A well-known rabbinic text is a chronometer, a call to prayer, a test of self-definition, and comments on very current issues. It is in the form of a question: “From what time may one recite the Shema in the morning?” (Mishna Berachot 1:2)
In other words, at what precise time does the sun rise, allowing you to fulfill the mitzvah of saying the prayer the Shema? For the Torah commands us to “recite [the Shema] …when you rise up [to see the sun in the morning].” (Deuteronomy 6:7)
Nowadays, I could answer by checking the app on my cell phone. As I write this, I can tell you that on May 24 sunrise was at precisely 5:31 a.m. That is the easy answer. Let’s look at a talmudic take on this, which is based on this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha.
There we read a description of the tallit and the fringes on it, the tzitzit.
“…It shall be for you a tassel, that you may look at it and keep in mind all the commandments of the Lord and observe them that you not go scouting after your heart, after your eyes… and so be holy to your God.” (Numbers 15:39-40)
The rabbis of ancient times say that you need to see the tzitzit by the light of the rising sun and so that is the earliest time for the daily recitation of the Shema. In the winter, especially during daylight saving time, you could get up before dawn and it would be too early. So, without a smart phone how do you know when it is dawn?
The talmudic rabbis reply that it is the time when you can distinguish between blue and white. In ancient times there was a thread of blue on the tzitzit and you simply looked at the tzitzit to determine if there was enough light to distinguish between the two.
In the Mishnah, Rabbi Eliezer gives another answer, saying that time arrives when you can distinguish between blue and green. It’s simple. Look out the window and see if the green grass looks different from the blue sky. Now the natural world is your clock.
The Talmud states, and the accepted rule is, that you can pray the Shema when you can recognize a friend at the distance of four cubits, about six feet. A darkness can envelope ourselves when we cannot recognize our fellow human beings as brothers and sisters. When you can see this, then literally and figuratively the darkness around you has lifted. Then you can turn to God to utter words of prayer.
Today we still wonder how long it will take for everyone to see others as part of the same human family and not have stereotypes and pre-conceived notions distort our vision. Too often the color of one’s skin or how one is dressed prevents us from seeing others as brothers and sisters.
A few years ago, a 16-year-old in New York accepted an award for an essay he had written in a competition sponsored by the Police Athletic League. At the ceremony, an officer approached the honored student to complain about his fedora. That hat, a common sight in New York, he said, was gaudy. He continued to complain that there is something wrong with kids today with their nose rings and their attitudes. A second police officer, overhearing the conversation, came over to steer away the first one, who reappeared a few minutes later to apologize. He’d never seen a chasidic Jew, he told the award-winning student, Yosef Abramson, an Orthodox Jew whose skin was black. Had a New York City policeman really never seen a chasidic Jew? More likely he had never seen a chasidic Jew with that skin color.
A few weeks ago on a Thursday afternoon, I was on an elevator at Mount Sinai hospital in Manhattan. A woman wished me a “Shabbat shalom.” I looked at her and said, “thank you.” I am embarrassed by that reply. Did I think that she was not Jewish because her skin was black? Yes. I should have known better.
These example are harmless. Unfortunately, that has not been the case for people of color in America whose skin pigment far too often hasnhad fatal consequences in interactions with law enforcement. The Bible says, “Death and death are in the power of the tongue.” [Proverbs 18:21] It is tragically true that life and death are also in the power of the eye. Praying at the right hour is not just about the amount of light visible to our eyes. It also reminds us that the sun will rise for all of mankind when each of us see all others as part of the same human family. For all lives, that really matters.