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.

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