The Rabbinic Prohibition of Reciting the Evening Shema Before Eating
The first mishna in Berakhot (29a) lists the starting times for the recitation of the evening kriat shema. Although the ensuing gemara provides a number of alternate options, the halakha accords with the view that shema can only be recited beginning at tzeit ha-kochavim. Similarly, the mishna lists different options for the time AFTER which shema cannot be recited. Although Rabban Gamilel allows its recitation until alot ha-shachar, the Chakhamim maintain that it should not be recited past chatzot; allowing delayed recitation might encourage indulgence in eating and sleeping, ultimately resulting in forgetting to recite kriat shema. The mishna effectively delimits the zeman of kriat shema, designating its point of commencement and conclusion.
The gemara in Berakhot (4b) provides a third layer of timing that governs evening kri'at shema. Out of concern that a person would get TOO INVOLVED and forget to say shema, the Rabbanan prohibited ANY eating prior to its recitation. At first glance, this halakha seems to parallel a mishna in Shabbat (9b), which forbids eating samuch le-mincha" because the meal may distract attention from tefilla, whose time will ultimately elapse. Although we might have thought that there is less danger of missing the time for shema (primarily because the time window is longer than that of late-afternoon mincha), our gemara in Berakhot equates the two situations and establishes the parallel prohibition for kriat shema as well.
R. Akiva Eger challenges this approach. Why is there a need for a separate and distinct gezeira governing shema? If this gezeira were modeled after the mincha-precaution cited in Shabbat, the gemara in Berakhot would not have presented what, appears to be, a distinct gezeira, as the prohibition of eating before the evening shema could be easily extrapolated from the prohibition of eating prior to mincha ketana. In fact, the same mishna in Shabbat discusses the requirement to interrupt Torah learning in order to recite shema, a directive intended in part to prevent forgetting shema due to absorption in study. Why does the gemara in Berakhot introduce a redundant gezeira? Rather, R. Eger suggests, the assertion of a separate gezeira suggests not merely the application of an established precedent, but the introduction of a new halakha.
Not only is the reiteration of this already documented gezeira intriguing, its syntax is as well. The gemara states:
The Chakhamim established a chumra to prevent a scenario whereby a person returns from work, eats, and rests, with full intention to ultimately recite evening shema. He faces the danger of unintentionally falling asleep and omitting shema. INSTEAD, a person should return from work, visit a shul or beit midrash, learn Torah, recite shema, daven, and ONLY SUBSEQUENTLY eat
It is extremely unusual for the Chakhamim to RECOMMEND behavior or DICTATE a schedule such as, "a person should return from work, visit a shul, study, recite shema, etc. A gezeira typically FORBIDS an activity (eating before shema) and assumes that we will properly formulate our schedule to accommodate the prohibition. Why was the gezeira articulated in terms which not only designate a prohibition but depict expected behavior?
These questions provoke a completely different model toward understanding this gezeira. Mi-deorayta, shema can be recited at ANY point during the window between tzeit ha-kochavim and alot ha-shachar. Concerned that it would be forgotten, however, the Chakhamim tethered shema at least le-chatchila to dinner! They did not merely impose a PROHIBITION to eat before reciting shema, but rather reformulated the timing and schedule of shema. Instead of being associated with an extended time period, the gezeira affixed shema to the moment a person begins a meal. At that moment, he is obligated to recite shema.
This view would explain the need for a separate injunction. The mishna in Shabbat describes a classic prohibition of eating BEFORE an event we do not wish to forget in THAT case, eating before reciting mincha. This model, however, MAY NOT apply to the evening shema at all, in part because its time frame is so extended. Because shema can be recited all night the practical fear of forgetting its recital is diminished. Hence the chakhamim could not issue the standard "prohibition of eating" before the event of shema. However, Chazal designed a different gezeira for shema, one whose mechanism works differently from the classic method of prohibiting an activity before the performance of a mitzvah. In this instance, they reshaped the time schedule of the mitzvah, thus demanding separate legislation, as it could not be inferred from the gezeira regarding pre-mincha eating.
This approach also explains the unique syntax of the gezeira. Chazal did not impose a prohibition upon eating, but rather designed a new timing schedule with triggers for shema recital eating. The description of a person's evening schedule reflects Chazal's rescheduling the recitation of shema.
If this distinction is correct and the gezeira regarding kriat shema is not, in fact, the standard prohibition of EATING BEFORE, but is rather a rescheduling of the obligation of the mitzva, we may identify unique details in the parameters of the gezeira.
