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Daf 4b-5a - A Prayer against the Darkness

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Lecture 14:  Daf 4b-5a


A Prayer against the Darkness


The Gemara now returns to its discussion of the halakhot (laws) of saying keriat shema at night:


R. Yehoshua b. Levi says:

Though a man has recited the Shema in the synagogue,

it is a religious act to recite it again upon his bed.


R. Yehoshua ben Levi seems to be introducing the concept known to us as keriat shema al ha-mita.  In addition to reciting keriat shema during the evening service, which is preferably recited in the synagogue with a minyan, one should also say the Shema in the privacy of one’s bedroom before going to sleep at night. R. Yehoshua b. Levi’s language of “a religious act,” mitzva, suggests that the basis for this recitation is essentially halakhic. The Rabbis presumably instituted the requirement to say this final keriat shema.


But what is the source of this requirement? The verse seems to state quite clearly that we only say Shema twice a day. Why would the Rabbis institute a third time?  A careful study of R. Yehoshua ben Levi’s position will show that things are not quite as they seem.


The reader may recall that a few classes ago we saw a dispute in the Gemara between R. Yochanan and R. Yehoshua b. Levi regarding reciting the evening Shema. R. Yochanan said that one should say the evening Shema prior to saying the Shemoneh Esrei of Maariv. R. Yehoshua ben Levi, on the other hand, says that the prayers of Shemoneh Esrei were “ordained in the middle,” meaning that the morning Shema should be said first and the evening Shema last, with the daily three prayers of Shemoneh Esrei in the middle. The Gemara goes on to suggest that this dispute is rooted in a disagreement about the proper way to read the biblical phrase “when you lay down and when you get up.” R. Yehoshua ben Levi interprets this phrase as meaning that the Shema should be said immediately upon waking up and upon going to sleep. If this is the case, the reason that R. Yehoshua b. Levi requires one to repeat the Shema at bedtime is that he does not think one can fulfill this requirement by saying it in the synagogue earlier in the evening.


Indeed Moshe Benovitz, in his commentary on this passage, argues that R. Yehoshua’s position was actually the mainstream position in the Land of Israel.  Only in Babylonia was it normative to say the Shema at night in the synagogue as part of the Maariv service. Benovitz cites the following passage from the Jerusalem Talmud to support his case:


It was taught [in a baraita]

He who reads the Shema in the synagogue

In the morning- he fulfills his obligation.

In the evening-he does not fulfill his obligation.


Thus R. Yehoshua ben Levi seems to hold that one can only fulfill one’s obligation to say the evening Shema right before bed and not in the synagogue. Only when R. Yehoshua is quoted in the context of the Babylonian Talmud, which assumes that one should say the Shema earlier in the synagogue, does he appear to advocate saying Shema a third time in the day. His statement is used by the Babylonian Talmud to support the practice of keriat shema al ha-mita.


What then is the reason for this extra Shema as advocated by the Babylonian Talmud? The first explanation for this practice is found in the statement of R. Yosi, which the Gemara cites in response to R. Yehoshua b. Levi:


R. Yosi says: Which verse [may be cited in support]?

Tremble and sin not;

Say in your heart upon your bed, and be still, Selah. (Tehillim 4:5)


For R. Yosi, the key part of the verse is the second half. More specifically, he is interested in the phrase “upon your bed” (mishkavkhem) which recalls the phrase from the Shema “when you lay down” (bi-shakhbikha). And indeed this phrase ordains that one should say something on one’s bed. The verse, however, does not specify what to say. How does R. Yosi know that this verse is talking about the Shema? Benovitz suggests that the phrase “say in your heart” recalls the Shema’s own call to “place these words on your heart,” and based on this linkage R. Yosi sees this verse as mandating the recitation of the Shema at bedtime.


