Of Demons, David, and Doctrine - Berakhot 3b
One of the central supports of Talmudic theology is the belief (not supported today by historical study) that Judaism was always essentially the same from the time of Moses on Sinai, where he received the written Torah and the "Oral Torah" (i.e. the core of the Talmud and its interpretive principles). From that point forward, Rabbinic theology and practice was dominant. Today the majority of scholars believe the Torah was compiled in its final form in the 6th century BCE, and David supposedly lived 450 years before that, so we find a description of him here studying Torah at midnight at the least ahistorical. But for Talmudic rabbis and later generations of students who looked for themselves in their heroes and forebearers, having the hero David ALSO study Torah ennobled their own practice.
Again the Talmudic rabbis debate 3 watches or 4 watches through the night - did David, the assumed author of the Psalms, know the exact time of midnight, and did Moses? What does a psalm mean by the word "neshef"? Through all of these questions, we find a common thread - a feeling of disconnection, trying to reclaim what once was clearly known. At one point in Talmudic memory, it was clear how many "watches" there were through the night; by the time this debate took place, that knowledge has been lost but is being sought. We today try to discover the past through what we consider to be evidence - archaeology, comparative literature, detailed textual study. The rabbis used what they considered evidence, with their own assumptions, to try to discover their past as well - even if they imagined it in their own image.
One also begins to wonder - this is the tractate on Blessings, we have not seen any texts of blessings yet, and we are caught up in a debate about how to count time overnight, or how previous generations did so. When will we get to the lifestyle of Blessing? Since traditional Judaism considers the Talmud part of the Oral Torah, reading these "tangents" earn cosmic rewards for obeying the commandment to study Torah. So for those NOT aspiring to life in the "world to come," I counsel patience - part of the journey through Talmud is the detours that may frustrate the systematic but delight those who think, argue, and debate for their own sake.
Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation