Simanim 62-63 Imperfect Reading of Keriat Shema

  • Rav Asher Meir
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Mishna Berura
Yeshivat Har Etzion

SHIUR #38: Simanim 62 - 63

Pages 191-194


by Rav Asher Meir







            Three mishnayot are particularly relevant to this issue:


"The difference between books of the Bible and tefillin and mezuzot is that books can be written in any language, but tefillin and mezuzot only in Ashurit [i.e., in Hebrew in Ashurit letters, like those of a Sefer Torah].  Rabban             Shimon ben Gamliel says: Even books were permitted only           in Greek" (Megilla 8b).


"If one read [the Megilla] translated into any other language, he did not fulfill his obligation.  But one may read it to vernacular speakers in the vernacular - and even so one who speaks only vernacular fulfills his obligation by hearing it in Ashurit" (Megilla 17a).


"The following can be recited in any language: the recitation of the Sota; Vidui Ma'aser; Keriat Shema and prayers; Grace after Meals; the witness’s oath, and the bailee's oath.

The following may be recited only in the Holy Tongue: Mikra Bikurim, Chalitza, blessings and curses, the priestly blessing, the High Priest's blessing, the king's Torah portion, the portion of the Egla Arufa, and the words of the kohen appointed to the war when he addresses             the people" (Sota 32a).


            In the gemara on this mishna, all of the cases where the declaration can be made only in Hebrew are learned from verses.  This suggests a rule: even Torah-prescribed utterances can be made in any language and that the exception, requiring a special learning, is a limitation to Hebrew.


            The Halakha is according to this mishna, that KS may be said in any language, although there is a Tanna who disagrees - Rebbi - who learns from "VE-HAYU ha-devarim ha-elu" that "these words" have to retain their "havaya" - their exact Hebrew expression.  The mishna is like Rabbanan who counter that "Shema" implies any language which you hear (Berakhot 13a).


            In these mishnayot we find most of the principles explained in the SA and MB on our siman: the  possibility of saying KS in a foreign language (Mishna Sota; SA 62:2); using a foreign language works only for one who speaks it, but one's obligation is fulfilled in Hebrew even if one does not understand (Mishna Megilla 17a; MB 62:3); the theoretical permission to say in a foreign language may be limited practically (Mishna Megilla 8b according to Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, MB 62:3).




            There are many different ways of pronouncing Hebrew.  Ashkenazi, Sefaradi and Teimani accents differ both in the vowels and in the consonants.  Modern spoken Israeli Hebrew functions as a lowest common denominator, retaining only those vowel and consonant distinctions present in all traditional dialects (and not even all of those!).  Could it be that for a member of one community the accent of another community is considered a foreign language?  Igrot Moshe IV:23 brings a proof that all accents are considered Hebrew.  But Minchat Yitzchak IV:47 cites a ruling of the Chazon Ish which suggests that where one custom is definitively accepted, another pronunciation is considered like a foreign language.


            The MB explains that today, we can not rely on the permission to make recitations in a foreign language - see the reason mentioned in 62:3.  It is not really germane to argue against the MB's ruling from the mishna, because the MB's reason may not be relevant to ancient translations which were made when the exact meanings of all Scriptural words were known - and certainly not to translations which were made with Divine assistance, such as the Greek Septuagint (Megilla 9a), and Aramaic Targum Onkelos on the Torah and Targum Yonatan on the Prophets (Megilla 3a).


            The posekim have pointed out that this reason is also not relevant to recitation in an alternate form of Hebrew, even if such were to be considered a foreign language.  (See Sridei Esh II:5.)  So KS can certainly be said in any spoken Hebrew accent.


            In 101:13 the Mishna Brura brings a completely different reason not to pray in any foreign language.  Is this reason applicable also to alternate forms of Hebrew?




"MISHNA: A Ba'al Keri should say [KS] only mentally, and he does not say the berakhot before and after.  On a meal he should recite [mentally] the blessing after the meal, but not that beforehand.  Rav Yehuda says, he recites             [aloud] the blessing before and the one after.

[During the time of the mishna a Ba'al Keri - a man who             experienced an emission and did not yet immerse - was forbidden to pray and learn Torah due to a decree of Ezra.  This decree was later annulled.  See SA OC 88:1.]

GEMARA: Ravina says, this proves that merely thinking is equivalent to actually saying, otherwise why should he say it mentally?  But if it is equivalent, why doesn't he just say it aloud?  Just as we found at Mount Sinai.

Rav Chisda says, thinking is not equivalent to saying, otherwise why doesn't he just say it aloud?  But if it is not equivalent, why does he even think it?  So that he shouldn't sit idly while everyone around him is occupied (with KS)." (Berakhot 20b).


