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May 27, 2011 / 24 Iyar, 5771
Mishna Berachot
Selected Commentary
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

From what time may one recite the Shema in the morning? From the time that one can distinguish between blue and white. R. Eliezer says: between blue and green. And he has time to finish until sunrise. R. Joshua says: until the third hour of the day, for such is the custom of kings, to rise at the third hour. If one recites the Shema' later he loses nothing, being like one who reads in the torah.

  1. I, along with some friends, attached techeilet to my tallis the day before I became a rabbi. And, though I will never be able to fully communicate why it matters so much to me, the techeilet ("blue" in our mishnah) has given me comfort- there is a tradition that teaches that the formula for making the dye for techeilet was lost, and to believe that what is lost can be found, that the mystics who believed more than they could see had a sense of God - that inspires me.
  2. The distinction between white and techeilet, or between techeilet and green, shouldn't be difficult to see - unless the sun hasn't fully risen. And both the one who wakes early to daven and the one who sleeps until the third hour (does that person have children?) are mentioned in the Mishnah as participants in the mitzvah of reciting the Shema. And what happens if you miss the Shema-time? You lose nothing - you're learning. Multiple approaches and outcomes through the same act.
  3. But, as my friend Karen Silberman pointed out when we learned this Mishnah about a year ago, how can saying the Shema "not count?" With the multiple access points we create in modern religious communities, how can a sincerely intentioned act not be considered a mitzvah? That question falls, perhaps, into the pitfall of definition. Is a mitzvah an elective act, or an expected commandment? Is the final line of the Mishnah a flexible extension of a closed definition or a reminder of a goal for which to strive?

Perek Bet (Chapter 2) of Mishnah Berachot has some amazing insights regarding the recitation of the Shema, and the order of its three paragraphs. I'll paste the second Mishnah of the chapter below and follow up with some comments and thoughts:

R. Joshua b. korhah said: why was the section of 'Shema' placed before that of 'vehaya'? So that one should first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and then take upon himself the yoke of the commandments. Why does the section of 'vehaya' come before that of 'vayomer'? Because 'vehaya' is applicable both to the day and to the night, whereas [the section] 'vayomer' is applicable only to the day.

  1. This phrase, the "Kingdom of Heaven" sounds so Christian - and yet it means faith, and belief - the things we typically say aren't the cores of Judaism. I've heard (and taught) so many times that the essence of Judaism is a code of action. But that isn't the implication of the Shma's order. Belief precedes action.
  2. The three paragraphs of the Shma are recited day and night in modern davenning, but clearly that wasn't the case in the time of the Mishnah. The discussion (we'll get to) in the Gemara (remember that the Mishnah, edited in 200 CE is the core text upon which the Gemara comments, making up the composite text we call Talmud) discusses this in depth, but the 'plain' meaning of the Mishnah shows a development in the form of prayer between "then" and "now."


This week's Mishnah lesson was written by
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, CA. He is founder of ShefaNetwork.org: The Masorti/Conservative Movement Dreaming From Within, chair of Bay Area Masorti, international cochair of Rabbis for Women of the Wall, and author of TheTisch, an electronic commentary on Jewish Spirituality.

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.

FJMC International Convention 2011

mizrahiJoin us as Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi begins his teaching of "an American Nusach" at the FJMC's International Convention in Costa Mesa California. This is a chance to listen, to see and to talk to Hazzanim Alberto Mizrahi, Steve Stoehr, David Propis and Joanna Dulkin in the relaxed setting of the FJMC.
"I have been thinking about what a hazzan/cantor will mean to the Conservative synagogue of the future. It is my opinion we need to create an American Nusach for the American synagogue of the 21st century while at the same time maintaining the traditional “authentic” cantorial sound that we have inherited from our Eastern European Ashkenazic culture. The challenge is to maintain authenticity while introducing an accessible contemporary sound that is led by the hazzan but fully involves the congregation."
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