Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
August 17, 2019

For those that have studied Talmud, perhaps even with Steve Wein, you have likely spent time with Tractate Berakhot. The first three chapters of Berakhot discuss the Shema. What it is? Why do we say it? What must our intentions be when we say it? When do we say it? Interestingly, the Talmud assumes that we know what the Shema is and that we need to say it on a regular basis! The first question is WHEN do we say it! Today we heard some of the answers to many of those questions.

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל ה’ אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ ה’ ׀ אֶחָֽד׃
וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃
וְהָי֞וּ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃
וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ֖ בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃
וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל־יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ׃
וּכְתַבְתָּ֛ם עַל־מְזוּזֹ֥ת בֵּיתֶ֖ךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃ (ס)

In just a few verses, we find the meaning of everything! We find connections from generation to generation. We see love, hope and joy. We discover we are not alone--and that we need to be reminded to pay attention! We may think we understand these words, yet each reading, each commentary can help us glean new meanings and new ideas about this formative prayer.

Like many rabbis, I have a love for books. Through books we go on fabulous journeys without leaving our desks, couches, chairs or beds. In my office I have books of fiction, but the vast majority are of how we relate to Gd, our history and one another. In the category of talking to Gd, I have an entire bookshelf of Siddurim. There is one sefer, one book, that I do not keep on that shelf, but instead in my line of sight, next to my computer: Rabbi Reuven Hammer’s Or Hadash, a Commentary on the Siddur Sim Shalom. This book contains our regular Shabbat prayer book, but surrounding it are insightful comments on the meaning of specific words, the theology of the prayers, the forest and the trees. Rabbi Hammer’s works on weekday, Shabbat and festival liturgy are accessible not only to scholars, but to all of us. Rabbi Hammer, who passed away early this week, was not only a tremendous scholar but also an incredible leader.

The Masorti Movement in Israel eulogized Hammer in a short statement, referring to him as a “Learned Torah Scholar. A man of spirit and book. The founding director of the Beit Midrash for Jewish Studies – Schechter Institute. Established the bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies program for children with special needs. Israel’s first president of the Rabbinical Assembly and builder of world Masorti Movement in Israel.”

In the introduction to his commentary, Rabbi Hammer wrote about the Shema and its Blessings;

Unlike the Amidah, which is recited three times each day, the Sh’ma is recited only twice, morning and evening. This is based upon the rabbinic interpretation of the verse “Recite them (these words) when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Hillel taught that this meant “recite it when people lie down to sleep and when they get up.” (Berakhot 1:3),; ie in the evening and in the morning.

The Sh’ma is not a prayer but a reading, k’riah, of selections from the Torah that emphasize important dogmas of Judaism, stress the need to study all of the Torah and observe its commandments, and serves as a declaration of our loyalty to God. Indications are that it was originally compiled as an opportunity to recite significant portions of the Torah that contain basic dogmas of jewish belief. These basic beliefs include the monotheistic concept of the unity and uniqueness of God, the idea that loving God is the highest form of motivation for serving God, the belief in reward and punishment, the importance of observing the commandments and belief in God as Redeemer. Reading these brief excerpts symbolizes our desire to study and obey all of the Torah.

At a later stage, the Sages interpreted the Sh’ma as a declaration of belief and of allegiance to the One God. It became our oath of loyalty, demonstrating our acceptance of God’s sovereignty, kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim, and of the obligation to observe God’s decrees, kabbalat ol mitzvot (berakhot 2:2). These two concepts are at the very core of Rabbinic Judaism…

The three important areas of God’s relation to us are thus addressed: God the Creator, God the Giver of Torah and God the Redeemer. These constitute a basic credo of Judaism which could be formulated as follows:

We believe in the One God, Creator of heaven and earth, whose will has been revealed to us through the Torah and its mitzvot as interpreted by the Sages and who redeem us from Egyptian slavery, redeems us now, and will redeem both Israel and all humanity and bring us to the perfected world--the Sovereignty of God.

In reading Rabbi Hammer’s notes on the Shema we can see the power of the Shema itself. It is not merely a declaration of fact, but a declaration of faith. Reciting these words with intention connects us to our history, our present and our future. Closing our eyes and declaring the One-ness of God is declaring that we have no master except God.

From Rabbi Hammer and his scholarship we can answer all the questions that Talmud didn’t entirely elucidate:

What it is? The Shema is three paragraphs of Torah comprising the essence of Jewish faith and the desire for redemption.

Why do we say it? We say it twice a day to teach our children, to connect ourselves with the Holy One, to accept the mitzvot and the greatness and singularity of God.

What must our intentions be when we say it? While our tradition debates the level of intention we need for various mitzvot and blessings. The Shema requires utmost concentration--at least for the first line. We cover or close our eyes to eliminate distraction and to accept wholeheartedly God and our traditions.

Of course, the last/first question we already know the answer to--when do we say Sh’ma? In the morning and in the evening. As we continue our service with the Musaf Amidah, having discussed prayer and blessing in my classes this week, I am ready to focus on the gift of Shabbat. I pray that you will be able to connect the words on the page to the power of your soul.

Great further resources: