Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Devarim‘, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Although a distinct, separate obligation, the mitzva of Kriat Shma is not performed in isolation. Instead, the three paragraphs of the Shma are woven into, and recited as part of, central sections of the morning and evening prayer services.
Why is the mitzva of Kriat Shma incorporated into the daily liturgy?
At first glance, the paragraphs that constitute the Shma can hardly be classified as prayer. Within these passages, man does not speak to God at all. God, instead, speaks to man. The Shma consists of instructional verses, chosen from countless others in the Torah text, informing the nation of its responsibilities. Whatever benefits might accrue from the daily recitation of the Shma, they would seem to be separate and distinct from the experience of prayer.
Even if a practical argument can be made for attaching this mitzva to the prayer service as an expedient way to ensure its performance, the weaving of the Shma into the most central sections of the tefilla remains difficult to understand. Why didn’t the rabbis append the recitation of the Shma to the conclusion of the service? Why insert these biblical passages at a point in the prayers where they would seem to be an intrusion, breaking the flow of each prayer service as it moves towards a crescendo. What connection is there between the mitzva of Kriat Shma and the experience of prayer?
Our search for answers begins with the prayers that surround and weave the Shma into both the morning and evening services. Known as the Birchot Kriat Shma (Blessings of the Kriat Shma), these prayers are thematically connected to the passages of the Shma and are clearly referenced in the Mishna: “In the morning, one recites two blessings before [the Shma] and one after it. In the evening, one recites two blessings before [the Shma] and two after it.”
The Gemara and later halachic works identify these seven blessings as follows:
- Yotzer ohr, “He Who forms light” (said in the morning, before the Shma), describes and praises God’s creation of the physical world, beginning with His creation of light and darkness.
- Ahava raba, “abundant love” (said in the morning, before the Shma), praises God’s bestowal of the Torah upon the Jewish people and requests the wisdom to appreciate and understand that gift.
- Emet v’yatziv, “true and certain” (said in the morning, after the Shma), praises God’s faithfulness across the generations, with particular focus on the miracles of the Exodus.
- Hama’ariv aravim, “He Who brings on evenings” (said in the evening, before the Shma), praises God’s control of the passage of time, with emphasis on the transition from day to night.
- Ahavat olam, “eternal love” (a shortened version of the morning prayer, said in the evening, before the Shma), praises God’s bestowal of the Torah and its commandments upon the Jewish people.
- Emet v’emuna, “true and faithful” (said in the evening, after the Shma), praises God’s protection of the Jewish nation from its enemies, with particular focus on the Exodus.
- Hashkiveinu, “lay us down to sleep” (said in the evening, after the Shma), requests God’s protection from danger.
A puzzling statement in the Mishna forces the later Talmudic authorities to scrutinize the technical relationship between these blessings and the Shma itself.
After establishing that the appropriate time for the recitation of the morning Shma ends when three daylight “halachic hours” have passed (or in other words a quarter of the day), the Mishna asserts: “If one recites [the Shma] from that point on, he has not lost; he is like an individual who reads from the Torah.”
The Mishna’s halachic position is clear. Upon missing the appropriate time for the recitation of Kriat Shma in the morning, an individual loses the opportunity to fulfill the mitzva properly. Nonetheless, the Shma may yet be recited at any point throughout the day. One may, after all, always read passages from the Torah.
Less clear, however, is the meaning of the puzzling Mishnaic statement “he has not lost.” If this individual has lost the opportunity to perform the mitzva properly, what then, has he not lost?
In a striking move, the scholars of the Gemara quote sources from the Mishnaic period that connect this phrase to the blessings surrounding the Kriat Shma. If, on any particular day, an individual fails to recite the morning Shma in its appropriate timeframe, he has not lost the opportunity to recite the Shma’s blessings. These blessings may still be recited, together with the biblical passages of the Shma, even after the time for the mitzvah has passed.
Following the close of the Talmud, however, rabbinic disagreement develops as to the extent of this allowance concerning the Shma’s blessings. Until what point of the day, the authorities query, may these blessings yet be recited?
Taking the Mishna at face value, the Rambam is among those authorities who maintain that the Birchot Kriat Shma can and should be recited whenever the Shma itself can yet be said, throughout the entire day.
Numerous other scholars, however, including the towering fourteenth century halachist Rabbeinu Asher (the Rosh), adamantly disagree. The blessings of the Shma, these authorities argue, are not governed by the time frame that governs the Shma. Instead, these blessings may be recited only within the appropriate time frame for the morning prayers. This time frame, also established in the Mishna, extends one daylight hour after the temporal endpoint for the mitzva of Kriat Shma, namely until one third of the day has passed.
If an individual misses the appropriate time for the morning Shma, these authorities thus conclude, he can yet recite the Shma itself at any point during the day. The Shma consists of biblical verses, and the recitation of biblical verses is always allowed. The Shma’s blessings, however, may only be recited for one more daylight hour, until the time for the morning prayers has passed. Past that point, the recitation of these blessings is prohibited and an individual who recites them transgresses the sin of “saying God’s name in vain.” This latter position is codified as law by Rabbi Yosef Caro in the Shulchan Aruch and is accepted as normative practice today.
The normative position outlined above concerning the Birchot Kriat Shma seems confusing. What exactly is the nature of these blessings?
If these blessings are, as their title indicates, “Blessings of the Kriat Shma,” why then are they governed by the time frame for the morning prayers and not by the time frame for the Shma itself? Logically, one of two other options should be chosen. Either the recitation of these blessings should be prohibited once the optimal time for Kriat Shma has passed, or the recitation should be allowed as long as the Shma can still be recited, throughout the day.
