The First Two Teachings of the Talmud

By Rabbi Dovid E. Eidensohn

What are the first teachings of the Talmud? The Talmud begins with a question: When do we recite the evening Shema prayer? It does not answer the question directly by telling us that we recite the Shema prayer when it becomes night. It answers something else, “When the Cohanim priests enter to eat their Teruma, a sacred food.” So, we still don’t know when to say the night Shema.

The second teaching of the Talmud is that the end time to recite the Shema of night is the first Mishmar or Watch of the night. Whose Watch? This is not answered. One question brings two statements that are meaningless.

When we look deeper into the two answers we detect important teachings about prayer in general and indeed about relating to G-d. And just as these two answers seem to be confusing but actually reveal major concepts of the Torah as we will explain, so when somebody learns any part of the Talmud, he must anticipate deep ideas and find the hidden jewels.

The first teaching that we begin the recitation of the night Shema when the Cohanim enter to eat their Teruma is an interesting law. A Cohan became seriously impure somehow and during the day purified himself in a mikva. He is not yet completely pure and cannot enter the Temple until he offers a sacrifice, but he is pure enough to eat Teruma. Thus, the recitation of the Shema takes place at night but this teaching is taught indirectly. First we must learn that Cohanim eat Teruma before they are completely pure. This tells us that reciting the Shema, accepting the Yoke of heaven, the love of G-d, the great mitsvose of the Torah mentioned specifically in the Shema, do not require a perfect person. Even one who is trying to escape a past of mistakes may say the Shema and turn to HaShem. Shema is a very holy thing and all of us hope to recite it before we die, so our souls enter Paradise with the Shema. But we don’t have to be completely pure to do that. We do what we can, even though further work is necessary the next day. And that qualifies us to say Shema and come to HaShem and declare “And you shall love the L-d your G-d.” Maybe your love of G-d could be improved. But  say Shema as  you are , as you are struggling to find holiness, and that is enough.

The second statement in the Talmud’s beginning is that the final time for reciting the night Shema is at the end of the First Watch. But when is that? The gemora says that this opinion, of Rabbi Eliezar, is talking about the Watch in heaven of the angels. In heaven the angels sing songs of praise to HaShem in assigned times and places. They have Watches. The night is divided into three watches and there are angels for each of them. When the First Watch of night ends, new angels appear, but the time to recite the night Shema has passed according to Rabbi Eliezar.

The idea here is for us to realize that human prayers are closely connected to heaven. The angels pray to HaShem and so do people. This lets us realize how holy prayer is.

Thus, the two lessons in the Talmud are taught in a way to reveal important ideas about the service of HaShem in prayer. First, the holiest prayers don’t require perfect people. And secondly, when we pray, we are praying with the angels, and we are close to the greatest holiness.

Perhaps the greatest problem in life and especially in Torah is to be proud of our relationship with G-d and not depressed by our mistakes. There is so much failure and frustration many people don’t say the Shema and pray with the proper confidence and joy. Here we are encouraged to say Shema and join the angels in service before the Presence.