By: Sara Schatz, Layout Editor
Why do we keep Halacha?
I am sure we’ve all had that question, no matter where we’ve come from. Our answers might be different, depending on our background, but the question remains the same.
The first time I remember asking that question was when I was ten years old in elementary school. To be honest, I wasn’t very conscious of most practices I followed, mostly due to the fact that I personally had trouble connecting to halachic concepts. I found Halacha boring and dry, and kept most mitzvot because it was how I was raised. I was, and still am, more of a Tanach fanatic; the stories and profound lessons one learns from the Tanach connects to my neshama (soul) on a significantly deeper level.
In my messy, rowdy, fifth-grade classroom, my teacher settled us down as we learned Mishnayot for the very first time in our lives, slowly reciting the Hebrew and English translation of Mesechet Brachot, Mishnah Aleph, Perek Aleph in a sing-song chant:
מֵאֵימָתַי קוֹרִין אֶת שְׁמַע בְּעַרְבִית? מִשָּׁעָה שֶׁהַכֹּהֲנִים נִכְנָסִים לֶאֱכֹל בִּתְרוּמָתָן, עַד סוֹף הָאַשְׁמוּרָה הָרִאשׁוֹנָה, דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים, עַד חֲצוֹת
From when do we read shema in the evening? From the time the kohanim come to eat their terumah, until the first watch. This is the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer. And the Chachamim say, until chatzot.
At that point, I was left with a multitude of questions. Why is Kriyat Shema shel Aravit based on the kohanim (priests) going to eat their terumah (rations of food)? And why are we mentioning nighttime Kriyat Shema before the one during the day?
Being a child with an underdeveloped mind, I don’t quite remember the answers my teacher gave me. And for years afterwards, I did not glance at that Mishnah again, mostly because my schooling never brought it up and I didn’t look for it myself.
One random day, during my year in Israel, my Rebbe told me I would enjoy learning Mesechet Brachot. “It has so many gems in it, and I think you’d love it,” he told me. With those memories of fifth-grade Mishnah class still fresh in my mind, I was quite skeptical. Nevertheless, I listened to him, and carried my Gemara to my makom (spot) in the corner that same day.
The first time I cracked open my Gemara to daf (page) 2a, I grew frustrated quite quickly. Though I had many more years of Jewish growth since those days in my elementary school classroom, and I had probably recited Kriyat Shema shel Aravit and Shacharit thousands more times since I was ten years old, I still had the same questions: Why do we base the time to say Kriyat Shema on when the kohanim eat their terumah? And why nighttime versus daytime?
Yet this time, I received my answers and so much more from the text of the Gemara itself. Immediately, the Gemara clarifies that kohanim eat their terumah at tzet hachochavim (the emergence of stars in the sky). They specifically mention the kohanim to teach a crucial halacha: even if an impure kohen did not fully purify himself by bringing an atonement offering, he can still eat terumah. The underlying message applies to all of us — a pasuk (verse) in Vayikra states, “the sun sets and it is purified,” implying that once the sun sets, everyone is purified (22:6-7). For all of Klal Yisrael, the recitation of Kriyat Shema denotes that there is a fresh, new day ahead.
Yet the question remains: why do we care?
In the summer of 1994, Rabbi Dr. Haym Soloveitchik published his famous article, “Rupture and Reconstruction,” in the Rabbinical Council of America’s journal Tradition, where he discusses what is missing in today’s generation of Orthodoxy. He ends by uttering a powerful, timeless message:
“It is this rupture in the traditional religious sensibilities that underlies much of the transformation of contemporary Orthodoxy. Zealous to continue traditional Judaism unimpaired, religious Jews seek to ground their new emerging spirituality less on a now unattainable intimacy with Him, than on an intimacy with His Will, avidly eliciting Its intricate demands and saturating their daily lives with Its exactions. Having lost the touch of His presence, they now seek solace in the pressure of His yoke.”
Rabbi Soloveitchik asserts that in this day and age, we are not living our traditions with enough meaning and purpose. This year, Tradition published numerous responses to this article for today’s Modern Orthodoxy. While the articles were diverse and unique, they all contained one underlying message: the key to strengthening our Jewish roots is simply learning Torah. As anyone can attest, the experience of learning the complexities behind our rituals is a feeling like no other.
There is a reason why our oral law begins with Mesechet Brachot. Learning it every single day for Daf Yomi is not only applicable for our day-to-day routine, but a privileged opportunity to critically think about why exactly we are here. Everyday, by cracking open a Gemara, one is reminded: what is the purpose of our mitzvot? What is the depth behind the holy acts I do every single day? One enters the world of the Amoraim, who considered similar questions, and discussed and argued in a raw, genuine, shakla v’tarya (back-and-forth) manner why our traditions are in place and what exactly our purpose is as Jewish people. They advise us to wonder for ourselves: what happens when our Shema or Shemoneh Esrei is interrupted? What mindset should we have when we recite Shema? What intention should we be having for mitzvot in general?
In the Ein Ayah, Rav Kook’s commentary on the aggadot in the Gemara, he notes profoundly on the first Mishnah:
“We are in exile, which is like evening. Our primary efforts are only for ourselves. In order to withstand the waves that are washing over us, the great strength of the Name of G-d. Therefore, at night, it’s a symbol of exile.”
Our greatest struggle in exile is reaffirming our personal faith in G-d. Rav Kook asserts that every night, during Kriyat Shema shel Aravit, we are required to consider whether our faith is strong and primary in our day-to-day lives. One way to do this is to set some time in the day to learn about our faith on a deeper level.
We are college students, constantly being challenged to think critically about a plethora of subjects. While I am the first to acknowledge that this can be quite mentally draining, I also believe that setting aside an hour in our day to think critically about our spiritual selves, by opening up a Gemara, listening to a podcast shiur online, or simply learning something l’shma about daily halachot, can make a tremendous difference in one’s connection to Judaism.
Rashi states that reciting the words “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad” connotes the following: we are accepting upon ourselves G-d’s “yoke of Heaven,” both for ourselves and for all other nations in the future. Learning the depth behind it infuses our ability to comprehend what that yoke is truly meant to be.
As we have learned from Kriyat Shema shel Aravit: today, and everyday, is a brand new day to start.