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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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.