The Daf Yomi: The Riddle of the first Question of the Talmud

What Does the Priests’ Feasting have to do with Keriat Shema?

“From when may one recite Shema in the evening? From the time when the priests go in to eat their Teruma.” (Talmud, Brakhot 2a)

Despite the fact that the opening of theTalmud is widely known, the connection between the question it poses and the answer is not. The solution to this mystery will reveal the Talmud’s attitude not only toward the meaning of Keriat Shema, but in relation to fundamental questions regarding life and the essence of humanity.

One would understand if the time for Keriat Shema in the evening would have been based on the definition of the beginning of the evening – say sundown or nightfall. Alternately, since the source for the timing of the mitzva seems to be the term “when thou liest down” (Berakhot 2a; see also Mishna Berakhot 1:3), it could have been defined as “bedtime.” Why, then, does the Mishna choose to define it as the time when the priests go in to eat their Teruma? The beginning of the priests’ meal is not merely a sign that it is time to recite the Shema; rather, there is a substantive connection, for the Tosefta says: “from the time when the Kohanim (priests) are able to eat their Teruma (heave offering). A sign for this is the coming out of the stars.”[1] Thus, it is stated explicitly that the priests’ meal is not a sign that night has fallen, but rather the other way around – the stars coming out are a sign that it is time for the priests to eat. It follows that timing of the priests’ meal is what determines when we recite the Shema.

The Talmud provides further perspectives on the Mishna that can help us solve the riddle:

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… 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… From the time that most people come home to sit down to their meal. (Berakhot 2b)

The various opinions cited by the Talmud have a common thread: They all discuss the time when people come home in the evening to eat. We will thus rephrase the question: Why does the time when people come home in the evening to eat determine the time when they are required to recite the Shema?

A Jew in the Street and a Jew in the Home

We can deduce the answer to our question by examining a second question. The essence of the mitzva of Keriat Shema is to accept the yoke of heaven (Berakhot 2:2, 2:5). But why must we declare our acceptance of the kingdom of heaven twice a day? Why is once not enough? Our day-to-day life is divided in two: the part that takes place outside the house – usually during the day – and the part that takes place within, generally during the night.

Judah Leib Gordon coined one of the mottos of the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskala, movement: “Be a man in the street and a Jew in the home.”[2] According to Gordon and other maskilim, one’s Judaism is a personal matter that, as such, should be confined to the privacy of one’s home. This in contrast to others whose behavior is diametrically opposed: Outwardly, they behave as Jews, but in their homes, away from others and the pressures of society, they set their Judaism aside and do as they please. The requirement to recite the Shema twice daily signals to us that one must accept the yoke of heaven in both spaces – the home and the street. To me it seems that this insight is already embedded in the verse that teaches us of the requirement to recite the Shema: “and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way” (Deuteronomy 6:7). The verse teaches us that we must “talk of them,” i.e. accept the yoke of heaven, wherever we go in life, whether “in thy house” or when we leave it to “walk by the way.” The rest of the verse – “and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” – merely sharpens and reinforces the first distinction between the home and the street. Here lies the solution to the riddle that opens the mishna: The definition of the requirement rests on the time when one enters one’s home to eat, which symbolizes the passage from the public to the private.

In the documentary film You Never Know, about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, one female disciple student of the rabbi says that she knows what to ask when she is studying a book , but not when she is out in the street.

Rabbi Shlomo responds that, based on the distinction between “when thou sittest in thy house” and “when thou walkest by the way,” there are two Torahs that a Jew must study. One teaches us how to conduct ourselves in the home, and the other teaches us how to be when we are out in the world. His comments underline the fact that the two spaces vary greatly in terms of the types of challenges that we face in them, and that we must invest in each one separately so as to find the path that is unique to it.

A Kingdom of Priests

There is also a e second part of the riddle: Why, of all people, it is the high priest, who, in eating the Teruma offering, is emblematic of the state of “sitting in the house.”

It seems that the Mishnah is addressed directly to the priest partaking of the Teruma, establishing the priest as the archetype of Jewish religious life. To my mind, one of the Torah’s most important messages is “and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The identity of each and every Jew contains a priestly layer, which also underlies many commandments that are derived from Temple rituals. For example, the morning hand-washing, which is based on the purification of the priests in the Temple, and the tzitzit, which corresponds to the priestly vestments. It is thus fitting that submission to the yoke of heaven, which defines one’s relationship with God, will emerge from the priestly stratum of one’s identity.

A Prayer of the Afflicted

In contrast with the Mishna, which defined the time when one enters the house based on the priests’ schedule, the Talmud (Berakhot 2a) features an opinion that derives the time for Keriat Shema based on the time when the poor come home. That opinion, too, seems to stem from an idea of the correct approach to God, by which meekness is the proper posture, as in the verse, “A Prayer of the afflicted, when he fainteth, and poureth out his complaint before the Lord” (Psalms 102:1).

The difference between a priest and a poor person corresponds to the difference between the two amoraic approaches to prayer, as described by the Talmud:

Raba son of R. Huna put on stockings and prayed, quoting, “Prepare to meet etc.” Raba removed his cloak, clasped his hands and prayed, saying, “[I pray] like a slave before his master.” (Shabbat 10a)

Even the poor person, whose diet consists of a salted crust, is capable of sublimity, the Mishna tells us:

This is the way [to toil in] Torah: Eat bread with salt and drink a small amount of water and sleep on the ground and live a life [whose conditions will cause you] pain and in Torah you toil; if you do so, (Psalms 128: 2) “happy shall you be, and it shall be well with you” – happy shall you be in this world, and it shall be well with you in the world to come. (Avot 6:4)

[1] Berakhot 1:1; appears also in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 2b.

[2] From his poem “Awaken, My People,” published 1863.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel, located near Hebron. His book "Be, Become, Bless - Jewish Spirituality between East and West" was recently published by Maggid.
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