Parshat Va’etchanan 5781: Why is K’riyat Shema a Foundational Mitzvah in Judaism?

Shalom Friends;

Our Parshat HaShevua, Va’etchanan is being co-sponsored by Rabbi Raphael and Rebbetzin Vivianne Willig dedicated in honor of our dear friend Moshe Burt and by an anonymous donor dedicated lilui nishmas for Tila bat Yerachmiel. Both co-sponsors are from Ramat Beit Shemesh. To the Willig family and to our anonymous sponsor, many thanks for your co-sponsorships and your continued kindnesses.

You can celebrate a Simcha — a birth, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a Chassuna or other Simcha event in your life, or commemorate a Yahrtzeit of a loved one, or for whatever other reason by sponsoring a Parshat HaShevua.

Please forward to your relatives and friends and encourage them to sponsor a Parshat HaShevua. And please be in contact with me with any questions, or for further details.

Best Regards,

Moshe Burt
skype: mark.burt3

Parshat Va’etchanan 5781: Why is K’riyat Shema a Foundational Mitzvah in Judaism?

by Moshe Burt

The Haftorah for our Parshat begins:

“Nachamu, Nachamu Ami yomar Elokeichem” — “Comfort, comfort my people — says your G’d.”

This sentiment seems to be silent, but yet a theme of Parshat Va’etchanan.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, in his sefer “Unlocking The Torah Text,” Sefer Devarim provides context regarding K’riyat Shema and renders to English the Shema and the first of it’s three paragraphs (page 56-57):

Following the review of the Ten Declarations [the Asseret HaDivrot, Sefer Devarim, Perek 5, posukim 6-18], the Torah records a textual passage that is destined to attain unmatched significance within Judaism.

Among the first words learned at a parent’s knee and among the last recited when life’s journey ends , the verses… are more familiar to the Jew than any others in the entire biblical text:

“Shema Yisrael, Hashem Kelokeinu, Hashem Echad, Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G’d, the Lord is One!”

“And You shall love the Lord your G’d with all of your heart and with all your soul and with all your might, And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart, and you shall teach them diligently to your children; and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.” (Rabbi Goldin rendering to English Sefer Devarim, Perek 6, posukim 4-9)

Most significantly from a halachic perspective, this paragraph, along with two other… passages (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Devarim, Perek 11, posukim 13-21, Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 15, posukim 37-41), is… incorporated into the morning and evening tefillot of Am Yisrael. (Rabbi Goldin citing Mishna Brachot, Perek 1, posukim 1-5) While clearly central to each of these tefillot, these paragraphs remain distinct from their surroundings. Their full or partial recitation constitutes the fulfillment of a foundational Mitzvah… the Mitzvah of K’riyat Shema. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, positive commandment 10)

We need only recall contemporary history to attest that K’riyat Shema is foundational to Judaism. We learn that during the Sho’a, fearing for their children’s lives, many parents in Europe gave their children to gentile institutions in order to save the childrens’ lives, with the result being that the children were schooled in the alien religion. But with the defeat of Germany and Naziism, Jewish rescue organizations sent representatives to these gentile institutions to locate Jewish children. These representatives were able, through their recitation of K’riyat Shema before the groups of children, to find and rescue the Jewish children who naturally joined the recitation of K’riyat Shema that, as Rabbi Goldin notes, were “the first words learned at a parent’s knee.”

Rabbi Goldin now asks questions and offers approaches regarding this foundational Mitzvah (ibid, pages 57-63):

Why have these paragraphs become so central to thought in Judaism? Why are they singled out from among all other passages in Torah for obligatory daily recitation?

So integral is the Mitzvah of K’riyat Shema to thought in Judaism that the entire Talmud opens with a discussion concerning its observance… (Rabbi Goldin citing Talmud Bavli Mesechta Brachot, 2a)

The Gemara explains that the Mishna accepts the existence of a Biblical Mitzvah of K’riyat Shema as a given, based on an obvious source: “The Tanna derives his position from the text: ‘[and you shall speak of them…]’ when you lie down and rise up.” The Mitzvah of K’riyat Shema emerges directly from a phrase found in the first passage of the Shema itself. This phrase establishes a Biblical obligation to recite the Shema each day, “when you lie down and when you rise up,” in the morning and in the evening. (Rabbi Goldin again citing Talmud Bavli Mesechta Brachot, 2a)

Rabbi Elazar interprets the phrase “and you shall speak of them… when you lie down and when you rise up” in narrow terms. From his point of view, the Torah mandates a specific obligation to “speak of” the Shema each morning and evening.

Across the centuries, as countless authorities add their voices… surrounding this Mitzvah, a strong pattern emerges. The preponderance of Rabbinic opinion weighs in on the side of Rabbi Elazar, citing a clear biblical requirement to recite the specific passage or passages of the Shema each morning and evening. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, positive commandment 10, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 119, and numerous other sources)

Numerous authorities, including the Rambam, count this conscious acceptance of Hashem’s authority — synonymous with the affirmation of Hashem’s unity — as a separate, distinct, daily Mitzvah within the list of the 613 Biblical commandments. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, positive commandment 2)

These scholars note that by reading the first sentence of the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G’d, the Lord is One,” with proper intent, an individual automatically affirms Hashem’s unity and accepts His majestic will.

Countless later authorities indicate, the manifold overarching ideas embodied in the paragraphs of the Shema clearly recommend these paragraphs for daily recitation. The Oneness of Hashem, the obligation to love Hashem, the Mitzvah of Torah study, the obligation to teach Torah to one’s children, the obligation to accept all of the Mitzvot of the Torah as a whole, the concept of Divine reward and punishment, the presence of Hashem’s hand [Kavei Yokel] in nature and in history, and the practical Mitzvot of Tefillin and Mezuzah are among the many essential themes to be found in these rich passages.

Rabbi Goldin concludes (ibid, page 63):

While formally no section of Biblical text is meant to be seen as more important than another, one can clearly understand why the passages of the Shema were chosen for daily recitation and why they have become so central to service, thought and experience in Judaism across the ages.

As one of this author’s Rabbanim, back in Philadelphia in the “Old Country” would say, “Tefillah Kasher, V’Tzom Kal” — “Daven Hard, Fast Easy!”

B’Ezrat Hashem, as we pray and hope for each year, that this Tisha B’av FINALLY be the last Tzom for B’nei Yisrael.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them and that the thrice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes, at government expense; both due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. Baruch Hashem that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard is now free of his parole and restrictions and that he and his ill wife Esther Yocheved bat Rayzl Bracha are finally home in Eretz Yisrael. May the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of seven years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. And may we soon and finally see the total end to the Communist Chinese corona virus pandemic and all like viruses. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nei Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Easy Fast and Good Shabbos!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh. ***************************************************************