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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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?

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