One important resulting distinction pertains to the RANGE of the prohibition. The aforementioned mishna in Shabbat is clear that eating is forbidden from a half hour before zeman mincha. This extension is logical: commencing a meal within a half hour of mincha time creates a peril of forgetting mincha by indulging in the meal. But the gemara in Berakhot, addressing shema, apparently prohibits eating ONLY from tzeit ha-kochavim, when zeman kriat shema has actually begun. Indeed, the Rashba in Berakhot equates the two gezeirot and assumes that eating is prohibited a half hour before tzeit ha-kochavim as well, but the simple reading of Berakhot (adopted by Tosafot, 4b, s.v. ve-korin) indicates that eating a half hour before tzeit and shema recital is permitted. The distinction in the details of the prohibition may result from the different models of the gezeirot. The classic gezeira against EATING BEFORE begins samuch, a half an hour prior to the onset of the mitzva. However, the gezeira of shema did not PROHIBIT eating, but rather dictated when shema should be recited le-chatchila. This scheduling (and the related avoidance of food) can only be demanded once the actual zeman of shema has begun. Beforehand, shema cannot be recited, so the recital cannot be obligated even if a person begins to eat.
A second distinction relates to performing melakha or other activities. The mishna in Shabbat discusses avoiding any melakha or activity (bathing, visiting a barber) which may cause one to forget mincha. The gemara in Berakhot, in contrast, only discusses EATING, making no mention of other activities. Again, the Rashba equates the two gezeirots and prohibits ANY sustained activity prior to shema recitation as well; by equating the details of the two prohibitions, he seems to assume that they are essentially the same. However, once again, the simple reading of Berakhot indicates that only eating was addressed, not other activities, and again, the discrepancy in details may be based on the logic of the legislation. Unlike the prohibition against eating prior to mincha, this gezeira tethered shema recital to eating. Since nothing was actually prohibited, melakha should not be problematic!
A third issue surrounds the potential prohibition against tasting food prior to shema. Is snacking prohibited, or only a meal? In this instance, the gemara in Shabbat is silent, so we have little baseline of comparison.
If the gezeira were a prohibition against eating, the application to tasting would be debatable. After all, tasting is far less distracting than a meal. However, the Terumat Ha-Deshen (siman 109), who clearly viewed this shema gezeira in the classic mold as a prohibition against eating, inferred that even tasting is forbidden, and in fact extrapolated a general prohibition of tasting food before the performance OF ANY MITZVA. He applies our gemara to Megilla reading and forbids even a taste of food prior to hearing the Megilla.
If, however, our gezeira schedules shema recital immediately prior to eating, it may not apply to tasting. Eating was mentioned in the gezeira not because it is distracting, but because it is an EVENT OR ACTIVITY that launches the evening and to which kriat shema was bound. Tasting food, which isnt a permanent fixture of evening, cannot form the schedule anchor for shema, and is therefore permitted prior to shema recital. The Magen Avraham (275) does allow tasting, but he does not discriminate between shema and other mitzvot.
This novel view of the gezeira is not clearly articulated by the Rishonim who comment on the gemara. However, there are two Rishonim whose comments seem to reflect this approach. The Talmidei Rabbenu Yona claim that the le-chatchila timing of shema requires recitation AT tzeit ha-kochavim, and not immediately prior to eating. Practically, even if a person delays eating, he would still be obligated by Chazal to recite shema as soon as possible after tzeit. This also reflects the intriguing syntax of the gezeira, whereby the Chakhamim did not merely prohibit eating, but also established a night schedule. Rabbenu Yona's chiddush is that the schedule affixed shema to tzeit and not to eating. According to this view, it is clear that eating as an activity was not prohibited; rather, shema was locked in to a specific moment one unrelated to eating.
A second interesting element within Rabenu Yona is his willingness to extend the gezeira to recite kriat shema at tzeit EVEN according to Rabban Gamilel, who never accepted the gezeira limiting shema until chatzot. Logically, the Chakhamim who accept the gezeira establishing chatzot as the endpoint of shema would also embrace a gezeira about not eating before shema; Rabban Gamliel, who rejected the chatzot gezeira, would reject the prohibition against eating before shema. Rabbenu Yona disagrees and effectively severs the two gezeirot; one who rejects the chazot gezeira can still embrace the gezeira to recite shema before eating/at tzeit. This severance may indicate a structural difference between the two gezeirot.
The second Rishon to allude to this method of understanding the gezeira is the Ra'avan. In his sweeping commentary to the timing of evening shema and the various opinions regarding it, he makes several statements that are suggestive of this novel approach to the gezeira. The most stunning statement surrounds his attempt to defend reciting shema BEFORE tzeit, as was the minhag of Western European Jewish communities. The struggles of Rishonim to justify or even apologize for this practice are well documented (see Tosafot, Berakhot 2a, s.v. Mei'eimatai). The Ra'avan claims that since people begin eating at this early pre-tzeit stage (especially when making an early Shabbat), shema can be recited. Since the Chakhamim established their gezeira to recite shema before eating, it may be recited EVEN before tzeit. Effectively, the gezeira does not only limit behavior (prohibiting eating BEFORE shema), it also permits otherwise unacceptable behavior (reciting shema PRIOR to tzeit). It is clear that the gezeira did not impose issurim, but rather re-landscaped shema by attaching it to eating. This redesigning yields a chumra (not to eat before shema) AS WELL AS A KULA allowing shema recital ANYTIME eating has commenced, even before the accepted start point of shema at tzeit ha-kochavim.