            The gemara then explains that mental recitation is required only for KS and grace after meals, and not for other blessings or for prayers, because these two recitations are de'oraita.




            Most authorities concur with Rabbenu Chananel that the conclusion of the gemara is that halakha is according to Rav Chisda, and thinking is not equivalent to saying.  Yet the SA seems to rule like Ravina, since he says that one who was limited to mental recitation "yatza!"  The BH (s.v. Yatza) cites the Pri Megadim who suggests that the SA in fact supports the minority opinion, but then rejects this explanation, and gives another elucidation of the seemingly anomalous use of the word "yatza" which usually means "he fulfilled his obligation."


            A complementary explanation, which is supported by the gemara, recognizes two distinct aspects of the Torah mitzva of KS.  The ultimate commandment is to accept the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven (ol malkhut shamayim), and one who recited KS without this acceptance has not performed the mitzva.  (The SA and MB only mention that one must understand the words as one says them - a level of intention which is not required for most mitzvot - but it seems unthinkable that a person could fulfill the mitzva of KS without accepting God's yoke.)  However, the specific way we are commanded to accept the commandments upon ourselves is through the recitation of KS.  Likewise, we are commanded "ve-akhalta ve-sava'ta u-verakhta"  - when  you eat and you are satisfied, you must bless HaShem.  The way we perform this mitzva is through saying Birkat Ha-mazon.


            Yet a person who says KS or grace mentally is fundamentally accepting the commandments or expressing gratitude to HaShem.  In this sense we can say "yatza" - he has achieved the ultimate goal of the mitzva.  But in another sense he has not performed the mitzva at all, since the goals of "ol malkhut shamayim" and "u-verakhta et HaShem Elokeikha" were commanded to be reached through specific acts - reciting Shema or grace.  And even though he has achieved the goal of the mitzva, this is not because "hirhur ke-dibur" but rather because "dibur" - speech - is actually not essential to accomplishing this goal.


            This explanation is supported by the gemara since the gemara explains that mental recitation is required only for Torah commandments.  Recall from a recent shiur that the MB cites the Magen Avraham that only in Torah commandments do we require intention; we could say analogously that only in Torah commandments is there an element of obligation to carry out the object of the mitzva even if the act of the mitzva is absent.  Another example of this principle is that in general we allow "ha'arama" - a subterfuge which abides by the letter of the law but circumvents its intent - with rabbinical commandments but not with Torah ones. (See Responsa Rashba VII:502.)




            The concept of "hirhur ke-dibur dami" - thinking is like saying - reminds us of the concept of "shome'a ke-oneh" - hearing is like replying (Sukka 38b).  In both cases the underlying obligation to utter is fulfilled passively by a complementary act - thinking or hearing from another.


            There is one obvious difference between the two - the practical halakha.  The principle of "shome'a ke-oneh" is undisputed, whereas we have just learned that "hirhur ke-dibur" is the subject of a Tannaitic dispute and in fact we rule that hirhur is not ke-dibur.  It is logical that hearing, where there actually is an act being performed, should be superior to imagining, especially since generally one who hears is also considering the words he hears.


            According to Tosafot, there is another difference between the concepts.  Ravina explains that even though hirhur is like dibur, even so a Ba'al Keri is permitted to think but forbidden to utter.  The proof is that  at Mount Sinai the men had to immerse for their keri before they could hear the ten commandments.  We could object, that maybe this means that immersion is required even for thought - after all, at Mount Sinai the men did not say words of Torah!  Tosafot explains that hearing the Torah from God is equivalent to saying them, since "shome'a ke-oneh."  We see that even according to the opinion that thinking is enough, it is still not entirely equivalent to saying, or even equivalent to hearing.


            The Rabbenu Yona on the Rif explains the proof from Har Sinai differently - that the men actually did speak.  According to his explanation, it seems that according to Ravina imagining is fully equivalent to hearing - though only partially equivalent to actually saying.


            But this proof is not complete.  Even if the men at Sinai did speak - directly or indirectly - maybe they would still have had to immerse even to merely meditate on the Torah.  Rav Nissim Gaon at the end of Berakhot 20b explains that immersion was not required following Matan Torah even though everyone was certainly immersed in thoughts of Torah then.








"Beit Shammai say, in the evening one should lie on one's side and read [Shema], and in the morning one should stand, as it says "and in your lying down and in your arising."  And Beit Hillel say, everyone can read in his own way, as it says "and in your going in the way."  Why then does it say "and in your lying down and in your arising" - at the time of day when people lie down and at the time of day when people get up"  (Mishna Berakhot 10b).


