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Mishna 2a and b - "There Goes the Sun"

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan




Lecture 4:  Mishna 2a and b

“There Goes the Sun”



The first section of the Gemara that the Ein Yaakov presents is entirely halakhic in nature, and it is unclear why the Ein Yaakov included it.  Nevertheless, since our project is to study the Ein Yaakov, we will examine this passage:



When do the priests eat teruma?

From the time of the appearance of the stars.

Let him then say: “From the time of the appearance of the stars?”

This very thing he wants to teach us, in passing, that the priests may eat teruma from the time of the appearance of the stars.

And he also wants to teach us that the expiatory offering is not indispensable, as it has been taught: “And when the sun sets ve-taher,” the setting of the sun is indispensable [as a condition of his fitness] to eat teruma, but the expiatory offering is not indispensable to enable him to eat teruma.

But how do you know that these words “and the sun sets” mean the setting of the sun, and this “ve-taher” means that the day clears away?

It means perhaps: And when the sun [of the next morning] appears, and ve-taher means the man becomes clean?

Rabba son of R. Shila explains:

In that case, the text would have to read va-yithar.

What is the meaning of ve-taher?

The day clears away, conformably to the common expression,

“The sun has set and the day has cleared away.”

This explanation of Rabba son of R. Shila was unknown in the West, 

and they raised the question:

This “and the sun sets,” does it mean the real setting of the sun, and “ve-taher” means the day clears away? Or does it perhaps mean the appearance of the sun, and ve-taher means the man becomes clean?

They solved it from a Baraita, it being stated in a Baraita:

The sign of the thing is the appearance of the stars.

Hence you learn that it is the setting of the sun [which makes him clean]

and the meaning of ve-taher is the clearing away of the day.


Scholars argue that this sugya (section of the gemara) was authored by the Saboraim. The Saboraim were a group of rabbis who taught after the main body of the Talmud was edited. The Saboraim added various sugyot, mainly at the beginning of masekhtot (tractates). The Geonim and Rishonim already identified a few sugyot as being of Saboraic origin. Modern scholars have added other sugyot, such as this one, to the list of Saboraic additions, because their language and style are similar to previously identified Saboraic passages.


The sugya opens with a basic question as to the meaning of the Mishna. The Mishna states that the time for saying keriat shema at night is the same as the “time that the priests enter to eat their teruma.” But what is this time? The Talmud answers that it is when the stars come out.


We should note that by the time of the later Babylonian Amoraim (rabbis of the Talmud), and certainly by the time of the Saboraim, the laws of purity no longer applied, so most people did not know when the priests eat their teruma. Moshe Benovitz, in his commentary on the first chapter of Berakhot (Ha-iggud Le-parshanut Ha-Talmud, 2006), suggests that in actuality the priests ate their teruma not long before sundown. As a result, the practice in the land of Israel was to say the evening shema before sundown.  However, by the time of the late Babylonian Amoraim, the established law was that one should not say keriat shema until after nightfall. By that time, people no longer knew the “time that the priests enter to eat their teruma,” so the Babylonian Talmud interprets the phrase as referring, not to before sunset, but to after the stars appear.


The Gemara goes on to ask, if the Mishna refers to nightfall, why does it not say explicitly “from the time of the appearance of the stars,” rather than using this circumlocution about the priests and their teruma? The Gemara answers that this allows the Mishna to teach us an extra law: not only does the time for keriat shema start with the coming out of the stars, but the time for eating teruma starts then as well.


This teaches us yet another important law. In order to understand this law, we need to back up a little bit and ask, what does “the time that the priests enter to eat their teruma” mean? Why can’t they eat it during the day? The Gemara assumes that the Mishna is only talking about certain cases. According to the Torah, several types of tuma (impurity) can only be resolved through an immersion in a mikva followed by a sacrifice. Thus with regard to a zav, a man who has an impure discharge, the Torah states:


When a zav becomes clean of his discharge,

he shall count off seven days for his cleansing,

wash his clothes and bath his body in fresh water.

Then he shall be clean.

On the eighth day he shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons,

And come before the LORD at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting,

And give them to the priest… (Vayikra 15:13-14)


The reader will note that these verses state that the person becomes clean (ve-taher) after immersion, even before the sacrifice is offered.


The rabbis understand this law in the context of another verse in Vayikra dealing with the impurity of creepy crawly things:


The person who touches such shall be unclean until evening,

And shall not eat of the sacred donations unless he has washed his body in water.

As soon as the sun sets, he shall be clean,

Afterwards he shall eat of the sacred donations (Vayikra 22:6-7).


Now an extra element is added to the purification process. Immersion is not sufficient to render one clean. Rather, one must wait until “ba ha-shemesh,” a term translated here as sunset.


Now we are ready to understand the extra law that the Gemara derives from our Mishna. The Gemara states:


And he also wants to teach us that the expiatory offering is not indispensable, as it has been taught: “And when the sun sets ve-taher,” the setting of the sun is indispensable [as a condition of his fitness] to eat teruma, but the expiatory offering is not indispensable to enable him to eat teruma.


