Mishnah Seder Zeraim, Tractate Berakhot
Chapter 1, Mishnah 1
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Chapter 1, Mishnah 2


In Deuteronomy 6:6–7, the Torah commands Jews to recite "these words... and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up." The "words" in question are Deuteronomy 6:4–9 (with the addition of a line taken from the Talmud, Pesachim 56a), Deuteronomy 11:13–21 and Numbers 15:37–41. These sets of verses are together called the Shema Yisrael, after the first words in Deuteronomy 6:4.

As the Shema is the most important prayer in Judaism, it is the first subject discussed in the Mishnah. The Mishnah therefore begins with a discussion of what the Torah means when it says in Deuteronomy 6:7 "when thou liest down". Specifically, this phrase can mean either "when people are going to sleep" or "when people are already sleeping"; the various opinions in this mishnah reflect this ambiguity.

Hebrew Text

מֵאֵימָתַי קוֹרִין אֶת שְׁמַע בְּעַרְבִית?
מִשָּׁעָה שֶׁהַכֹּהֲנִים נִכְנָסִים לֶאֱכֹל בִּתְרוּמָתָן.
עַד סוֹף הָאַשְׁמוּרָה הָרִאשׁוֹנָה – דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר.
וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים: עַד חֲצוֹת.
רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר: עַד שֶׁיַּעֲלֶה עַמּוּד הַשָּׁחַר.
מַעֲשֶׂה שֶׁבָּאוּ בָנָיו מִבֵּית הַמִּשְׁתֶּה.
אָמְרוּ לוֹ: לֹא קָרִינוּ אֶת שְׁמַע.
אָמַר לָהֶם: אִם לֹא עָלָה עַמּוּד הַשַּׁחַר – חַיָּבִין אַתֶּם לִקְרוֹת.
וְלֹא זוֹ בִלְבַד: אֶלָּא כָּל מַה שֶׁאָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים "עַד חֲצוֹת" – מִצְוָתָן עַד שֶׁיַּעֲלֶה עַמּוּד הַשָּׁחַר.
הֶקְטֵר חֲלָבִים וְאֵבָרִים – מִצְוָתָן עַד שֶׁיַּעֲלֶה עַמּוּד הַשָּׁחַר.
וְכָל הַנֶּאֱכָלִין לְיוֹם אֶחָד – מִצְוָתָן עַד שֶׁיַּעֲלֶה עַמּוּד הַשָּׁחַר.
אִם כֵּן, לָמָּה אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים "עַד חֲצוֹת"?
כְּדֵי לְהַרְחִיק אָדָם מִן הָעֲבֵרָה.

English Translation

<section begin="English"/>

From when may one recite the Shema in the evening?
From the time when the Kohanim go in to eat their terumah.
Until the end of the first watch – so says Rabbi Eliezer.
And the Sages say: Until midnight.
Rabban Gamliel says: Until the column of dawn rises.
It once happened that [Rabban Gamliel’s] sons came from a house of feasting.
They said to [their father]: "We have not recited the Shema."
He said to them: "If the column of dawn has not risen, you are obligated to recite it."
“[This is true] not only in this case; rather, in all cases where the Sages said that [some precept can be performed only] until midnight — the precept is [still in force] until the break of dawn.
“[For example:] Burning the fats and organs [of the sacrifices, on the Temple altar] — this precept [can be performed] until the break of dawn.
“[Another example:] All [sacrifices] which may be eaten for one day — the precept [of eating them can be performed] until the break of dawn.
If that is so, why did the Sages say, "until midnight"?
To distance a person from sin.

<section end="English"/>


<div id="Recite"/> Recite: Literally, "read". As it is explained in Berakhot 2:3 that one can either speak or read the Shema to perform this mitzvah, he does not need to actually "read" it, so the translation of "recite" is given instead.

<div id="Terumah"/> Terumah: See terumah. Some types of tumah (ritual impurity) can be removed by a three-step process: immersion in a mikvah, waiting until nightfall and then offering a sacrifice in the Temple. The third step, however, is not necessary in order for a kohen to eat terumah; thus, nightfall — defined as when three medium-sized stars appear — is when a kohen (who became impure and immersed himself) can "enter [the city, as the mikvah was usually located outside the city limits (Tiferet Yisrael)] to eat their terumah." This is, thus, the earliest time the evening Shema may be said.

<div id="First watch"/> First watch: The Gemara (in Berakhot 3a) questions whether the night is divided into three or four watches and notes that R. Eliezer is being unclear in his choice of words. It explains based on a quote from the Baraisa that R. Eliezer said that there are three watches, so the end of the first watch is four hours after nightfall. (According to most halachic opinions, these "hours" are proportional hours, meaning that the period from dusk to dawn is divided into twelve equal parts, each of which is designated an "hour"; their length thus varies depending on the latitude and the season of the year.)

The point of Rabbi Eliezer's opinion is that he states the verse (see Introduction) as "when people are going to sleep"; the "end of the first watch" is typically the latest time at which people go to bed, hence it is the deadline for reciting the evening Shema.

Yet in order to reduce the need for artificial light, some people during the Talmudic era would retire much earlier, at nightfall. Hence nightfall, when priests "go in to eat their terumah," is the earliest time for reciting the evening Shema.

By contrast, the Sages and Rabban Gamliel agree that the verse means "at the time when people are asleep," which would mean the entire night. (As Rabban Gamliel points out, there is actually no disagreement between him and the other Sages: they all agree that the Shema should preferably be recited before midnight, as a precautionary measure, but that if this was not done — as in the case of Rabban Gamliel's sons — it may be recited until dawn. The halachah follows this view. Ideally, though, it should be recited as early in the evening as possible.)

<div id="Rabban Gamliel"/>led Rabban Gamliel: Rabban Gamliel II, also called Gamliel of Yavneh, who assumed leadership of the Sanhedrin after the destruction of the Second Temple. His reputation and position might have helped him overrule the Sages and so extend the time for reciting the Shema.

<div id="Dawn"/> Column of dawn rises: Rabban Gamliel offers a poetic way of describing the break of dawn.

<div id="House of feasting"/> House of feasting: Literally, a house of drinking, i.e. a house where a feast was occurring.

<div id="Burning the fats and organs"/> Burning the fats and organs: When sacrifices were offered in the Temple, the essential parts of the service include: slaughtering the animal, sprinkling some of its blood on the altar, and placing certain fats and organs on the altar pyre. These steps must be performed during the daytime; the fats and organs can be burned anytime during the night, but if any of them are left over by morning, they become invalidated and must be burned outside the Temple precincts.

<div id="All sacrifices which may be eaten for one day"/> All sacrifices which may be eaten for one day: Some sacrifices have portions that are designated for the kohanim, or for the owners, to eat, and there is a specific obligation for them to do so. Most such sacrifices may be eaten only on the day they were offered plus the following night; anything that remains uneaten by the next morning becomes invalidated and has to be burned, and one who eats the leftover portions incurs the penalty of kareit (spiritual excision). As a precautionary measure, then, the Sages instituted a ruling that these portions are to be eaten no later than midnight. The same rule is applied in the case of reciting the Shema, since failure to recite it at its proper time is a violation of a Biblical commandment.

<div id="Until midnight"/> Until midnight: This refers to the statement of the Sages earlier in this mishnah.

<div id="Distance from sin"/> To distance a person from sin: Evidently the Sages were concerned that if someone did not say the Shema before midnight, he may forget and lose track of time and accidently fail to perform this mitzvah.

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