Siman 61 To Be Meticulous in the Reciting of Shema

  • Rav Asher Meir
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Mishna Berura
Yeshivat Har Etzion

SHIUR 37#: Siman 61

Pages 187-191


by Rav Asher Meir








            Kri'at Shema (KS) - in particular the first verse - is the "motto" of the Jewish people. The Torah requires us to proclaim God's unity through KS in the morning and evening every day of our lives.  In addition, it is the last thing we say each day before we go to sleep, and the last thing we say in this world before our souls return to the World of Truth.


            Yet, the exact meaning of this verse is not perfectly clear.  For instance, two possible emphases are possible in the phrase "Hashem Elokeinu."  We could translate it: "Hashem is OUR God" - Hashem, Whose name is the sacred four-letter appellation, is specifically the God of Israel.  This is similar to the approach of Rashi, who explains that the verse emphasizes that (at this stage of history) Hashem is specifically the God of Israel.


            Or perhaps we should render: "HASHEM is God," since "Elokeinu" could be translated "God" and not "Our God."  Specifically Hashem, the God of Israel Who identified Himself with this name to the Patriarchs and the Prophets, is God.


            The message of these two translations is similar: other nations also believe in a Supreme Being, but they may reject the idea that He could have a name or that He could designate a specific people as His.


            The next phrase is clear - "Hashem is one" - there is only one God.  Other nations may indeed recognize Hashem, and they may even view Him as supreme - "the God of gods" - but not as unique (see Menachot 110a).


            We affirm that God has a particular connection to us - He communicates to us with a specific "identity" or name which is revealed especially to us, and He is our God - and that there are no other gods.


            One could conceivably render: "Hashem - i.e., God - Hashem is One" - a poetic way of saying "Hashem God is One."  Here there is only one message - the verse does not identify Hashem but merely affirms His unity.  According to this translation there is no special reference to Hashem being the God of Israel - neither by emphasizing that specifically Hashem is the name of God, nor by translating "Elokeinu" as specifically our God.  It is not surprising that non-Jews prefer this rendering.  The King James version translates tendentiously "The Lord God is one Lord."


            Jewish translations, however, take the first approach.  The Rema (se'if 14) specifically instructs us to say KS in a way which emphasizes that there are two messages.  In the following section, we will see that the Rashba construes both of the above understandings of "Hashem Echad."




            A great deal has been written about what a Jew's more profound thoughts should be during KS.  Here we will partially translate and partially summarize a particular profound and beautiful discussion from the responsa of Rashba V:55.


"You have asked me to explain the meaning of KS.  I have already said that we do not occupy ourselves with esoterica.  In fact, every thinking person should know that it [KS] is a unique passage, containing the ideas of unity and faith.  In fact, it alludes to great secrets and principles, which are the foundations of the entire building which is the house of Israel.

[The Rashba means that the passage of KS is filled with esoteric secrets, but since we do not occupy ourselves with mysticism, we can not fully fathom its meaning.]


            However, we are permitted to contemplate the simple meaning of the matter, for the entire Torah is thus;


it both alludes and explicates. I will tell you

certain ideas which occurred to me regarding the plain     meaning of the subject, which we should reflect on when we recite [KS].

Namely, all of us, as we read this passage, should not intend only to read, as one who reads portions of the Torah in order to fulfill the duty of mere recitation.  Rather, we should direct our thoughts to the realization, that He - may He be exalted - is one, and that He is our God.  We are compelled to surrender our souls,

our desires, and all of our strength, to His blessed Name.  We should agree to this decisively and conclusively, and not just move our lips. 

May Hashem save us from those of whom it is written "With his mouth and his lips he honors Me, but his heart is far from Me."


We should accept this upon ourselves - not through concern and worry, as a person who decides to act out of fear of one who rules over him, whose commands can not be evaded by escaping from his dominance, but rather as a loving friend and devotee, who is devoted to carrying out the desires of his beloved master.  Our love should be directed to Him; the delight of our soul should be in Him, and we should glory in whatever comes our way through the pursuit of His commandments."


            The Rashba then goes on to explain the verses as follows:


"Shema Yisrael" commands us not only to listen, but also to make an independent examination of the foundations of belief so that we will come to believe in God through our own conclusions, and not merely through habit and instruction.

"Hashem Elokeinu": First, that God is "elohim" - supervisor, ruler, and judge, as opposed to the view of the self-styled philosophers who suppose that there is no earthly Divine providence.  Second, that He is specifically our God, and designated us as His special portion among mankind.

            "Hashem Echad": that there is no god besides Him.


