Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Begin in the beginning - Berakhot (Blessings) 2a

In the first Daf of the Daf Yomi (daily page) cycle, we seem to start in the middle - a Mishnah text describing how late at night one is obligated to recite the evening Shema. That's often how the Mishnah works - it just presents laws without reasons or Biblical prooftexts behind them. The Gemara, or commentary on the Mishnah by later generations, is much more interested in questions of why - why do they start with the Evening Shema? They should start with the morning! The Gemara rabbis find 2 reasons why the Mishnah started with evening - because of phrasing in the Shema text itself ("in your lying down and in your getting up") and because of the beginning of the world itself in Genesis 1 ("And there was evening, and there was morning"). Historically, I have a third reason - because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, and that celestial body is the marker of time, Jewish holidays and even Jewish debate can begin at night.

We also see a wonderful window into imagining another's thought process - if one should begin with evening and then cover morning, why does a later discussion begin with the morning shema and go to the evening? Because the compiler started with evening, went to morning, finished talking about the morning, then went back to evening - not tremendously organized, but very human in its meandering.

Here we see Talmudic argumentativeness and chutzpah - later generations interject: "why did they write it this way? they should have written it MY way!" Rather than rewriting tradition, however, later generations try to figure out what it means that their tradition IS the way they've received it, and what it means in THAT form. If the ultimate conclusion is that you can recite the evening Shema until just before dawn, why did "The Sages", who should have known the real law, say "until Midnight"? The answer: to keep you farther from sin. Adding rules upon rules to keep you farther and farther away from what's dangerous is common to the Bible and Rabbinic law, but foreign to a modern awareness of the value of openness and the importance of challenging arbitrary and isolating rules and customs that close us off from the outside world. "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!"

All of this begs a question that isn't answered here because it's "outside the box" of Talmudic thought - why is one obligated to recite the Shema at all? Most of us coming home from a "wedding feast" (in the original, literally "the house of drinking/partying") like Gamliel's sons would feel that a ritual obligation superfluous. That is a sign of the secular age, and of intellectual emancipation - who needs to thank the Big Bang for existence, and who needs to do it multiple times a day? To our temperament, there is a time to consider the big questions, and a time to rest from a night of joy and fellowship that is its own reward.

One can't expect the Talmud to be a systematic work of philosophy - just like its study of the Mishnah, an earlier tradition, it is what it is and we get to speculate (as they did) what it means to us now as we have received it. And so we begin "in the beginning."

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation