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Mishna 1:1 Conversations with the Fathers

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan



Lecture 3 - Mishna 1:1

Conversations with the Fathers



What is the Ein Yaakov?


This class will use the Ein Yaakov as its text.  The Ein Yaakov, perhaps the most important and popular aggadic collection ever to be compiled, was authored by R. Yaakov Ibn Habib.  R. Yaakov was a Sephardic rabbi who fled Spain at the time of the expulsion, eventually settling in the city of Salonika, in what is today southern Greece and was then part of the Ottoman Empire.  He served as a communal rabbi and posek (halakhic decisor) there and composed the Ein Yaakov, which was published in 1516.  The Ein Yaakov has been reprinted numerous times over the centuries and is a popular text which has been and continues to be studied throughout the Jewish world. 


The Ein Yaakov is a collection of all the aggadic sections of the Talmud, with a commentary by R. Yaakov.  It is, in a sense, a photo negative of the Rif’s work.  The Rif, R. Yitzchak Alfasi (1013-1103), compiled a work that presented all the relevant halakhic rulings of the Talmud, while excising the Aggada.  The Rif was the forerunner of the great medieval codes, the Tur (on which R. Yaakov Ibn Habib wrote a commentary), the Mishneh Torah, and the Shulkhan Arukh, which came out a few decades after the Ein Yaakov.  Some scholars believe that R. Yaakov sought to redress the imbalance created by these codes, which present Halakha independently of Aggada.  The codes did so in order to create a clear and concise presentation of the Halakha.  However, along the way, they also created the impression that Aggada was not crucial to Jewish life.  By presenting the aggadic part of the Talmud independently, R. Yaakov sought to restore prestige to the study of Aggada, so that it would regain its rightful place in Jewish life.


We will use the Ein Yaakov’s selections as a guide to studying Aggada in the first chapter of Massekhet Berakhot.  As we shall see, it is not always clear what motivated R. Yaakov ibn Habib to identify certain passages as aggadic.  This merely emphasizes the difficulty in distinguishing between Halakha and Aggada in the Talmud, and the need to read them in light of each other. 


Passage #1: The very first mishna


The Ein Yaakov opens with the very first mishna in Berakhot and in the entire six orders of the Mishna.  I am not entirely sure why this text is considered Aggada, but it offers us an opportunity to consider some of the literary aspects of the Mishna.  The text reads:


From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening?

From the time that the priests enter [their houses] in order to eat their teruma, until the end of the first watch.

These are the words of R. Eliezer.

The Sages say: Until midnight.

R. Gamliel says: Until the dawn comes up.

Once it happened that his sons came home [late] from a wedding feast and they said to him: We have not yet recited the [evening] Shema.

He said to them: If the dawn has not yet come up you are still bound to recite. 

And not in respect to this alone did they so decide, but wherever the Sages say “until midnight,” the precept may be performed until the dawn comes up. The precept of burning the fat and the [sacrificial] pieces, too, may be performed until the dawn comes up.  Similarly, all the [offerings] that are to be eaten within one day may lawfully be consumed until the coming up of the dawn.

Why then did the Sages say “until midnight?”

In order to keep a man far from transgression.


This opening mishna drives home that Mishna is not, as it is often claimed to be, some sort of code or handbook, meant to systematically delineate the requirements of Halakha.  In order to get a sharper picture of the Mishna’s distinctive style, it will be helpful to compare this passage to the parallel text in the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam.  The Mishneh Torah is the halakhic code par excellence.  As Rambam writes in his introduction, the Mishneh Torah is meant to be an all-inclusive work; the Jew only needs to learn the Mishneh Torah and the Bible to know everything he or she needs to serve God in this word.  The Rambam opens up us discussion of the laws of Shema as follows:

1)    We [are obligated to] recite keriat shema twice daily - in the evening and in the morning - as [Deuteronomy 6:7] states: "...when you lie down and when you rise" - i.e., when people are accustomed to sleep - this being the night - and when people are accustomed to rise - this being daytime.

2)    And what is it that one recites? These three sections…

The Rambam opens by establishing that there is a requirement to say keriat shema twice a day.  He then presents a source from the Torah for this obligation.  Next, the Rambam defines the term keriat shema by listing the exact passages from the Torah that must be recited.  Everything is laid out in an orderly and systematic fashion, starting with basic principles and primary sources and moving on to more specific detail.  Note that he does not get into a discussion of the technical question of the parameters of “night” and “day” until halakha number nine. 


The Mishna, in contrast, opens with the question, “From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening?” The Mishna never stops to inform us that there is a requirement to say keriat shema, or to tell us when we are required to do so, or even to define the term keriat shema.  Rather, the Mishna simply opens with a question about a detail of the evening keriat shema.  How are we to understand the difference between the Mishna’s and the Mishneh Torah’s presentations?


In order to answer this question, let us consider two possible openings for a short story. 


The first possibility is as follows: At the end of the 19th century, in a Ukrainian town called Boyberik (AKA Anatevka), there lived a pious man named Tevye, who was a milkman.  He had seven daughters and many problems. 


The other possibility is to open the story with a monologue of a man talking about his life.  We know nothing about the man.  Only gradually do we deduce that the man’s name is Tevye, and that he is a milkman with seven daughters who lives in Boyberik.


The first possibility lays out the world of the story to the reader at the outset, while the second one draws the reader in by making him work to figure out what is going on in the story, making him a partner in the creation of the world of the story.  So too we might argue that the Rambam lays out the world of the Halakha clearly and unambiguously to the passive reader, while the Mishna engages the reader, forcing him to reconstruct the underlying assumption of the Mishna’s question about the time for the evening keriat shema,  namely - there is something called keriat shema that must be read at night.


However, one can understand the second approach to telling the story in another way, which more closely approximates the Mishna’s style in this case.  Perhaps the author assumes that the reader has read other stories about Tevye and knows all about him.  The reader is expected to instantly recognize Tevye’s distinctive voice and to bring all of his knowledge about Tevye to the new story.  The reader who needs to reconstruct Tevye’s world from the details of the story is an outsider, not the intended reader of the story.


So too, while the Mishneh Torah is designed for a reader who knows nothing about Judaism, except for what he has read in the Bible, the Mishna assumes that the reader is intimately familiar with halakhic life.  There is no need to introduce the practice of keriat shema, because it is familiar to every Jewish child.  The child knows all the words by heart and, by the time he studies this Mishna, presumably even knows that the requirement to say the Shema twice a day is derived from the verse, “When you lie down and when you rise.”


The Mishna is not a text that stands alone, that presents itself in a clear, self-explanatory voice.  Rather, it is a “dialogic” text.  Its voice can be understood only in the context of other “voices” such as the practices with which the reader is presumed to be familiar.  The Mishna exists only within the context of the living tradition of Oral Law and is meant to be studied by those who live in that context. 


The problem is that this tradition, for all its continuity, is in constant flux.  As a result, the Mishna is often inherently ambiguous.  The way one reads the Mishna depends on where and when one is situated within the tradition.  As the context in which the Mishna is read changes, so will its meaning.  This quality of the Mishna leads to the many different interpretations of the Mishna offered by the different rabbis of the Talmud.


Another way in which the Mishna is dialogic is the range of different forms that the Mishna uses.  The Mishna mixes together statements of basic principle with reports and stories, as well as case law, in a way that is very unusual for a legal document.  The different forms can also be seen as different “voices” that are in constant conversation within the Mishna.  The interaction between our mishna’s story and the rest of the mishna offers a good illustration of how this works.  Once again the story reads:


Once it happened that [R. Gamliel’s] sons came home [late] from a wedding feast and they said to him: We have not yet recited the [evening] Shema.

He said to them: If the dawn has not yet come up you are still bound to recite. 


I have loved this story ever since I first studied it as a child.  I pictured R. Gamliel’s sons stumbling through the backdoor of their house in the wee hours of the morning, hoping not to disturb their sleeping family.  To their surprise, they find their father at the kitchen table in his dressing gown, poring over a Talmudic folio.  The sight of their father reminds them that the festivities have distracted them from their obligation to accept the yolk of Heaven through the recitation of the Shema.  Their father looks up from his book with a mixture of concern and rebuke.  He informs them that they can still rectify their lax behavior, as long as the night has not yet ended.


This story is thus a classic family drama which raises some of the most universal tensions in human existence: the tension between fathers and sons and the tension between the need for creativity and self-expression, represented by the wedding, and the Halakha’s demand that we live an orderly and well-regulated life, represented by the requirement to say keriat shema.  In the end, order is restored.  The sons return to the house of their father and fulfill their obligations to their Father in Heaven. 


However, it would be simplistic to read this story as a triumph of regularity, demanded by Halakha and the older generation, over youthful exuberance.  Indeed, the Halakha requires that these young men rejoice in front of their friend’s bride no less that it requires them to proclaim their allegiance to the one true God by reciting the Shema.  Both sides of this conflict are rooted in the Halakha, and there is no simple way to reconcile them.  There will be other late nights, and they may not end with all obligations fulfilled.


But what is this story, and scores of others like it, doing in the Mishna, a work of law?  The story does communicate R. Gamliel’s position that one may recite the evening Shema throughout the night.  However, this cannot be the story’s primary function within the Mishna’s discourse.  Right before the Mishna tells this story, it delineates in concise, apodictic terms the range of positions regarding the latest time to recite the Shema:


…until the end of the first watch.

These are the words of R. Eliezer.

The Sages say: Until midnight.

R. Gamliel says: Until the dawn comes up.


By the time the reader gets to the story, he already knows R. Gamliel’s position.  In general, laws that the rabbis transmit through stories could just as well be formulated as more abstract legal rulings or principles.  What then drives these jurists to become storytellers? What role do stories like this play in the Mishna and in classical halakhic discourse in general?


Let us think about the implications of choosing a particular formulation to transmit a halakha. When the Mishna states that R. Gamliel says the Shema can be recited, “until the dawn comes up,” it is expressing a general rule.  In all places and at all times, the Shema can be said until dawn.  Halakha is thus presented as a universal and eternal set of norms.  When an individual says the Shema at the right time, he links himself to this wider framework. 


When we tell the story of R. Gamliel and his sons, we also teach that one can say the Shema so long as “the dawn has not yet come up.” Now, however, we move from specific to general.  The Halakha does not emerge from a universal norm but from a one-time event that involves specific people.  The focus of Halakha becomes individual actions at a given time and place, not universal norms.  These actions generate the rules, and not vice versa.


So while the two parts of our mishna teach the same practical halakha, they express two very different views on the nature of that halakha and Halakha in general.  One the one hand, the first part of the mishna expresses a view of Halakha as an abstract system of universal norms, whose application to the practical world is ultimately secondary.  On the other hand, the second part of the mishna sees Halakha as nothing but a series of discrete actions taken by individuals in different contexts and at different times and places.


These two views of Halakha are embodied by two different types of modern halakhic works.  On the one hand, we have works of lomdus, works of conceptual and analytic halakhic analysis as exemplified (perhaps) by R. Chaim Soloveitchik’s essays on the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah.  These works seek to uncover the underlying logic of Halakha, to precisely define its categories, and to understand its operating principles.  Halakha is at its core an abstract, logical system.  These analyses do not lead to rulings on contemporary cases.  Such activities are seen as entirely derivative, much as a theoretical physicist might view the work of an engineer.   


On the other hand, we have practical halakhic works of the sort that have become so popular in recent years, the paradigm of which is the Shemirat Shabbat Ke-hilkhata.  These works do organize the Halakha in a certain way.  However, their main purpose is to provide practical rulings on a wide range of subjects and different situations that the contemporary Jew may encounter.  These works do not provide extensive explanations of the theory behind their rulings.  The important thing is for the individual Jew to do the right thing in any given situation. 


While today books generally take one or another of these approaches to Halakha – but not both - depending on their intended audience, the Mishna combines these two approaches by presenting Halakha using different formulations and approaches.  Often, as in our case, the same halakha is presented twice, as both a universal norm and a story which was a one-time event.  The Mishna advocates both of these potentially contradictory approaches to Halakha, bringing them into dialogue with each other and urging us, paradoxically, to embrace both.


Finally, I would like to call attention to one last aspect of this mishna, which also illustrates that the Mishna is a dialogic text rather than one which seeks to communicate a single, unambiguous truth.  The Mishna makes repeated references to the world of priests and sacrifices.  At the beginning, instead of simply saying that the requirement to say the evening Shema begins at nightfall, the Mishna somewhat cryptically states that the requirement begins “from the time the priests enter [their houses] in order to eat their teruma.” The Mishna, in using this circumlocution, seems almost as if it is going out of its way to link the laws of the Shema with the laws of purity and sacrifices.  At the end of the passage, the Mishna adds that R. Gamliel’s ruling that the Shema really can be said until dawn, and not till midnight as often stated, also applies to various sacrifices, whose stated deadline for consumption is midnight.


The Mishna seems to be establishing a dialogue between the world of the Temple and its rituals, and the world of synagogue and its prayers.  It is tempting to interpret this Mishna as a response to the destruction of the Temple, by interpreting the Mishna as saying that in the absence of sacrifices, we still have prayers.  My intuition here, however, is that the Mishna is portraying reciting the Shema and the sacrificial order as equals in the halakhic system.  The Mishna is seeking to establish the existence of a universal halakhic conception of nighttime, which applies equally to the Shema and to the Temple.  Regardless of the interpretation we choose, we see from here that the Mishna often has a secondary “hidden” agenda, beyond the transmission of the halakhot at hand. 

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