Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Beginning with Berakhot

The Talmud Bavli begins with an important question: תנא היכא קאי? Literally, "where was the Tanna standing" when he started this discussion?

The question applies directly to the opening line of the Mishnah, about the times for keri'at Shema at night. The Gemara answers that the Tanna was coming from the verse in the Torah that requires keri'at Shema twice a day.

But the question also applies to the first perek, the first massekhet, and the first seder. Why do we begin the Talmud here? Why with Shema? Why with Massekhet Berakhot? Why with Seder Zera'im?

We'll start with the order of the sedarim. There are six, of course, and Resh Lakish connects them to a verse in Yeshayahu (Shabbat 31a):

אמר ר"ל מאי דכתיב (ישעיהו לג) והיה אמונת עתיך חוסן ישועות חכמת ודעת וגו' אמונת זה סדר זרעים עתיך זה סדר מועד חסן זה סדר נשים ישועות זה סדר נזיקין חכמת זה סדר קדשים ודעת זה סדר טהרות ואפ"ה (ישעיהו לג) יראת ה' היא אוצרו

English translation from Soncino:

Resh Lakish said, What is meant by the verse, "And there shall be faith in thy times, strength, salvation, wisdom and knowledge, [and the fear of the Lord is his treasure]" (Is. 33:6)? Faith refers to the Order of Seeds; thy times, the Order of Festivals; strength, the Order of Women; salvation, the Order of Nezikin; wisdom, the Order of Sacrifices; and knowledge, to the Order of Purity. Yet even so the fear of the Lord is his treasure.

( — Incidentally, Rava follows this passage with his own interpretation of the same verse:

אמר רבא בשעה שמכניסין אדם לדין אומרים לו נשאת ונתת באמונה קבעת עתים לתורה עסקת בפו"ר צפית לישועה פלפלת בחכמה הבנת דבר מתוך דבר ואפ"ה אי יראת ה' היא אוצרו אין אי לא לא

Raba said, When man is led in for Judgment he is asked, Did you deal faithfully [i.e., with integrity], did you fix times for learning, did you engage in procreation, did you hope for salvation, did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom, did you understand one thing from another. Yet even so, if ‘the fear of the Lord is his treasure,’ it is well: if not, [it is] not [well].

That question, "Did you fix time for learning?", is a powerful motivator for Daf Yomi. As a teacher of mine says, sometimes when things are hectic he would rather take a day off from the daf, but what can he do? "I want to go to Gan Eden."

Also incidentally, both these passages from Shabbat 31a appear in the masthead of this blog, which I designed before I started writing this post. — )

The only thing is that the order of the tractates wasn't the point of Resh Lakish's interpretation. The point was the relationship between studying Torah and fear of God. It works out that Resh Lakish associates Zera'im with the first item in Yeshayahu's list, but why should it be first out of the six?

The classic traditional interpretation of the Talmud's structure is by the Rambam in his Introduction to the Mishnah, part of his Judeo-Arabic work, Commentary to the Mishnah, that he wrote when he was in his 20s and revised throughout his life.

The passage on the structure of the Mishnah is here, translated into Hebrew by Yehudah al-Harizi.

The Rambam's reason to start with Zera'im is as follows:

והתחיל בסדר זרעים, מפני שהוא כולל מצוות מיוחדות בזרע הארץ, וזרע הארץ היא מחיה לכל בעלי חיים. וכיוון שאי אפשר לאדם לחיות בלא אכילת מזון, לא ייתכן לו עבודת השם. ובשביל כך הקדים לדבר במצוות המיוחדות בזרע הארץ.

To paraphrase, the Talmud begins with the laws of agriculture in Israel because without food we cannot serve God.

The Rambam goes on to explain not only the order of the sedarim but also of the masekhtot within the sedarim. His explanation shows how the subject matter of each massekhet connects to the one before it.

But there seems to be a clear unified reason for the order of the masekhtot within each seder: the masekhtot are ordered by descending length, from the one with the most chapters to the one with the least.

Was the Rambam aware of this pattern? One professor of mine pointed out that it'd be surprising if he wasn't, given that the Rambam lived among Muslims whose holy book is also (lehavdil) ordered by sections of descending length.

