The very first issue discussed in the Talmud is when the
Evening Shema can be recited. In introduced the first few lines in yesterday’s
The rabbis agreed that the evening Shema could be said only
after the stars appeared—but that is not how the Mishna put the matter. There
was a disagreement over how long a person have to say it.
Then the Mishna tells a story about Gamliel’s sons. They come
how from some kind of event—a wedding?—and report to their father that they
have not yet said the evening Shema and it is now after midnight. Can they
still say the prayer?
Gamliel responds that the majority rule holding that
midnight marks the end point to say the evening Shema really means anytime
before dawn. He goes further to opine that this is always the case with a “midnight”
rule. The reason the rabbis said midnight was “to keep a man far from transgression.”
That is, so you would not fall asleep thinking you would say the prayer later
and never say it.
So the sons are “duty bound” to say the prayer.
Think of all the issues this short episode raises. First,
why hadn’t everybody already said the Shema at the wedding feast? We have here
the question of how stylized the Talmud is. Are these stories true at all? Did
the entire population practice the arcane rules of the Talmud?
And why are the sons only duty bound? Is there no penalty for
a transgression like failing to say the evening Shema?
Notice also that the Mishna does not conclude this episode
with any conclusion. There remain three interpretations. That suggests that
something other than law clarification is going on in the Talmud.
Maybe all of Jewish law is an attempt to keep people far
from transgression and all of it should be taken with a grain of salt.