The text tells us to speak the Shema – Deuteronomy 6:4: Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. (Sometimes translated: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.)
The people were instructed to recite this “when you lie down and when you rise.” So … the question was debated: What time is too late? When I lie down – does that mean at sunset? When you go to sleep? Given that you have to also recite it “when you rise”, what time specifically sets the boundary between those two times?
Don’t you wish humankind would obsess on these kinds of things rather than who was going to be deported, how many nuclear weapons do we need, how many millions can I make or what tribe can we conquer?
So, the rabbis debated. Rabbi Eliezer said: “Lie down time” is the time between when the priests go in for their evening meal and the end of the first watch (around 10 PM). After that you have missed the cut-off. The “Sages” determined the “lying down time” to be any time in the evening before Midnight.
One time Rabban (a slightly higher rank than “rabbi”) Gamliel’s sons came home extremely late from a night of feasting. I don’t know if their father was waiting up for them, but it became known that the boys had not recited the Shema – they had not yet lied down. What to do? Rabban Gamliel determined that, as long as it was not yet dawn, there was still time to recite the Shema and fulfill the command. Theology follows on the practical sometimes.
When asked why the Sages only allowed the cut-off to go as far as Midnight, Rabban Gamliel responded: To distance a person from transgression.
The take-away for me is that, while the extremity of the law was “before dawn”, better to have done your duty well in advance of the limit. After all, we don’t want to “put the Lord our God (or ourselves) to the test”.
But then the question arose: How early is too early and how late is too late for the fulfilling of the “rising” part of this command? And now the the rabbis turn poetic. When is it morning? When is it time to rise? It’s when you can distinguish between purple-blue wool and white, says one; it’s when can you distinguish between the colors of the leek, says another.
The rabbis understood what Jesus later told his disciples – that they were responsible for binding and loosing on earth such that heaven could respond in kind. (Matthew 16:19.) And to think of the dawn as that moment when the subtle hues of color can be distinguished from one another is to greet the morning in a whole new way.
Rabbi Hillel and the school that held his teachings said: By the way, don’t worry if you are lying down or standing up … the important thing is that you make the proclmation!
There is a saying: The devil is in the details. Perhaps. But as I read the rabbis, I think maybe that’s where the angels live, too.