The first tractate of the Babylonian Talmud begins, rather surprisingly, with an extended discussion of the architectonics of the night. The Mishnah opens with the question of how late one may recite the evening Shema prayer, but the lights remain dim as the rabbis go on to consider such questions as: How many military watches comprised a single night? Did the redemption from Egypt begin at dawn or in the dead of night? What did King David do from midnight until daybreak? Does twilight last longer than the blink of an eye? The sages pose answers to some of these questions, but I find myself left in the dark as I ponder: In a tractate on blessing and prayer, why begin with these extended nocturnal musings?
I was thinking about this question last night when my three-year-old daughter came into our room to report her most recent recurrent nightmare. “I had a dream about a bad guy who came into our house,” she told us. My husband is convinced that the bad guy in our house is her newborn brother, but needless to say we are not sharing that with her. Instead, we reassure her each time that her dream is not real – it is just a nightmare. Or perhaps not a night-mare but a night donkey, as per the rabbis’ explanation that the first watch of the night is the one in which a donkey brays. We tell our daughter that one of us will tuck her back into bed and sing her Shema again, and now I know why – the rabbis teach in the opening pages of Berakhot (5a) that the recitation of the bedtime Shema serves to ward off demons. And indeed, after our second recitation of the Shema, she usually sleeps soundly until dawn.
We sing Shema again to our daughter not just to ward off the demons, but also because prayer is a way of coping with fear. This is a lesson that has helped me as a mother. I try not to show my children my fear – I do not want to frighten them or add to their anxiety by exposing them to my own. And so whenever I feel too worried or anxious to be fully present for them, I instead break out in singing Esah Einai, a musical rendition of Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains, whence comes my help. My help comes from the Lord…. He who watches over you will not slumber… The Lord will keep you from all harm.” My children know this is the song we sing when we need to daven for something important, and they willingly join in until the rise and fall of the melody soothes and comforts us all.
Perhaps the rabbis deliberately chose to begin the first tractate of the Talmud—which is about prayer and blessing—with a discussion of the night because certainly in the ancient world, the night was a time of tremendous fear and vulnerability. In the absence of natural lighting, it was unsafe to be out alone at night. And so it was at night, when people felt most fearful, that prayer felt most instinctive. The impulse to pray is most readily felt when life feels precarious and threatened – when we are alone at night, or when we are entering a crumbling ruin that might be haunted, or when we are lying very sick in our beds – all of which are scenarios considered in the opening pages of the tractate. Scientists speak of the “fight or flight” response, a physiological response to a perceived harmful event. But as the rabbis remind us, there’s another option – some of us, in such moments, naturally gravitate to prayer. We might think of it instead as the “fight or flight or recite” response – when we feel endangered we can counterattack or run away, but we can also speak to God.
The rabbis, who viewed prayer as an essential part of every Jew’s daily life, began their tractate on prayer by alluding to the night and to other moments of fear and vulnerability because it is at such moments that we are most inclined to pray. In an effort to make prayer seem natural, they began with those moments when prayer already felt that way. Over the course of the tractate, they discuss various other impulses to pray – out of gratitude and longing and satiety, to give just a few examples. In these moments, it is harder to move ourselves toward a posture of prayer, because prayer feels far less urgent when we feel comfortable, safe, and content. By the time we get to the final chapter of the tractate, the rabbis teach that we have to thank God even when doing so feels counterintuitive and difficult – we are obligated to thank God for the bad just as we thank God for the good. And so the trajectory of the tractate begins with those moments when prayer feels most natural, where the impulse for prayer takes root, and then challenges us to reach a place in our spiritual lives where we are able to pray even when doing so feels most incongruous.
“Why begin with the evening Shema?” the rabbis of the Talmud ask about the opening Mishnah of the tractate. Why does the Talmud begin at night? Because when we feel alone and afraid and lost in the dark, we draw close to God. And once we learn to draw close to God out of fear, it becomes that much easier to draw close to God out of love. The dark times in our lives have the potential to bring us closest to God, and it is in our moments of fear and terror that we may offer our most eloquent expressions of devotion – a notion captured by a medieval Gaelic poem:
“At Tara in this fateful hour,
I place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the winds with their swiftness along their path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the earth with its starkness:
All these I place,
By God’s almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness!”
I first encountered this poem in Madeline L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, where it is recited by a star-gazing Charles Wallace who stands alone in the night trying to fight off the threat of nuclear war. His brother-in-law Calvin’s mother has taught him to recite this poem to ward off danger – placing “all Heaven with its power” between himself and the “powers of darkness.” The sages of the Talmud begin their tractate on prayer and blessing by invoking the powers of darkness in the hope that we, too, might learn to invoke the almighty help and grace of God by assuming the most fundamental of religious postures and accustoming our souls to prayer.