Since Massekhet Berakhot deals with the laws of prayers and blessings, the tanna of the Mishna chose to open with the rules of the recitation of the Shema, which is a Biblical command that is obligatory on a daily basis and contains the basic statement of faith and acceptance of God. The fundamental issue discussed in the first chapter of Berakhot is: What are the practical implications of the text of Shema? Particularly, how is one to understand the terms “When you lie down, and when you arise” as a precise, halakhic directive?
Based on a reading of the text of the Torah itself, one could understand the content of these verses as general encouragement to engage in the study of Torah at all times. However, in the oral tradition, the obligation to recite Shema is derived from these verses. Once this obligation is established, it is incumbent upon us to ascertain howit is to be fulfilled. The obligation of Shema involves reciting three sections from the Torah:
There is a twice-daily obligation to recite these sections, in the morning and the evening, as per the verse: “When you lie down, and when you arise.” Through reciting these sections one expresses commitment to the fundamental tenets of the Torah and faith in God. The first question is with regard to the meaning of: “When you lie down, and when you arise.” Is the Torah merely establishing a time frame for reciting “these words,” or is it also describing the manner and the circumstances in which those words should be recited? Even if “when you lie down, and when you arise” merely establishes the time frame for reciting Shema, that time frame is not as clearly defined as it would have been had the Torah written “morning” and “evening.” It remains to be determined whether “when you lie down” refers to the hour that people usually go to sleep or, perhaps, the entire duration of that sleep. Similarly, is “when you arise” referring to the entire period of the day during which people are awake, or is it perhaps referring to the specific hour when each individual awakens? In general, is there a direct correlation between “when you lie down and when you arise” and morning and evening?
These and many related questions are the primary focus of the first chapter.