            And only after we understand and affirm all this, will we be truly able to love Him with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our might, as the first paragraph commands.


            "With all your heart" - the sages learn "with both hearts," meaning "even with your yetzer ha-ra."  This is the attribute of Avraham Avinu, who performed God's will even when it went against his "better" nature, his yetzer ha-tov, as in the case of the Akeida, which went against his basic trait of lovingkindness.


            "With all your souls" - the sages learn "even if you have to give up your soul."  This is the attribute of Yitzchak, who was willing to sacrifice his life at the Akeida.


            "With all you might" - the sages learn "with all your possessions."  This is the attribute of Yaakov, who shunned earthly possessions, promising to give tithes to God at Beit El and, according to the Midrash, giving away all of his possessions in order to secure his place in Ma'arat Ha-Makhpela.


            "And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart" - the acceptance of God's yoke, with our heart, soul, and possessions, should be engraved in our hearts, that is, we must do them whole-heartedly, without any reservations.


            Repeating the message of KS to our children and speaking of it at all times demonstrates that it is beloved to us, and not accepted merely as a burden.  And putting these words between on our hearts and between our eyes (tefillin) and on our gates (mezuza) has two purposes: to be a constant reminder to us, and also to demonstrate to others that we are proud to accept God's yoke.  [It is not enough that we accept God's service wholeheartedly - we must also demonstrate to the world that we do so, by teaching and discussing God's word and by displaying it prominently on our selves and on our houses.]







            "Rav Nehorai said in the name of Rav Nechemia: KS has 248 words, corresponding to the 248 organs of man. When one says KS properly, every single organ takes one word and is healed thereby, as it is written 'They (the words of Torah) will be healing for your navel, and fat on your bones' (Mishlei 3:8) ... But are there not only 245 words in KS?! ... How was this corrected?  It was established that the shaliach tzibbur should repeat three words, 'Hashem Elokeikhem Emet,' in order to reach 248 words for the congregation. ... But someone who says KS without the congregation has not consummated his organs, since he lacks the three words repeated by the shaliach tzibbur!  His alternative is to direct his thoughts properly to the fifteen appearances of the letter vav in 'Emet ve-yatziv.'  Even so, Abba used to say that this is a case of 'The crooked which can not be made straight, and the deficiency which can not be made up' (Mishlei 1:15).  The missing three words are a deficiency which can not be made up." (Midrash Ne'elam, Zohar Chadash Ruth 95a, as cited in MB s.k. 6)


            This passage is the source of the custom, mentioned in se'if 3, for the Shatz to repeat aloud the three words "Hashem Elokeikhem Emet."  This in effect appends three words to the tally for the members of the congregation, bringing them up to 248.


            What about the Shatz himself?  If he follows the usual practice of an individual, and appends the word "emet" to the end of KS, then his own tally of words will be off.  Omitting "emet" also seems improper.  We will see in 66:5 that one should not interrupt between the end of KS and the "emet" of the first blessing following KS.  See the MB (s.k. 8) who quotes two customs; one is "customary," the other is preferred by the Gra.  Today the first custom is the most common, and the second one is followed (in my experience) by those congregations who follow the customs of the Gra.




            The Rema mentions the custom that one who prays without a congregation precedes KS with the words "E-l Melekh Ne'eman."  The Rema quotes this custom as a solution to the problem posed in the Zohar: how can a solitary individual make up the "missing" three words?  Yet the Zohar itself claims that there is no adequate solution to the problem.  The Bach writes that the custom of saying "E-l Melekh Ne'eman" - an ancient custom which predates the revelation of the Zohar (it is mentioned in Rashi, as quoted by the Bet Yosef) - was actually abolished according to the passage in the Zohar!


            The MB explains that a person who says KS "yechidi" - usually meaning without a minyan - should add these three words to his KS to complete the sum of 248 words, whereas in a minyan, the Shatz bridges the gap by saying the three words "Hashem Elokeikhem Emet."  According to this reason, even someone who is with a minyan should say EMN if he did not hear the leader add the appropriate words.  Even someone without a minyan should not have to add them if he heard the recitation of the leader when there was a minyan.


            In practice, the Shatz's repetition of "Hashem Elokeikhem Emet" seems to complete one's KS only if it is heard while the individual is saying KS.  If a person was saying KS together with a minyan, but heard the three words from the Shatz before he started KS, he should say EMN since the Shatz's words cannot complete the individual's KS if it was not recited concurrently (Mishneh Halakhot 4:11).