The Gemara understands that the Mishna is teaching us that in cases where immersion and a sacrifice are necessary, the sacrifice is not necessary to make the priest eligible to eat teruma. Rather, as soon as “the sun sets” (“ba ha-shemesh”), which the rabbis interpret as when the stars come out, the priest can eat teruma. Apparently, the rabbis understood the term “sacred donations” in the verse as referring specifically to teruma, and not to other holy foods, like sacrifices.


We now come to the second part of the sugya.  The Gemara challenges its previous understanding of the phrase “u-va ha-shemesh ve-taher” in Vayikra. It seems that the Gemara understood the word taher as referring, not to the purification of the person, but to the darkening of the skies. Hence the phrase “u-va ha-shemesh ve-taher,” indicates that one must wait until nightfall.


The Gemara asks, is this really so? Perhaps it would be better to understand “u-va ha-shemesh” as referring to sunset and “ve-taher” as referring to the person who becomes pure, not the darkening of the skies? This would be the simple meaning of the verse. (I have understood this line like Tosafot s.v. “dilma,” as opposed to Rashi.)


The Gemara now quotes the Amora, Rabba b. Shila, as definitively ruling that the term “ve-taher” in the verse refers to nightfall. He brings two proofs. First, if the Torah intended to refer to the individual becoming pure, it should have said va-yithar, “and he shall become pure,” which would have eliminated any confusion. Second, common Aramaic uses the term “purified” as a metaphor for nightfall, as in the idiom, “The sun has set and the day has cleared away (been purified).”


This use of a popular expression to elucidate a verse from the Torah highlights one of the Talmud’s most distinctive features. The Talmud mixes many different types of language together. Not only does it mix various types of Hebrew and Aramaic, it also mixes “high” language with “low” language. We find the words of the Torah and the prophets rubbing shoulders with common expressions and popular folk wisdom. The dialogue between these different types of language generates much of the vibrancy of the Talmud’s discourse.


Finally, the Talmud quotes an alternative defense of its interpretation of the verse in Vayikra and, by extension, our Mishna, as referring to nightfall and not sunset. They quote a tradition from the Land of Israel. Unlike Rabba b. Shila’s explanation, this tradition does not make a linguistic argument about the meaning of the word “ve-taher” in the verse. Rather, it makes a straightforward halakhic argument, citing a baraita that explicitly states that the term refers to the coming out of the stars.


The explanation of this passage was long and complex, and may have been difficult to follow for readers who do not have background in Talmud study. I will now briefly summarize the key issues in the sugya.


This is an essentially interpretive sugya. It seeks to interpret two related texts. The first is the line in our Mishna that refers to the “time that the priests enter to eat their teruma” as the earliest time to say the evening Shema. Secondarily, the Gemara wants to know the meaning of Vayikra 22:7, which describes the purification process following impurity. It too refers to eating “holy things” and the conclusion of the day.


It seems to me that the simple meaning of both the Mishna and the Vayikra verse is that the person becomes pure before sunset. However, in both cases, the Mishna argues that the passages in question refer to nightfall. It seems that the Mishna interprets the passages in this way because the interpretation fits with the accepted law as they know it. The Talmud often reinterprets sources so that they conform with the law as the Talmud understands it.


Bein Ha-shmashot and Talmudic Astronomy


The next passage cited by the Ein Yaakov comes from the bottom of page 2b. The Ein Yaakov only cites the last line of the following quotation, but I will cite the entire quotation because the context is helpful in understanding that line:


The Master said: “R. Yehuda said to him:

When the priests take their ritual bath it is still day-time!”

The objection of R. Yehuda to R. Meir seems well founded?

R. Meir may reply as follows:

Do you think that I am referring to the twilight [as defined] by you?

I am referring to the twilight [as defined] by R. Yosi.

For R. Yosi says:

The twilight is like the twinkling of an eye.

This enters and that departs — and one cannot exactly fix it.


This passage refers to the preceding discussion in the Talmud in which R. Yehuda chastises R. Meir for suggesting that one might be able to say the Shema at sunset. The Gemara answers somewhat cryptically that R. Meir rejects R. Yehuda’s definition of bein ha-shemashot and adopts the position of R. Yosi, who holds that bein ha-shemashot lasts for only an instant.


What is bein ha-shemashot and what is the nature of the debate between R. Yehuda and R. Yosi about its duration? How does this relate to the question of when to say keriat shema?


In order to answer these questions, we must take a few steps backwards to explain a little bit about rabbinic cosmology – the way in which the rabbis understood the structure of the universe.


Unlike people today, the rabbis did not envision the earth as a spheroid which orbits the sun along with eight other planets (or seven, if you don’t count Pluto), and with the moon orbiting the earth. Neither did the rabbis adopt the classical Greek or Ptolemaic theory of the universe which was already widely accepted in the times of the Mishna and Talmud. This theory posited that the earth is a sphere and the sun, moon, planets and stars all circle the earth.