            Of course Beit Shammai concede that "in your lying down and in your arising" refers to "the time of day when people lie down and at the time of day when people get up" - that's why they rule that one should lie down at night and stand up in the day.  And Beit Hillel concede that according to the plain meaning of the verse we should literally lie down or stand up at these times - it is only because of the addition of "going in the way" that they learn that any pose is appropriate.


            Halakha is like Beit Hillel - KS itself does not tell us how to say KS, only when to say it.  Even so, our siman does indicate "how" we say KS - that is, in what posture.




            Halakha is filled with so many conflicting opinions that it is difficult to know how to conduct oneself in the face of variant rulings:


            On the one hand, respect for the sages of all generations leads to a natural desire to be stringent so as to act appropriately, as far as possible, according to all authoritative opinions.  We see in many places in the gemara that sages conducted themselves according to a stringent opinion even if they thought that fundamentally the lenient ruling was normative - "Even though I am lenient on others, I am stringent with myself" (Berakhot 22a).


            On the other hand, the sages themselves sometimes indicate that it is wrong to be overly stringent - "It's not enough what the Torah forbade, you want to add your own prohibitions!" (Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:1).


            The MB (63:6) has some harsh words for someone who is inappropriately stringent.  The concern is for the statement one can seem to make by being overly strict - that one is more pious than one's fellows or even worse, than one's Rebbeim.  (This is different than the concern of the Yerushalmi, which sees a problem in excessive strictness per se.  There is some evidence that there is a general difference in approach between the Yerushalmi and the Bavli on this point.)


            Of course, the proper resolution of this dilemma will depend on the circumstances and on the particular area of halakha.  Here we will try to give some guidelines regarding when it is appropriate to be stringent and when it is forbidden:


1. If there is a reasonable explanation for one's behavior besides a halakhic stricture, there is little problem in being strict.  (Berakhot 17b - refraining from work due to stricture.)


2. If the stricture embodies a recognized value, and not merely a specific directive, one may be strict and it is even praiseworthy to do so.  (Sukka 26b - eating in the Sukka to make it more like one's dwelling; Yoma 47a - modest behavior.)


3. Conversely, if going beyond the letter of the law clearly contradicts the value of the law, then it is wrong to be strict.  (SA OC 639:7 - sitting in the Sukka in the rain - which one would not do even if it were one's own house.  The BH there gives an example of the previous guideline.)


4. One may be strict if one can provide a convincing reason to do so  (MB 63:7).


5. In monetary matters, it is always praiseworthy to be strict on oneself and give the other side the benefit of the doubt.  (Bava Batra 88a gives an extreme example.)


            Since the main concern is that one appears to be making a show instead of acting with true piety, if a person is well known as a very learned and pious individual, there is more room to be "lenient" with "stringencies" - everybody is aware that his stricture stems from his conscience and not from his ego.  However, even the most pious and learned people in our history have been concerned with being overly strict in a way that seems to cast aspersions on others - see the story about Rebbi (R. Yehuda HaNasi) on Ketubot 103a.


            Acting too leniently involves a similar problem - that one shows a disregard for the customs of one's fellows and the rulings of other sages.  Even if one has a  firm halakhic basis for leniency, being too "meikel" can be improper unless one meets the above conditions - mutatis mutandis.  That is: if there is a reasonable explanation for one's behavior aside from being lenient; if it is evident that the leniency is really a stringency in some other important value (conversing before davening, or on Tisha Be-Av, or when one is in mourning, or during certain stages of davening, if failing to reply would be clearly impolite); or if one is so learned and pious that everyone will be certain that the reason for being lenient is not mere laxity.


            This discussion has centered on true stringencies - a fundamentally praiseworthy punctiliousness in performing mitzvot which becomes blameworthy only when it seems to make a statement.  Apart from this, there are many false "chumrot" - being stringent in one area at the expense of being lenient in some other area which is really much more important.  For instance, in a recent shiur we learned that it is praiseworthy to pray "vatikin" - at sunrise.  However, it goes without saying that praying at a time and in a setting where one has proper concentration is much more important.  The Chazon Ish is quoted as having said in this context "Not only the time of davening is important - even the davening itself is important!"  In a similar vein, sometimes people put on tefillin of Rabbenu Tam in the middle of services, when it disturbs their concentration and that of others.


            I learned from my Rebbeim that out-of-place stringencies are a sign of an "am ha-aretz."  On the other hand, excessive leniency is also the sign of an ignoramus - "nor is an ignoramus pious" (Avot  2:5).  Navigating the proper course between extremes requires scholarship and sensitivity.  If one desires to be stringent out of true concern for God's word, a little ingenuity is usually sufficient to do so without revealing one's chumra to others.