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Parshat Va’etchanan – Kriyat Shema

Av 5783 | July 2023

Learning from the verses

The familiar verses of Kriyat Shema, when read within their larger context, reveal multiple layers of meaning:

“Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your lifeforce and all your might. These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. Repeat them to your children, speak of them when you sit in your home and when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be totafot (phylacteries) between your eyes. Write them on the doorposts of your home and in your gates.”[1]

Twice a day we read these words from the siddur. When read outside of context, Kriyat Shema is a clear declaration that our Lord who is our God is One, and that these statements should be held in our hearts and present in our lives through speech, binding on our bodies, and writing on the doorposts of our homes.

Learning from the context

When we open the Torah and see these verses in context they take on another layer of meaning. This section immediately follows Moshe’s description of the giving of the Torah and Ten Commandments, and appears within the greater context of his warning not to be lured away from God’s service by the idolatrous influences that surround them.[2]

Moshe’s call to the Israelites “Hear Israel!” affirms the principle that the Lord is our God, and is One, and that we should verbally affirm these statements – perhaps referring to the Ten Commandments – and identify with them in our bones, remember them and mention them repeatedly. Such practices can fortify the people against the foreign influences that will surround them when they enter the land – be it the pagan culture of idol worshippers or a materialistic culture fostered by physical work and abundant crops – influences that threaten to make us forget God and the principles of the Torah. To combat this looming threat to the essence of the Israelite people Moshe gives them tools – to repeat the lessons so they are fixed in our heart – mention them, “speak of them,” and create additional reminders. These words take on new meaning when they are read within the larger context; Moshe’s speech imparts words of mussar – a spiritual, philosophical, and ethical will he bequeaths to Israel before he leaves them, before they enter the land.

 Learning from the sages

Chazal (the sages of the Talmudic era) found additional layers of meaning within these verses – learning both the obligation to study Torah and read the verses of Shema (in addition to the commandments of tefillin and mezuzah).[3] Are these two separate obligations?

Reciting the Shema is a concrete obligation to read a specific text twice a day at specific times – “when you lie down and when you rise.” Chazal call this “kaballat ol malkhut shamayim,” “accepting the yoke of Heaven.”[4] The way to instill this in our hearts is to “repeat it… when you lie down and when you rise.” Kriyat Shema frames our day; we begin and end with this declaration of faith.[5]

Even though women are exempt from Kriyat Shema because it is a time bound mitzvah, many halakhic authorities rule that they should still say it, because of the value of accepting the yoke of Heaven daily.[6]

On the other hand, Chazal also learned several aspects of the basic obligation to study Torah from these verses, such as: the constant repetition and preoccupation (learned from the descriptions that cover the span of our daily activities, “when you sit in your house, when you walk on your way…”) along with the insistence on kviyat ittim, setting aside specific times to devote to Torah study.[7] They even determined that reciting Kriyat Shema in the morning and night fulfills the minimum daily obligation to study Torah. By fulfilling the mitzvah of Kriyat Shema one fulfills the mitzvah of Torah study.

Concluding thoughts

All these aspects are essentially related. Moshe reminds us that in order to confront the challenges of an independent life in a new land without constant proximity to the Divine Presence and the Tabernacle to anchor us, we need to establish alternate reminders for ourselves. Moshe calls to us, “Hear Israel!” And then reminds us, “The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”[8] He charges us to find more ways of internalizing this message. This can be accomplished in two different ways, intellectually – through constant learning, understanding, digging into the sources, fulfilling the mitzvah of Torah study – and with actions that serve as a reminder – with our speech that affirms our faith every morning and evening, the physical action of binding the tefillin to the body, and inscribing the words on our doorposts.

These are two different aspects of the ways we can remind ourselves of these lessons. Binding and inscribing, as well as “when you lie down and when you rise” can be read as metaphors, symbols of the charge to perpetually preoccupy ourselves with these ideas, but they can also be read as literal charges to consistently surround ourselves with practical reminders. The sages determined that both were necessary.[9]

One could say that Kriyat Shema is an excellent representation of the wonders of Torah study, which allows us to uncover layer after layer of meaning in the same verses – even ones that we know by heart –  enhancing its influence in our lives and in the world.

[1] Devarim 6:4-9

[2] The Ten Commandments appear in chapter 5 and the concern of idolatry in chapters 5-11.

[3] For example TB Menakhot 99b; Nedarim 8a; Mishna Berakhot Chapter 1 discusses the obligation of Keryat Shema.

[4] Mishna Berakhot 2:2

[5] Mishna Berakhot 1:3

[6] For example: Shulkhan Arukh OC 70:1 and Remabased on the opinion of Ohel Moed – who discuss if this applies to the entire section or just the first verse.

[7] For example the midrash halakha on these verses in Devarim, TB Kiddushin 30a.

[8] Compare to Rabbeinu Meyukhas on Devarim 6:4.

[9] Compare to Rashbam Shemot 13:9.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.