Rather, the rabbis embraced the traditional view of the universe which was held in one form or the other by most ancient civilizations before the advent and spread of Greek science. The rabbis may have learned this position from the Bible itself, which also presents the universe according to the conventional understandings of its time. According to this view, the earth is more or less flat and is covered by a solid dome, referred to in the Bible and in rabbinic literature as the rakia (firmament).  Each day, the sun travels along the inside surface of the rakia from east to west. At the end of the day, the sun passes through the rakia to the other side, becoming invisible to the human observer and leaving the world in darkness. Over the course of the night, the sun travels back around to the east side of the world. In the morning, the sun re-enters the rakia and the process starts again.


One of the central questions regarding the rakia that the rabbis debate is its thickness. Some rabbis argued that the rakia is extremely thin.  We find both R. Joshua b. R. Nehemiah and Ben Zoma stating that the rakia is “about two or three fingers in thickness” (Bereshit Rabba 4:5, 2:4). Some rabbis go so far as to compare the rakia to fine gold leaf (Bereishit Rabba 4:2). On the other hand, some rabbis posit that the rakia is extremely thick. Rabbi Yehuda estimates the rakia’s thickness more conservatively as a 50-year journey (Yerushalmi Berakhot 2c).


The dispute as to whether the rakia is very thick or very thin may be connected to the debate about the length of bein ha-shemashot mentioned in the Gemara. The source for this debate is a baraita cited in the Talmud, in Shabbat 34b:


Our rabbis taught: As to the twilight [period], it is doubtful whether it is partly day and partly night or the whole of it [belongs to the] day or the whole of it night: [therefore] it is cast upon the stringencies of both days. And what is twilight? From sunset as long as the face of the east has a reddish glow: when the lower [horizon] is pale but not the upper, it is twilight; [but] when the upper [horizon] is pale and the same as the lower, it is night. This is the opinion of R. Yehuda. R. Nehemiah said: For as long as it takes for a man to walk half a mil from sunset. R. Yosi said: Twilight is the twinkling of an eye, one entering and the other departing, and it is impossible to determine it.   


R. Yehuda’s position that bein ha-shemashot consists of the entire period from sunset to complete nightfall is apparently directly linked to his beliefs about the thickness of the rakia. This is the same R. Yehuda whom we saw above cited as stating that the rakia is a fifty years’ journey in length. In that passage in the Yerushalmi, R. Yehuda elaborates on his understanding of the relationship between the thickness of the rakia and the process of the rising and the setting of the sun:


It was taught in the name of R. Yehuda: The thickness of the firmament (rakia) is a fifty-year journey. An average man can walk forty mil in one day. In the time in which the sun passes though the firmament, a fifty-year journey, a man can walk four mil. Thus, the [time it takes the sun to pass though the] thickness of the firmament is equal to one tenth of the day.


R. Yehuda’s calculations assume that the sun’s passage through the rakia is an observable phenomenon. Otherwise, he would not be able to calculate that this passage takes one tenth of the day. R. Yehuda apparently identified the hour or more between sunset and complete nightfall with the sun’s passing through the rakia. R. Yehuda’s maximal definition of bein ha-shemashot as spanning the entire period from sunset to nightfall thus corresponds to his opinion that the rakia is a fifty years’ journey in length. R. Yosi’s proposition that bein ha-shemashot is an infinitesimally short period of time may similarly be based on a calculation of the time it takes the sun to pass through the rakia. It would follow that R. Yosi was a proponent of the position that the rakia is extremely thin. R. Nehemiah’s position that bein ha-shemashot lasts for as long as it takes to walk half a mil does not correlate directly with any known position about the thickness of the rakia. It is possible that he had his own opinion either about the thickness of the rakia or about the observable phenomenon corresponding to the sun’s passage through the rakia.


In other words, the debate between R. Yehuda and R. Yosi regarding the length of bein ha-shemashot may in fact reflect a scientific dispute among the rabbis as to the thickness of the rakia.


This discussion raises fundamental issues about the relationship between the rabbis and science and, more broadly, between Torah and science. I believe that the rabbis’ understanding of the structure of the universe does not conform, in any way, with the observations and conclusions of modern science (I have made this argument in much greater depth in an article which I would be happy to send to any interested readers).  It is nearly impossible to argue that these texts are allegorical or symbolic, and are meant to teach us other, non-scientific interpretations. So we are left with two alternatives. We can either decide, taking a radical approach inspired by Tosafot, that we are bound to believe all that is written in the Talmud and that all of Western science is simply wrong. This approach is theologically viable, but very difficult for a rational person to accept. Or, we can take an approach in the spirit of the Geonim (and the Rambam), that the rabbis received no tradition regarding science, so the scientific statements found in the Gemara merely reflect individual rabbis’ opinions and are not binding upon us in any way. The question of what happens when halakhic rulings are made on the basis of outdated scientific information is complex and beyond the scope of this class.


I further argue that the rabbis’ cosmology was not even in line with the advanced Greek science of their day. The rabbis were fairly insulated from the dominant Greco-Roman culture of their age, so they relied on the Bible and inherited assumptions to construct their conception of the universe.


Therefore, those who argue that the rabbis of old were aware of today’s most recent scientific developments are ignorant either of modern science or of the writings of the rabbis, or of both.

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