            "Rav said to Rav Chiya: I didn't see that Rabbi [Rav Yehuda Ha-Nasi] accepted upon himself the Yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven!?  He replied: Foolish one, when he passes his hands over his eyes, that is when he accepts on himself  ol malkhut shamayim." (Berakhot 13b)


            According to Rashi, Rabbi used to do this when he read KS in the middle of teaching shiur so that he would recite KS on time.  Covering his eyes helped him to avoid distractions (see the Rosh).  Certainly the ability of Rabbenu Ha-kadosh to avoid distraction, even during shiur, is greater than ours when we say KS.  It is appropriate to learn from his custom that we should cover our eyes whenever we say KS.  See MB s.k. 17 for the accepted way of doing so.



61:9 - DEAD END?


            We learned in last week's shiur even though mitzvot in general require one's intention to fulfill the Torah's commandments, there are only two mitzvot that require an intrinsic intention such that the act is performed with a specific consciousness.  These are prayer and KS.  Even in these two obligations, the principal requirement, to be conscious of the words and their meaning, is only at the beginning of the act: during the first blessing of Amida and during the first verse of KS (SA 60:5, 101:1; MB 60:7).  Only in these two instances can a person perform an act with the intention of fulfilling a commandment and yet, since he was distracted, be obligated to start over again.


            It is a bit ironic that these are exactly the two instances in which the Halakha tells us that we may NOT in general start over again, even if we performed the mitzva in a way in which our obligation was not fulfilled!


            Regarding Amida, the SA writes: "If one did not say 'Avot' with intention ... he must start over and pray again."  The Rema comments: "Nowadays we do not start over, since even if he starts over he will almost certainly fail to have the intention" (OC 101:1).


            In our siman we learn: "It is forbidden to say 'Shema' twice, whether we merely repeat the word 'shema' or whether we repeat the entire first verse" (OC 61:9).  "Shema" is our principal declaration of God's unity; its recitation must also be unitary.


            It seems that a person who inadvertently begins his KS or his Amida inattentively (hardly an unusual situation) finds himself in a one-way dead end!  Exactly in these instances his negligence is fatal to his mitzva, and exactly in these two situations his false start is irreparable!


            Actually, the situation is not so grave.  The MB gives us two different solutions for Amida: one can fulfill one's obligation through the shaliach tzibbur (BH at the beginning of 101).  Alternatively, if there was a particular distraction which is now gone, even the Rema admits we can start over (Sha'ar Ha-Tziun 97:2).  The distraction discussed is a material one, but there is no reason that a psychological distraction should be any different, assuming that it has been removed.  There are likewise two solutions for KS - see MB s.k. 22 in our siman.





"How did they 'squash' the Shema [in Jericho, and even so the Sages did not see fit to protest]?  They recited 'Shema Yisrael' and did not pause [before 've-ahavta'] - so says R. Meir. R. Yehuda says: They paused, but they did not say 'Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va'ed.'


And why is it that we do say it?  According to what R. Shimon Ben Lakish used to interpret: 'And Yaakov called to his sons and said, Gather about and I will tell you' - Yaakov sought to reveal to his sons the end of days, but the Holy Spirit deserted him.  He said to himself, Perhaps it is because there is a blemish in my lineage, just as Avraham begat Yishmael and my father, Yitzchak, begat Esav?  His sons said to him: Hear, Israel - Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!  Just as there is only One in your heart, so there is only One in our hearts.  Then Yaakov Avinu proclaimed: 'Blessed be His glorious Name for ever and ever!


The sages asked, How should we conduct ourselves?  Shall we also say so?  Moshe Rabeinu did not say it!  [Therefore it would be improper to interrupt KS - which is a passage in the Torah - to say it.]  Shall we omit it?  Yaakov said it!  They established that it should be said quietly [literally "secretly"].


R. Yitzchak said in the name of the students of R. Ami: This can be likened to a princess who smelled some leftovers [and had a craving for them].  For her to request them would be unseemly, but if she won't request them she will suffer, so her servants started bringing them to her in secret."  (Pesachim 56a, partially cited in MB s.k. 30)


            See how the BH (s.v. Achar) uses this passage to resolve the dispute whether one's KS is valid if "Barukh Shem" is omitted.  (Compare this with the ruling in MB 63:11.)


            The allegory suggests even though our formal status and obligations as Jews began only with the giving of the Torah, we still have an inner urge to base our conduct on that of the Patriarchs.  They founded our lineage and, most importantly, our special relationship and covenant with God.  (Compare the explanation in Rav Kook's "Olat Reiya" siddur.)  Their worship of God was based on their understanding according to their inner holiness, and not according to defined commandments.