Thus far we have seen only a technical basis for the bedtime Shema, derived from a careful midrashic explication of a biblical verse. However, this explanation does not tell us anything about the nature and purpose of this practice, which only begin to be revealed to us in the following lines.  These lines contain a brief discussion of who is bound by this requirement and to what degree:


R. Nachman, however, says:

If he is a scholar, then it is not necessary.


Why would a Torah scholar be exempt from saying the bedtime Shema? Torah scholars are not generally exempt from ritual requirements, so why should they be in this case? The supposition that a Torah scholar may be exempt from this practice implies that there is an underlying reason for the bedtime Shema, and if that reason is not operative, the requirement ceases to hold.


What could this underlying reason be? This reason may be rooted in the dual nature of the Shema. On the one hand, the Shema is a mandatory prayer, a type of ritual.  As we have seen, it is surrounded by blessings and is closely linked by the Rabbis to the Shemoneh Esrei, the prayer par excellence. Yet, the Shema is also a form of Torah study. Indeed, the text of the first paragraph of the Shema appears to be the true source in the Torah for constant and all-consuming commitment to the words of Torah. The verse, “Let not this Book of the Torah cease from your lips, but recite it day and night,” which is usually associated with this commandment, is from the book of Yehoshua (1:8) and thus cannot be the true source of a Torah requirement.  R. Yochanan’s statement suggests that reciting the Shema is the essential fulfillment of the requirement of regular Torah study:


Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of R. Shimon b. Yochai,

Even if a person merely reads the Shema morning and evening,

He has fulfilled [the commandment of the verse],

“Let not [this Book of the Torah] cease [from your lips].”

(Talmud Bavli Menachot 99b)


Here the Rabbis clearly link the recitation of the Shema with the requirement to study Torah “day and night,” interpreting this phrase minimally as meaning not “constantly” but “twice a day, in the morning and at bedtime,” like medication. If the Shema is essentially a way of ensuring that individuals get their minimal daily intake of Torah, it makes sense that Torah scholars would be exempt from at least part of this mitzva. Since they are engaged in so much Torah scholarship all day as part of their regular diet, they have no need to take an extra supplement of Torah before they go to sleep.


Abaye, however, limits this exemption and suggests another reason for it:


Abaye says:

Even a scholar should recite one verse of supplication, as for instance:

Into Thy hand I commit my spirit.

Thou hast redeemed me,

O Lord, Thou God of truth (Tehillim 21:6).


Abaye requires that the Torah scholar still recite one verse on his bed that literally takes the form of a prayer for mercy. Abaye clearly identifies the bedtime Shema as a form of prayer or begging for mercy and not as a form of Torah study. Why is it so important to pray for mercy exactly at this time, and why should a Torah scholar be even partially exempt from this requirement?


As we have already seen, the nighttime for the Rabbis is a time of danger, both natural and supernatural. Not only does the darkness place us at the mercy of our environment, but when we go to sleep, we give up control of our body and our very consciousness. We are as helpless as babies. The Shema, it seems, functions as a sort of protective prayer meant to defend us against the threats that lie in the darkness. Nighttime Shema is thus not an anomalous prayer for its positioning after sunset, when the Temple’s operations cease, but a quintessential prayer, positioned at a time of maximal need for Divine protection. This protective aspect of the Shema is probably linked to the prophylactic nature of tefilin (in English, phylacteries, from the Greek word phlakter, also found in “prophylactic,” meaning to “watch or guard”) and mezuzot found in the Jewish tradition.


If this is the case, a Torah scholar may be exempt from the bedtime Shema because he is thought to be protected, instead, by the merit of his Torah study. Abaye, however, notes that even a scholar must ask for some extra protection at night, and therefore should recite, minimally, a single appropriate verse at bedtime.


The Gemara goes on to further explicate the verse on which the requirement of the evening Shema was previously based:


R. Levi b. Chama says in the name of R. Shimon b. Lakish:

A man should always incite the good impulse [in his soul] 

to fight against the evil impulse.

For it is written:

‘Tremble and sin not.’ 

If he subdues it, well and good.

If not, let him study the Torah.

