Thursday, August 16, 2012

The essense of the Shema

I'm pretty busy right now, with my aliyah flight coming in four days. But most of what I do on this blog is regurgitating anyway, so it's no problem to regurgitate something from D.A.F. and Beit Midrash Beit Av (via

The second chapter of Berakhot gets into the details of saying the Shema: its content, its structure, who says it, etc. In the course of discussion we find two understandings for what Shema is all about: accepting the yoke of Heaven and Torah study.

Yoke of Heaven

In the mishnah on 13a, R' Yehoshua ben Korhah explains the order of the first two paragraphs of Shema:

אמר ר' יהושע בן קרחה למה קדמה פרשת שמע לוהיה אם שמוע כדי שיקבל עליו עול מלכות שמים תחלה ואחר כך מקבל עליו עול מצות

R' Yehoshua ben Korhah said, Why is the paragraph of Shema before that of ve-hayah im shamoa? So that one will accept the yoke of Heaven first, and then accept the yoke of commandments.

This understanding is supported multiple times by other rabbis, including Rav on 13b and 14b and R' Yohanan on 14b. R' Meir says, and so we pasken, that only the first verse requires concentration of intent (13b). R' Yehudah ha-Nasi would in fact only say the first verse (13b). The way we make a big deal out of the words “God is our God, God is one!”, by covering our eyes, saying it slowly, adding barukh shem kevod..., and so on, certainly reflects this view.

The rest of the Shema is then about accepting commandments, which follows the yoke of Heaven. The Mekhilta elaborates:

משל למלך בשר ודם שנכנס למדינה. אמרו לו עבדיו, גזור עליהם גזירות. אמר להם לאו, משקיבלו את מלכותי, גזור עליהם גזירות, שאם מלכותי לא יקבלו, גזרותי לא יקבלו. כך אמר המקום לישראל, 'אנכי ה' אלוקיך' [ורק לאחר מכן:] 'לא יהיה לכם אלוהים אחרים'.

You need to accept the yoke of a king before you do what he says. This logic also appears in the Ten Commandments. God states His sovereignty, and then starts commanding.

Torah study

Rashbi sees the Shema as about Torah study:

תניא ר"ש בן יוחי אומר בדין הוא שיקדים שמע לוהיה אם שמוע שזה ללמוד וזה ללמד


It has been taught: R. Simeon b. Yohai says: It is right that ‘Hear’ should come before ‘And it shall come to pass’ because the former prescribes learning and the latter teaching. 

I note that Rashbi is bullish about Torah study in general. He disputes R' Yishmael's statement that it's OK to sacrifice time for Torah study in order to farm (35b). He's the one whose eyes caused people to burst into flame when they were neglecting Torah study (Shabbat 33b).

Rashbi sticks with this idea of Shema in Menahot 99b:

אמר רבי יוחנן משום ר"ש בן יוחי אפי' לא קרא אדם אלא קרית שמע שחרית וערבית קיים לא ימוש ודבר זה אסור לאומרו בפני עמי הארץ

R' Yohanan said in the name of Rashbi: Even if a man only said keri'at Shema, night and day, he fulfilled the commandment, "[the words of this Torah] shall not depart [from your mouth]." It is forbidden to say this in front of ignorant people.

Shema is actually literal Torah study! And Rashbi, true to character, worries that people would be lax with study if they knew his opinion that Shema is an acceptable minimum.

It's both

The gemara noted that Rashbi doesn't dispute R' Yehoshua ben Korhah, but offers an additional view. And so the Rambam cites both, Hilkhot Keri'at Shema 1:2:

וּמַקְדִּימִין לִקְרוֹת פָּרָשַׁת "שְׁמַע", מִפְּנֵי שֶׁיֵּשׁ בָּהּ צִוּוּי עַל יֵחוּד הַשֵּׁם, וְאַהֲבָתוֹ וְתַלְמוּדוֹ:  שְׁהוּא הָעִיקָר הַגָּדוֹל, שֶׁהַכֹּל תָּלוּי בּוֹ.

The emphasis seems to be on the sovereignty viewpoint over the study viewpoint, and I think that well reflects the balance you find in the Talmud.

D.A.F. also notes the balance found in the blessings of the Shema:

The two motifs in the Shema are reflected in the blessings of the Shema. In the morning, the Shema is preceded by two blessings. The first blessing ("Yotzer Or") describes the grandeur of the celestial bodies which bears witness to the exalted nature of their Creator. This blessing corresponds to the theme in the Shema of the acceptance of Hash-m's sovereignty, a lesson that may be learned through reflecting on the heavenly bodies (see Tehilim 19:2). In the second blessing ("Ahavah Rabah") we beseech Hash-m to teach us His Torah. This corresponds to the second theme of the Shema. The same two themes repeat themselves in the blessings that precede the evening recitation of the Shema ("Ha'Ma'ariv Aravim" and "Ahavas Olam").

And then D.A.F. ties the ideas together:

The two themes can be viewed as parts of a single concept. Learning Hash-m's Torah is a direct means of attaining love for Him and accepting His sovereignty (see Rashi to Devarim 6:6; Sifri, Devarim #33). When we see the splendor of the Torah's laws and lessons, we appreciate the love that Hash-m has shown us by giving us His Torah, and we display our love for Him in return by accepting Him as our King.

(You can't spell out "Hashem" on a computer screen? Whew.)

Having a God

Finally, given my important life event coming in four days, I can't write about the yoke of Heaven without quoting Ketubbot 110b:

ת"ר לעולם ידור אדם בא"י אפי' בעיר שרובה <עובדי כוכבים> {גוים} ואל ידור בחו"ל ואפילו בעיר שרובה ישראל שכל הדר בארץ ישראל דומה כמי שיש לו אלוה וכל הדר בחוצה לארץ דומה כמי שאין לו אלוה שנא' (ויקרא כה) לתת לכם את ארץ כנען להיות לכם לאלהים

Our Rabbis taught: One must always live in the Land of Israel, even in a town of mostly idolaters; and let no one live outside the Land, even in a town of mostly Israelites. For whoever lives in the Land of Israel is as one who has a God, and whoever lives outside the Land is as one who has no God. As it is said, “To give you the Land of Canaan, to be your God” (Leviticus 25:38).

And now that you got me started, here's the Sifrei on this week's parshah:

מעשה בר' יהודה בן בתירה ור' מתיא בן חרש ור' חנינא בן אחי ר' יהושע ור' יונתן, שהיו יוצאין לחוצה לארץ, והגיעו לפלטוס וזכרו את ארץ ישראל, וזלגו דמעותיהם וקרעו בגדיהם וקראו המקרא הזה (דברים י"א, לא-לב): "וירשתם אותה וישבתם בה ושמרתם לעשות את כל החוקים וכו'" וחזרו ובאו למקומם. אמרו: ישיבת ארץ ישראל שקולה כנגד כל המצוות שבתורה. (ספרי דברים ראה, פיסקה פ')

R. Judah ben Beteira, R. Matya ben Heresh, R. Hananiah ben Ahi, R. Joshua, and R. Nathan were leaving the Land. They reached the border and recalled the Land of Israel. They raised their eyes and their tears flowed down; they rent their clothes; and they read this verse: “You shall inherit it, and settle it, and be sure to keep all the mitsvot that I am commanding you today.” They inferred, “The settlement of the Land of Israel is equal to all the mitsvot of the Torah.”

And so on...

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