ways.

The Tanna began with the evening and then returned to teach about the morning [in 1.2]; as long as he was treating of the morning he explained matters pertaining to the morning, and then he turned back and explained matters pertaining to the evening.

Having thus defended the Tanna's editorial methods, the discussion turns to the substance of the law:

"The Master said, 'From the time the priests come in to eat of their Heave-offering.' Now when do priests eat Heave-offering? From the time the stars come out. Let him teach 'From the time the stars come out'! [By proceeding as he does] he teaches us something extra by the way: Priests eat Heave-offering from the time the stars come out."

This paragraph clearly implies that Shema may be recitedfrom the hour of the appearance of the stars, yet as already mentioned, this crucial conclusion is left implied, as though it was not worth stating. Instead, the question about Shema is now simply forgotten, and this mention of the stars becomes the pretext for a complex digression. The editors of the Talmud apparently sensed this was odd, and expressed their discom­fort in the form of a question about the mishnah itself: Why, if the point here is that one recites Shema when the stars come out, did the Tanna proceed so obliquely?

They answer once again in terms of literary tech­nique. By answering the question so indirectly, the Tanna was able to teach two things: (1) recite Shema when the stars come out, and (2) that is also the time when priests should eat their Heave-offering….

Although our mishnah seems concerned with fixing the proper rule for reciting Shema, and although the gemara seems concerned with clarifying this rule, [it is] clear that the actual work of determining the proper time for Shema receives almost no attention at all. From the very beginning, and almost as a side point, it is taken for granted that the time for saying Shema begins with the appearance of the stars, but the Talmud never says this, and instead keeps adding more and more opinions to an increasingly complicated mix.

In general, the Talmud seems more interested here in understanding all these opinions, and in clarifying their relationship to one another, than in actually choos­ing one to be the operative rule. (This is not always the case, to be sure, but this passage must be allowed to speak for itself.) Perhaps for this reason, later codes of Jewish law simply disregarded all these Talmudic complications and laid down the rule that Shema may be recited from the time that three stars of medium brightness have appeared in the sky.

If, then, the Talmud is not primarily interested in determining the law, what is it trying to do? As already hinted, and as its own name implies, the Talmud is a scholastic text. Its chief purpose is to preserve the record of earlier generations studying their own tradition and provide materials for later generations wishing to do the same. It is a book produced by and for people whose highest value was the life of study.

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Robert Goldenberg is a professor of history at the State University of New York at Stonybrook.