For it is written:

'Commune with your own heart.’ 

If he subdues it, well and good.

If not, let him recite the Shema.

For it is written: 'Upon your bed.’

If he subdues it, well and good.

If not, let him remind himself of the day of death.

For it is written:

'And be still, Selah.’


The Gemara interprets this verse in what has been called an “atomized” style. The verse is broken down into words or phrases, each one of which is understood as a separate element of a list or continuum. In this case, the Gemara sees this verse as narrating a series of weapons to be used in the struggle against the evil urge. First, one should engage his good urge against the evil urge. If that fails, one should, successively, study Torah, recite the bedtime Shema, and, finally, contemplate one’s own mortality. Once again, we find the juxtaposition of reciting the Shema and studying Torah as protective devices. This time, however, the text is clear that they protect against spiritual danger, rather than physical danger as we suggested previously. As we noted before, the night is also a time for all sorts of sins that one could not get away with in the light of day.


The final section of this passage further explicates the notion that the bedtime Shema has a protective effect on those who recite it. (The Ein Yaakov reverses the order of the next two passages, perhaps so as not to break up the thematic discussion regarding the Shema. I am following his order rather than the Gemara’s original order.)   


R. Yitzchak says:

If one recites the Shema upon his bed,

it is as though he held a two-edged sword in his hand. 

For it is said:

“Let the high praises of God be in their mouth,

and a two-edged sword in their hand.” (Tehillim 149:6) 

How does it indicate this?

Mar Zutra, (some say, R. Ashi) says:

[The lesson is] from the preceding verse.

For it is written:

“Let the pious exult in glory,

let them sing for joy upon their beds,” (ibid. v. 5) 

and then it is written:

“Let the high praises of God be in their mouth,

and a two-edged sword in their hand.”


R. Yitzchak’s statement here is somewhat cryptic. He cites a verse from the penultimate psalm which portrays those who sing God’s praise as wielding a double-edged sword. However, R. Yitzchak does not explain why this verse should be applied particularly to those who recite the bedtime Shema.  A later Bablyonian Amora, either Mar Zutra or R. Ashi, then comes to explicate this Tanaitic statement. As is often the case, the Midrash here fails to cite a second verse, which provides the underlying logic of the interpretation. The reader or listener is expected to figure out this verse on his own. In this case, we are expected to know the context of the verse which is cited. Immediately preceding the verse quoted by R. Yitzchak, the psalm refers to those who “sing for joy upon their beds.”  As in the Gemara’s previous explication of Tehillim 4:5, the Rabbis understand this description of verbal activity on one’s bed as referring to the recitation of the bedtime Shema. It is now a small jump to interpret the next verse, which portrays the pious with a prayer in their mouths and a sword in their hands, as referring to those who recite the bedtime Shema as well.


By citing this verse, the Gemara significantly changes the tone of the conversation. Previously, the bedtime Shema was recited in an atmosphere of fear and trembling. It was only a part of what may be a losing struggle against the evil urge. Even the scholar could not be confident of his safety against the perils of the night. The Shema appeared as a desperate prayer for mercy. Now the Shema is identified with the joyous and triumphant song of the pious who confidently vanquish their enemies. One who says the bedtime Shema no longer has reason to tremble, because he is now counted among these righteous.


The Gemara concludes:


R. Yitzchak says further:

If one recites the Shema upon his bed,

the demons keep away from him.

For it is said:

“And the sons of reshef fly [uf] upward.” (Iyov 5:7) 

The word ‘uf’ refers only to the Torah,

as it is written:

“Wilt thou cause thine eyes to close [ha-ta’if] upon it?

It is gone.” (Mishlei 23:5)  

And 'reshef' refers only to the demons,

as it is said:

“The wasting of hunger,

and the devouring of the reshef [fiery bolt]

and bitter destruction.” (Devarim 32: 24).