And if, conversely, these blessings are considered part of the morning prayers and are, in fact, governed by the rules of those prayers, why are they referred to as the “Blessings of the Kriat Shma”?
The tension mirrored in the above ruling may well be a product of a fundamental internal tension in the nature of the blessings themselves.
On the one hand, a review of the content of these blessings quickly reveals that, unlike the Shma itself, the blessings are prayers in the full, formal sense. Upon reciting these blessings we find ourselves in the familiar territory of classical tefilla, where man reaches out to his Creator with majestic words of tribute and heartfelt appeal.
At the same time, however, the blessings are clearly connected to the Shma. Carefully and consciously, the rabbinic authors of these brachot rework and expand upon the themes of the Shma, fashioning them into prayer. To cite a few examples:
1. While the Shma proclaims God’s oneness, the blessings of the Shma lead the supplicant to praise the unity of God’s physical and philosophical creations.
2. The commandment of Torah study repeatedly embedded in the Shma is transformed in the blessings into a request for the wisdom to engage in such study.
3. The Shma’s focus on God’s hand in history leads to appeals in the brachot for “a new light shining upon Zion” and an ingathering of the exiles from the “four corners of the earth.”
The blessings of the Shma move from one realm to the next. Thematically rooted in the paragraphs of the Shma, they transform the themes of those biblical passages into classical prayer. Although they retain their identity as Birchot Kriat Shma, therefore, these blessings are ultimately governed by the laws that regulate the morning prayers, as a whole.
The unique rabbinically designed bridging role of Birchot Kriat Shma may help us understand how the scholars view the inclusion of Kriat Shma itself in the prayers. Far from an alien intrusion, Kriat Shma and its surrounding blessings enable a two-way, man-God conversation to unfold at the core of the morning and evening prayer services. At the center of this exchange lies the Shma itself – Torah passages through which God daily conveys His aspirations for and challenges to His people. At the conversation’s peripheries lie the blessings of the Shma, the people’s contribution to the discussion: each supplicant wrestles with the themes embedded in God’s words, transforming them into personal prayers of praise and request.
The Shma thus helps shape the very paradigm of Jewish prayer: a dialogue, not a discourse. Just as certainly as man speaks to God during prayer, God speaks to man.
Three times daily, as the Jew approaches his Creator in prayer, God draws near, as well. An intimate conversation unfolds. Hopes, expectations, requests and challenges are freely exchanged, and an agreement to sanctify the world in partnership is renewed. The parties then part ways, with an implicit promise to return shortly, armed with additional life experience, for further conversation and dialogue.
Points to Ponder
The story is told of a security guard serving at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem. Over time, he takes note of one elderly man who arrives at the wall each day at the same time, prays with obvious devotion for an hour and leaves.
Finally, after decades of witnessing this scene, the guard stops the man and asks him, “Excuse me, sir, but I have taken note of the constancy of your commitment. Can you please tell me what you have been praying for each day over these many years?” “Well,” answers the man, “for years I have approached the Kotel to pray to God that He grant our people peace, security and the wisdom to deal with each other with sensitivity and respect.” “And now,” continues the guard, “as you look back on all these years of fervent prayer at the Western Wall, how do you feel about the experience?” “I feel,” answers the man, “like I’ve been talking to a wall.”
Tefilla is tough. We find ourselves locked in a continuing struggle. Can we breathe new life into the same words recited day after day? Can we continue to regularly approach a mysterious God, only to be answered with silence, never quite knowing if, when or how our prayers will be answered? Can we, who live in a world governed by intellectual search, learn to open our hearts to an unfathomable God?
Like most of my colleagues, I have shared, over the years, a multitude of ideas with my congregants and students as to how we might more meaningfully experience tefilla (all the while speaking to myself as much as to them). I have counseled concentration, the study of the prayers, introspection, arriving to synagogue on time, a cessation of conversation with our neighbors during the services and much more.
As important as all those steps may be, however, I would argue that another potential action can have even more far-reaching consequences upon our search for more meaningful tefilla.
We can decide to listen, as well as to speak, during prayer.
So many voices, after all, clamor for our attention as we engage in
tefilla: the voices of our earliest progenitors – Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov – whose own search for God at the dawn of our history leads them, according to Talmudic tradition, to establish the three basic daily prayer services, Shacharit, Mincha and Ma’ariv; the voice of King David, whose impassioned Psalms take us on a journey through the turbulent events that marked his life and thus through the myriad human emotions that color our own; the voices of scholars and sages across the ages, whose contributions to the prayer services preserve in perpetuity their struggles, priorities and dreams; and above it all, the voice of God, speaking to us of His hopes for His people, individually and collectively, and of the tasks that we must fulfill if we are to bring about their realization.
And if we listen hard enough, we might even hear the voice of our own hearts, urging us to reflect upon our own place in this rising crescendo. Who are we to approach God in prayer? What aspirations do we have for ourselves and how do they relate to the dreams of those who came before? How can we shape our priorities so that they reflect an understanding of the truly important things in life? As we wrestle with these and other critical issues, we naturally turn to God in heartfelt prayer, asking that He aid us in our search for direction.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the root of the Hebrew verb l’hitpallel, to pray, is pallel, literally, to judge. The verb is conjugated reflexively. L’hitpallel, to pray, thus means to judge oneself. “Jewish praying, says Hirsch, “is not from within outwards, but from without inwards.… Hitpallel means to penetrate oneself, ever afresh again, with eternal, essential lasting truths and facts.”
If the tefilla experience becomes a process through which we gauge our lives and our actions against the backdrop of our nation’s ongoing search for God and God’s reciprocal search for us, then our thrice-daily approach to the Almighty will acquire new and powerful meaning.