A Talmudic Journey Begins
Our book critic dives into Daf Yomi’s daily regimen expecting a law code, but instead finds a chain of questions
To get a sense of how the Talmud moves, look at just one of the dozen paths leading out from the Mishnaic text. Rabbi Eliezer says that you can say the evening Shema until the end of the first watch of the night. But how do you define a watch, and how many are there during the night—are there four three-hour shifts or three four-hour shifts? (The curt phrasing of these questions—even more curt in the original, since the English translation usefully expands on the compressed Aramaic phrasing—gives a delightful sense of frankness and impatience, as though the rabbis were talking face-to-face, rather than separated by hundreds of years and hundreds of miles.)
To clarify the point, the rabbis turn to a baraita—a part of the Oral Law not included in the Mishna—which declares that there are three four-hour watches in a night. You can identify them according to signs: At the first watch, donkeys bray; at the second watch, dogs howl; at the third, infants wake up to suckle and women begin to talk to their husbands. These are totally concrete signs that give an intimate sense of Jewish life at the time and bring it close to the present day: Infants wake up to feed now just as they did in Babylonia.
But then comes a step that, while it seems utterly logical to the rabbis, looked quite irrational to me, at least at first. They quote a verse from Jeremiah that describes how God will “roar” from the heavens, in which forms of the word “roar” are used three times. This corresponds, they say, to the three watches of the night, suggesting that God roars three times a night. Why does He do this? Because, according to another sage, He is saying, “Woe to the children because of whose sins I destroyed my Temple and burned my sanctuary and exiled them among the nations of the world.” This kind of inference, in which similarity of number—three watches, three roars, a three-part lament of God—is made to indicate an essential relationship, is one of the Talmudic strategies that seems most foreign to contemporary reason.
But the chain of questions doesn’t end there. We’ve been given the signs of the three watches, but do these signs—the donkey braying, the dog howling, etc.—happen at the beginning of each watch, or at the end? If at the beginning, why do we need to know the first sign, since the first watch obviously begins when the sun sets? If at the end, why do we need to know the last sign, since the last watch obviously ends when the sun rises?
To which the Gemara gives a really ingenious answer. The signs mark the end of the watches, and the third one—an infant waking up to feed, a woman beginning to talk to her husband—is given so that, if you wake up in a room with no windows, you will still have a way of determining whether the morning has begun and it’s time to say the Shema. This is yet another kind of unexpected logic, but unlike the Talmud’s numerical logic, it does not seem contorted; rather, it seems unexpectedly brilliant, as if someone had just solved a mystery with no clues.
It’s only been four days, and I already have a sense of getting acquainted with a foreign, at times frustrating, but genuinely exhilarating way of thinking. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
The new head of Jacques Levine footwear looks to revive his family business—by going beyond slippers