Every winter-term, I teach a class entitled “Introduction to the Mishnah.“ I go with my students through the first chapter of Mishna Berakhot (Blessings): From when on does one recite the Shma’ of evenings? – it’s a text read a hundred times, analyzed up and down, back and forth. The last winter, we were quicker than usual, and had enough spare time to read also the Mishnah’s second chapter. On my way to the classroom, I skimmed the text.
The beginning of this second chapter seemed fairly “normal.” The first halakha declares, that in order to fulfill the obligation of the Shma’, one has to direct one’s heart at this mitzvah: One has to consciously intend to recite the Shma’. The succeeding halakhot delineate the precise meaning of “to direct one’s heart”: What, if all out of a sudden an important man passes by and says “hello” – may I interrupt my recitation? What, if I am just building a wall or sit on top of a tree – do I have to climb down before reciting? As usual, the Mishnah is eager to test the law’s applicability in what seems like the most irrelevant and at best hypothetically relevant case-scenarios.
The Mishnah then turns to a group of people, who are exempt from reading the Shma’ of evenings: Grooms, right after their wedding ceremony, do not have to recite. No explicit reason for this exemption is given, yet, if the necessary prerequisite for fulfilling the mitzvah is “to direct one’s heart,” then this exemption seems somewhat logical: During the night following their wedding, grooms may simply not be able to direct their hearts at the Shma’. They are with their newly wed wives, after all.
Thus far, the Mishnah’s second chapter didn’t entail any noteworthy difficulty. I will be able to manage this, I thought, closed my book, and got another coffee-to-go before entering the classroom. However, I was wrong. This was not a “normal” text of law. Some 60 minutes later I found myself sitting in front of a bunch of students, in an ugly classroom, reading about a man, who does not love his wife.
Following the rule about the exemption of grooms, the Mishnah introduces a rather lengthy aggadic passage, starring Rabban Gamliel. Rabban Gamliel, the Mishnah tells, recited the Shma’ even on the first night that he got married. His students, bewildered, ask him for the reason of his behavior: “Didn’t you teach us, our teacher, that a groom is exempt from reciting Shma’ on the first night?” And Rabban Gamliel replies, with a little pathos: “I will not listen to you, to remove the kingdom of heaven from me for even one hour.” Nothing, not even his new wife, distracts Rabban Gamliel from directing his heart at the recitation of the Shma’!
Yet, this was not the only time that Rabban Gamliel did not behave according to halakhic conventions. Right after reporting this first incident about Rabban Gamliel’s wedding-night, the Mishnah transmits that he washed himself on the first night after his wife died – even though mourners are prohibited from doing so. Again, his students ask in amazement: “Didn’t you teach us, our teacher, that a mourner is forbidden to wash?” This time, however, Rabban Gamliel’s answer does not involve the “yoke of heaven” or any other heavyweight knock-out argument. His answer sounds thin-lipped, like an excuse: “I am not like other people. I am delicate.” The difference between the two explanations couldn’t be more drastic: Absolutely nothing, not even his wedding-night, can stop him from accepting the “yoke of heaven,” yet when his wife dies, it is his “weakness,” referred to by a Greek term (אסטניס), which lets him divert from the rules of mourning? If he was as devote as he claimed to be, then why couldn’t he wait just a little longer with his bath?
I got a little cautious feeling in my stomach when reading through these passages together with the students. Something is utterly wrong here, I thought. First of all, the Mishnah almost never transmits such lengthy narrative elements, and if it does, this has a reason. It seemed as if the Mishnah virtually urged us to acknowledge, that Rabban Gamliel’s behavior is absolutely not related to either devotion or weakness, but rather, to his relation with his wife: He recites the Shma’ in the night following his wedding, and bathes himself right after her death. If it is really piety, or devotion, which explains his behavior during the wedding-night, then piety should have stopped him from bathing right after his wife’s death! Possibly, then, it is not piety, which motivated his recitation of the Shma’ during his wedding-night. Possibly, he simply didn’t love his wife and thus could easily “direct his heart” to prayer.
As if determined to bolster this suspicion, the Mishnah then recounts Rabban Gamliel’s behavior following the death of his slave, Tavi. When Tavi died, Rabban Gamliel received words of comfort for him, even though one is halakhically prohibited from receiving words of comfort for slaves. This time, Rabban Gamliel is honest: “My slave Tavi was not like other slaves. He was kasher,” he explains. His reception of condolences had nothing to do with piety or weakness, but rather, with his relation to Tavi: Tavi’s death saddened Rabban Gamliel, and accordingly, he accepted words of comforts. Yet when his wife died, he was not all that sad, and thus bathed himself. And when they got married, he was not that exited, and could “direct his heart” at the recitation of the Shma’…
The narrative passage featuring Rabban Gamliel ends here. The chapter’s concluding halakha returns to the halakhic point in question – the exemption of grooms in the night after their wedding – and lays out that a groom, who wants to recite the Shma’, may do so. Rabban Gamliel, when reciting the Shma’ on his wedding-night, thus did not behave wrongly.
But someone is hesitant.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Not everyone who wants to take on a name may take it on.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel is Rabban Gamliels son. He saw his father bathing right after his mother’s death, and he probably heard about his father’s recitation of the Shma’ right after marrying his mother: Not everyone, who claims piety his motivation and recites the Shma’ during the wedding night, should do so. His father, Rabban Gamliel, should rather have loved and mourned his mother.
From when on does one recite the Shma’ of evenings? The Mishnah begins, when the Jewish day begins: at night. It is the time people return to their houses from work, and gather around a table; it is the time, when husbands, wives and children meet. And the Mishnah, too, returns home: It follows the footsteps of a powerful sage, no less than Rabban Gamliel, from the study-house to his family. And it records the voice of Rabban Gamliel’s son, who is a witness of his father’s lack of love.
A couple of eyes looked up, and rested on me. Maybe I am fantasizing, but nobody texted, and my coffee had turned cold. Someone whispered, „oh man…“ and I must have looked a little helpless, saying: This is a text of profound beauty, guys, you see that?
(You can find the Mishnah’s full text, in English and Hebrew, here)