My guess is that the Rambam wouldn't have found this explanation for the order compelling. It's rather mundane, for one. He's also following precedent, as the Gemara sometimes connects consecutive masekhtot, for example on the first daf of Nazir or Shevu'ot—though it seems to me that those gemarot aren't explaining why one massekhet follows the next, but rather the relevance of a massekhet that doesn't quite fit in the seder. I also believe that the order hasn't been consistent throughout history, but don't have specifics on that. In any event, even if length rather than topic motivated the arrangement of masekhtot, there's nothing wrong with finding meaning in the resulting order.

However, the ordered-by-length explanation doesn't apply to Zera'im. Berakhot has nine chapters, while later masekhtot in the seder have more. Berakhot is also a very different massekhet from the others, as it discusses prayer while the rest of the seder discusses agriculture. It's obvious that Berakhot was specially picked to start off the Talmud.

The Rambam explains why Berakhot is first, as well as its structure:

התחיל במסכת ברכות. והטעם שהצריכהו להתחיל בה, שהרופא הבקי, כשירצה לשמור בריאות הבריא, על תכונתה שהיא עומדת עליו, יקדים תיקון המזון בתחילת רפואותיו. ועל כן ראה החכם הזה להתחיל בברכות, שכל מי שאוכל, אין לו רשות לאכול עד שיברך. וראה לסדר בתחילת דבריו ברכות, כדי לתקן המזון תיקון שיש לו עניין.

אחר כך ראה לתקן דבריו, כדי שלא יהיה חסר בעניין מן העניינים, ולפיכך דיבר על כלל הברכות שאדם חייב בהם, על המזונות ועל המצוות. ואין לך מצווה שאדם חייב בה בכל יום, אלא קריאת שמע בלבד.

ואין נכון לדבר בברכות קריאת שמע, קודם שידבר על קריאת שמע עצמה, לפיכך התחיל "מאימתי קורין את שמע", וכל מה שנתחבר אליו.

To paraphrase, the reason Berakhot is first is that you can't live without eating, and you can't eat without blessing the food, so the Talmud starts with blessings. While on the topic of blessings it included everything about prayer, which includes the blessings of the Shema. But you can't talk about the blessings of the Shema without first discussing the Shema. So that, then, is why the Talmud begins with the laws of keri'at Shema.

At first glance, this sounds kind of disappointing. We start with the laws of keri'at Shema so that we can get to eating? Obviously keri'at Shema is a profound topic, so I want to read a more profound explanation into this Rambam.

The Rambam puts a high priority on faith in God in his other works. He lists faith as the first mitzvah in Sefer ha-Mitsvot. Knowledge of God is the first law in his Mishneh Torah. He devotes the finale of his Moreh Nevukhim to how the key to human perfection is perceiving the truth of God's reality.

Wouldn't you then expect the Rambam to jump on the fact that the Talmud begins with keri'at Shema? Doesn't that show the priority of accepting the yoke of Heaven? Maybe the Rambam did, in a subtle way. The message here is that you can't accomplish anything, even something as mundane as eating, without a chain of necessities that starts with God.

That's also a message of the entire Talmud. The sages bring up many, many seemingly mundane topics—nearly every aspect of daily life—with lots of nitty-gritty details. Those details are all owed to the Master of All.

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Update, 8/1: The D.A.F. lists reasons to start with Shema from the Ri'az, the Vilna Gaon, and R' Tzadok ha-Kohen.

Udpate #2, 8/1: Now this is geshmak. I just noticed that I ended this post by connecting the beginning of Berakhot to the idea of faith. And what was Resh Lakish's catchword for the first seder in shas? אמונת, faith.

Update #3, 8/2: At the siyyum ha-Shas last night in Chicago, R' Gedalia Dov Schwartz shlit"a began the new massekhet, starting his seventh cycle as a maggid shi'ur of Daf Yomi! He read from a Massekhet Berakhot he received for his bar mitzvah, that was printed in the home town of R' Meir Shapiro in the year of the first ever siyyum ha-Shas for Daf Yomi.

R' Schwartz mentioned the statement of Resh Lakish from Shabbat 31a in his introduction. He also pointed out that there's a "little Tosfos there":

אמונת זה סדר זרעים. מפרש בירושלמי שמאמין בחי עולמים וזורע:

"Faith" refers to Seder Zera'im, as the Talmud Yerushalmi explains, because the farmer trusts in the Life of Worlds when he sows his seeds. So too, said R' Schwartz, beginning a new cycle of Daf Yomi is an act of faith that God will help us through to the the next siyyum.

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