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    Talmud B’rachot 26a


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    Talmud B’rachot 26a

    Post  Arik on Thu Nov 04, 2010 11:18 am

    The morning t’filah(1) is recited until noon.(2) Rabbi Y’hudah says: it is recited until the end of the fourth hour [i.e., one-third of the daylight period].

    [A] The following baraita(3) contradicts the Mishnah: “The proper time [to recite the Sh’ma] is precisely at sunrise, so that one may then recite the t’filah immediately following g’ulah(4) and therefore pray during daylight!” [That is, one does not have until noon or the fourth hour to say the t’filah.]

    [B] That baraita describes the observance of the vatikin,(5) as Rabbi Yochanan says: “The vatikin used to complete the recitation of Sh’ma right at sunrise.”

    [C] Do you mean to say that everyone else [i.e., everyone but the vatikin] may recite the t’filah until noon but under no circumstances may they do so later than that? But didn’t Rav Mari the son of Rav Huna the son of R. Yermi’ah bar Abba say in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: “... one who errs and doesn’t say the morning t’filah may say the afternoon t’filah twice (as compensation)!” [Thus, one can fulfill the mitzvah of prayer even if one has missed the deadline.]

    [D] (Here is what that means): Everyone but the vatikin may recite the morning t’filah all day long. If they recite it before noon, they have fulfilled the mitzvah of (literally, “received the reward for”) praying at the proper time. If they recite it after noon, they have (at least) fulfilled the mitzvah of prayer, though they have not fulfilled the mitzvah of praying at the proper time.


    (1) t’filah - “prayer,” specifically the central nineteen-benediction prayer that forms the core of the Jewish worship service. It is traditionally recited three times every weekday.

    (2) The hours of the day are each reckoned as one-twelfth of the total daylight period. “Noon” means the actual middle point of the day, even if that doesn’t correspond to 12:00 as we tell time.

    (3) baraita - a text that dates to the period of the Mishnah (prior to ca. 200 C.E.) and therefore shares much the same level of authority as the Mishnah itself.

    (4) g’ulah - the name given to the benediction (b’rachah;) that ends with the words ga`al yisrael (... Who has redeemed Israel). It concludes the section of the service called K’riat Sh’ma (Recitation of Sh’ma) and comes immediately before the t’filah.

    (5) vatikin - “faithful ones,” a group of people who were known for being very sure to perform a mitzvah as soon as it becomes obligatory.


    Question: Is there a right way of living a Jewish life? Can we determine just what that right way is? Is it possible to decipher, through the use of our reason, logic, and good sense, the true meaning of Torah, to distinguish the right answer from the wrong ones, and to identify with confidence the path upon which God would have us walk?

    Or is Torah a multifaceted, multivocal thing, composed of many different and conflicting points of view, so that we can never be absolutely certain that we perceive the “truth” as God would have us see it?

    Answer: Yes.

    The universe is complicated. And the Talmud frequently seems to take pleasure in that fact. This text certainly does. It begins, as the Talmud most often begins, with a discussion over the technical details of a particular religious observance: the proper time to recite the morning t’filah. The Mishnah presumes that there is a proper time for that recitation; after all, we speak of the “morning” prayer (t’filat hashachar), a phrase that implies that time is part of the very definition of this mitzvah. Yet the mishnah also records a disagreement (machloket) over that requirement: do we have until noon to recite the t’filah, or must we complete it by the end of the fourth hour of the day? The Talmud (Gemara), for its part, seems intent on introducing more complexity into the mix. Paragraphs [A] and [C] offer different understandings of the proper time for prayer, each challenging in its own way the mishnah’s rule. We are left, it seems, in total confusion as to the proper time for t’filah. What’s an observant Jew to do?

    One way of responding to this would be to say “it doesn’t matter.” The existence of these differing interpretations of the law, we might say, testifies that none of them is “true” or, perhaps, that all of them are equally “true.” Therefore, we would be free to choose whichever standard we like or, for that matter, to create a new and different standard all our own. Another approach would be to insist that, despite the existence of these alternative understandings of the law, one and only one of them is “true” or correct. Our job in that case would be to determine which of these answers is indeed correct, to design our prayer practice accordingly, and to dispose of all the other answers as “wrong.”

    The Talmud rejects both of these extreme alternatives in favor of a middle ground. It defends the mishnah against both paragraphs [A] and [C], thus reducing the confusion over the proper time for the morning t’filah. Yet it does not totally eliminate that confusion, since it never resolves the disagreement within the mishnah itself. (In later centuries, Jewish legal scholars did resolve that dispute in favor of Rabbi Y’hudah, but that, as they say, is another story.) Nor does it reject the texts cited in paragraphs [A] and [C] as “wrong” or “incorrect.” Each one speaks of a standard that applies to a different sub-group within the general community, either [A] those who are especially careful and strict about their religious practice or [C] those who, due to their human imperfections, occasionally fall short of even the minimum standard of observance. (Hmm... I guess that latter group might include all of us.) The Talmud, in short, does set a standard, a framework within which we can determine the proper time to recite the morning t’filah, but it does not come up with a one-size-fits-all definition of that standard. While acknowledging the need for rules - without some sort of time limit, we can’t define the mitzvah of “morning prayer” at all - it also recognizes the complex and varied nature of human experience and that those standards must therefore accommodate different kinds of people with different sets of needs.

    This middle ground is, admittedly, a messy place. It does not offer us the certainty of either the “one right answer” or the “everything goes” approach. On the contrary: there’s a great deal of uncertainty in this way of thinking. It requires that we set standards, that we establish aspirations and aim our sights high, because not every answer is equally correct and not every perception of truth or justice or the right is equally valid. At the same time, it demands that we accept the existence of alternative answers and standards, so that we may provide for the diversity of personality, talent, and levels of accomplishment that is the human condition.

    In this text, as in so many others, the Talmud teaches us that it’s not a case of “either-or” but a matter of “both-and.” In the discussion of this particular issue of Jewish observance, the Talmud stresses the value and the meaning in opting for that middle ground. We should strive as hard as we can for truth. And we should accept that uncertainty, the existence of a plurality of potentially right answers, is our lot in life.

    That’s where the Talmud lives. That’s the kind of text it is.

    Come to think of it, it’s a pretty good description of reality, too.

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