Berakhot 5

Suppressing the evil inclination.

The Shema, as we’ve learned, is recited twice daily, morning and evening, as the Torah states: “when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deut. 6:7). This prompted the rabbis to make it part of the morning and evening prayers. But what about the Torah’s literal statement, that you should recite it “when you lie down”? Does this mean, the rabbis ask, that you should say it in your bed? Answer: Yes, say the Shema in bed, too. And many Jews do.

The rabbis of the Talmud often wander into side-conversations and digressions. Today’s daf includes an interesting one on how to become a better person. Here’s a paraphrase: 

Rabbi Levi bar Ḥama said that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: One should always try to subdue his evil inclination. If he succeeds, great. But if he does not, he should study Torah. If Torah doesn’t work, he should recite the Shema. And if all else fails, he should remind himself of the day of his death.

This teaching acknowledges that it is sometimes extraordinarily difficult to do the right thing — even when we know what that right thing is. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish offers a solid strategy: When we know we are behaving badly, we should take time to study teachings that connect us to something larger than ourselves. If that doesn’t work, we might look to the Shema to focus our minds on God. This ought to give us humility and perspective to do the right thing.

But Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish (better known by his nickname “Resh Lakish”) knew that it is often difficult for people to focus outside of themselves, so his final suggestion is to give in to egocentrism. If we cannot use study or prayer to guide ourselves toward what we know is right, we should recenter our attention on ourselves and contemplate our own mortality. This is not a pleasant activity, but it does have a way of putting things into sharp focus.

Read all of Berakhot 5 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 8, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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