R. Yitzchak now explicitly states that the Shema protects one from physical as well as spiritual danger. He says that the Shema protects from “demons,” “mazikin,” literally -- “damagers.” These mysterious beings, who are dominant at night, are responsible for destruction and suffering in this world. These mazikin are referred to earlier in this chapter as one of the dangers of entering a ruined house. We also suggested that they may underlie the nocturnal braying of the donkey and barking of dogs, which mark the progression of the night. Now they are directly linked to the saying of the nighttime Shema, and that Shema’s role as a protector against demonic forces is stated explicitly.


R. Yitzchak’s actual derivation of this idea from the biblical verses is not straightforward. The initial verse from Iyov that he cites is quite difficult.  It is not clear what the words mean, how they fit together, or their place in the context of the biblical passage. The JPS translation renders the entire verse as follows:


For man was born to do mischief,

Just as sparks fly upward.


Amos Chakham, however, in his Daat Mikra commentary on this verse gives an interpretation that would result in a translation as follows:


For man is born to suffering,

Causing arrows to strike from great heights.


The Rabbis were often drawn to ambiguous or difficult verses, because these verses have more potential for generating midrashic meanings which grow organically from the words of Scripture. A verse whose meaning is clear-cut is much more difficult to manipulate in order to produce new and interesting meanings.


The next verse cited, Mishlei 23:5, is meant to prove that the verbal root uf can be understood as a reference to the noun “Torah.”  The simple meaning of this verse. however, refers to the futility of pursuing riches. It is not clear what signals the Rabbis to understand this verse in terms of Torah. Even if we do understand this verse as referring to the elusiveness of Torah and the difficulty in acquiring it, it is still not clear why this would mean that the root uf necessarily refers to Torah.


R. Yitzchak then goes on to demonstrate the meaning of the word reshef.  As reflected in the JPS translation, the word generally means “flame” in the Bible. Hence JPS renders “sons of reshef” as sparks. In some cases the word can be a metaphor for arrows. As reflected in Amos Chakham’s commentary, R. Yitzchak insists that this refers to a demon. However, in the verse that he cites, reshef may easily be translated using one of the common meanings cited above. The translation above renders the word as “fiery bolt,” whereas JPS translates the entire verse as:


Wasting famine, ravaging plague,

Deadly pestilence, and fanged beasts

Will I let loose against them

With venomous creepers in the dust.


Whether one translates reshef here as a fiery bolt or a ravaging plague, there does not seem to be any reason why the translator should need to take recourse to supernatural phenomena in translating the term. However, this verse does catalogue the litany of disasters that will befall Israel should they stray from God. It is precisely these sorts of calamities that the Rabbis associated with mazikin, “demons.” It is, therefore, not unreasonable for the Rabbis to associate the terms for the plagues mentioned in this verse with the various mazikin that cause them, rather than with the plagues themselves. Evidence for such a tradition of interpretation is to be found in the Gemara, in Pesachim 111b, which is part of perhaps the most extensive discussion of demonology in the Talmud. Here we read that:


[Demons] who live on roofs are called rishfei.


A little later, the Gemara discusses the term “qetev meriri,” the phrase which follows reshef in our verse and is rendered by JPS as deadly pestilence. The Talmud states:


There are two types of qetev,

one that comes before noon

and one that comes after noon. 

The one that comes before noon is called

qetev meriri.

It can be seen in a jug of sour milk porridge,

moving about.


The Rabbis clearly identify both the terms reshef and qetev in this verse as specific mazikin, each with its own habitat, showing that the Rabbis had a tradition of interpreting this verse as referring to mazikin.


This interpretation is supported by modern scholars of Semitic languages who cite arguments that the word reshef can refer to an evil god or demon in biblical Hebrew.


Finally, if one reads this last passage in the Gemara carefully, one will notice that whereas R. Yitzchak at first states that the recitation of the Shema keeps the mazikin at bay, his proof from the verses talks more generally about how Torah conquers mazikin. This further supports my argument about the close interrelationship between saying Shema and studying Torah. 


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