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The very first Mishnah (Berachot 1:1) states that the earliest time for the recitation of the evening Shema is the time that kohanim can eat terumah:

מאימתי קורין את שמע בערבין משעה שהכהנים נכנסים לאכול בתרומתן

MISHNAH. FROM WHAT TIME MAY ONE RECITE THE SHEMA' IN THE EVENING? FROM THE TIME THAT THE PRIESTS ENTER [THEIR HOUSES] IN ORDER TO EAT THEIR TERUMAH (Soncino translation; capitals in original)

The Talmud (Berachot 2a) attempts to figure out what time this refers to:

אמר מר משעה שהכהנים נכנסים לאכול בתרומתן מכדי כהנים אימת קא אכלי תרומה משעת צאת הכוכבים לתני משעת צאת הכוכבים מלתא אגב אורחיה קמשמע לן כהנים אימת קא אכלי בתרומה משעת צאת הכוכבים והא קמשמע לן דכפרה לא מעכבא כדתניא ובא השמש וטהר ביאת שמשו מעכבתו מלאכול בתרומה ואין כפרתו מעכבתו מלאכול בתרומה

The Master said: FROM THE TIME THAT THE PRIESTS ENTER TO EAT THEIR 'TERUMAH'. When do the priests eat terumah? From the time of the appearance of the stars. Let him then say: 'From the time of the appearance of the stars'? — This very thing he wants to teach us, in passing, that the priests may eat terumah from the time of the appearance of the stars. And he also wants to teach us that the expiatory offering is not indispensable, as it has been taught: And when the sun sets we-taher, the setting of the sun is indispensable [as a condition of his fitness] to eat terumah, but the expiatory offering is not indispensable to enable him to eat terumah. (Soncino tranlation)

This reasoning seems a bit circular to me. We only know that the time for Shema is tzeit hakochavim because that is the time for kohanim to eat terumah, but we only know that that is the time for kohanim to eat terumah because that is the time for Shema. So how do we know either one in the first place? According to the Talmud it appears that this Mishnah is the source for both the time for kohanim eating terumah being tzeit hakochavim and the time for Shema being tzeit hakochavim (from the fact that the two events are equated), yet the Mishnah doesn't mention tzeit hakochavim at all! It seems like we're going in a circle — we derive the time for Shema from the time for eating terumah but we then derive the time for eating terumah from the time for Shema. Thus, we seem to have no original source for either one stating that the time is tzeit hakochavim.

If the above wasn't so clear, we can rephrase it as follows:

The whole point of this Mishnah is to tell us the time for Shema. That means that prior to this Mishnah we don't know the time for Shema. The Mishnah tells us the time for Shema as a function of the time for eating terumah in order to also teach us the time for eating terumah (by informing us that it's the same as the time for Shema), which means that prior to this Mishnah we are not supposed to know the time for eating terumah either. The problem is that if prior to this Mishnah we don't know either time, then telling us that the two times are the same doesn't actually tell us what the time is. All we should know after reading this Mishnah is that Shema can be recited when terumah can be eaten and terumah can be eaten when Shema can be recited. But we should have no way of knowing that that time is tzeit hakochavim.

How can we understand how we derive the times for eating terumah and reciting Shema from this Mishnah?

  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Alex Apr 10 '19 at 6:09
  • We just had this question going through the daf tonight. One thing we concluded is that according to the Maaravim there’s no problem - we derive Kohanim from Shema. But according to Rabbah, and certainly the Gemara’s original answer, it does leave the question open. – DonielF Jan 6 at 4:38
  • @DonielF If we derive kohanim from Shema then how do we know Shema? – Alex Jan 6 at 4:43
  • The passuk in Nechemiah, via the Braisa cited there. – DonielF Jan 6 at 4:43
  • @DonielF If that's valid, why can't the same be true for the first version? But more importantly, it then comes out that the Mishnah is not actually teaching us the time for Shema, which seems a bit odd considering that it opens with מאמתי קורין. – Alex Jan 6 at 4:51
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Perhaps the answer is as follows:

The Talmud immediately cites a beraita which discusses a Scriptural derivation for the time when terumah can be eaten:

כדתניא ובא השמש וטהר ביאת שמשו מעכבתו מלאכול בתרומה ואין כפרתו מעכבתו מלאכול בתרומה וממאי דהאי ובא השמש ביאת השמש והאי וטהר טהר יומא דילמא

as it has been taught: And when the sun sets we-taher, the setting of the sun is indispensable [as a condition of his fitness] to eat terumah, but the expiatory offering is not indispensable to enable him to eat terumah. But how do you know that these words 'and the sun sets' mean the setting of the sun, and this 'we-taher' means that the day clears away? It means perhaps: And when the sun [of the next morning] appears, and we-taher means the man becomes clean? — Rabbah son of R. Shila explains: In that case, the text would have to read we-yithar. What is the meaning of we-taher? The day clears away, conformably to the common expression, The sun has set and the day has cleared away.

(Soncino translation)

We see here that there are two ways to interpret the verse. One way would have the time for eating terumah as nightfall, while the other would have it the next morning. By linking this law to the recitation of the evening Shema, the Mishnah automatically eliminates the second reading of the verse. It can't be that terumah can't be eaten until the next day, because the time for reciting the evening Shema obviously can't be the next morning. Thus, the Mishnah is not telling us the precise time for when terumah can be eaten; it merely points us to one of the two already known possibilities. Once we know which of the possibilities it is we can then apply that time back to the Mishnah as the time for reciting Shema.

(This answer is at least somewhat inspired by the Rashba's commentary on this passage, but I'm not sure if this is actually what the Rashba means.)

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