I thank my friend Yaakove for learning with me. Our daily studies produced many interesting insights in the Shima and its blessings.
We are commanded to recite the Shima and its blessings twice daily. Thus, they must contain concepts indispensable to our daily thoughts, and by that token, our very existence.
Unfortunately, many commands, when repeatedly performed, carry the danger of becoming rote activities. This loss is compounded if we rush through our prayers, rendering them into a burden, which the Talmud teaches is not a sincere supplication to God. If we would stop for a moment and recognize the opportunity afforded us by these prayers, we would take our time, and even look forward to their recital.
In general, we look to prayer as an opportunity to formulate our requests before God, with the true conviction that He responds. By thinking into our lives, we can construct a plan with the goal of our perfection as outlined in the Torah, presenting this plan to God in our requests, even adding our own words. God will most assuredly assist us in such a plan, as is derived from His providence over the patriarchs and matriarchs.
Prayer offers man this great opportunity where the Creator of the universe responds to our needs. When God responds positively, we learn that our requests are in line with His Torah. And conversely, when our requests go unanswered, we learn that our requests do not form part of God’s plan, or perhaps, not yet. We are thereby forced to reflect on our wants and needs (our values) studying them carefully, and detecting our deviation from God. In this case, God’s silence is a great blessing. For we learn through such silence that we are corrupt in one area or more. We are then driven to realign ourselves with God’s Torah system – that which is for our ultimate good. The Hebrew word for prayer is “Tefilah”, which means to “judge”, as in judging our values. Thereby, prayer perfects our values.
From this opportunity, to request our needs and then judge our values according to the response, we are directed to the second and more primary focus of our daily blessings and prayers: God’s knowledge.
Aside from moral and ethical perfection, man partakes of the world of intelligence. Knowledge of God’s truths is not only the driving force behind the aforementioned perfections, but a world unto itself. Although man lives in societies, his knowledge of the good, and of all truths, need not be exercised in action, for man to appreciate the Source of this knowledge. This in no way means that we are absolved from Torah obligations. Such an idea denies God’s commands. Maimonides taught that the commands are to preoccupy ourselves when we are not engaged in the highest pursuit: Torah study.
The Shima and its blessings are not requests, but formulations of central Torah concepts. It is true, these very ideas teach us most important truths, and guide us in both spheres: concepts and moral behavior. But as the Shima contains no requests, they act to inculcate truths. It is these truths discussed in Talmud Brachos (11a – 12b) that I would like to highlight.
The Shima Yisrael must be recited twice daily, as it is written:
“Listen Israel, God is our God, God is one. And you shall love your God, with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your possessions. And it will be that these words which I command you today shall be upon your hearts, and you shall teach them to your sons, and you shall speak them when you sit in your house, and when you go on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign on your arm, and they shall be Tefillin between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and your gates.” (Deut. 6:4-9)
We learn that the Shima is actually a reference to the entire corpus of Torah, as this command to recite “these words” refers to that which is “commanded”, i.e., the commandments. If so, how does the imperative to recite “them” when we lie down and rise, refer to the Shima? The answer must be this: the Torah’s commands to recite “them”, means that the Shima recital fulfills the obligation to discuss the commands. We learn that he Shima contains central Torah themes.
The Talmud states that originally, the Ten Commandments formed part of the morning prayers. But according to Rashi, due to the slandering of the idolatrous nations, rumoring that all that exists are the Ten Commands, the Rabbis on at least four occasions denied many communities the right to include the Ten Commandments. They feared the Jews would fall prey to the distorted counsel of those nations, assuming no more than the Ten Commands were uttered by God.
Rabbi Simone and Rabbi Levi disputed the reason for reading the Shima. Is it recited because it contains the reference of lying down and rising, or because it contains references to the Ten Commandments? What is their disagreement?
The Talmud teaches, one should relieve himself at night, as he does during the day. The book of Joshua also teaches, “This book of the Torah shall not be removed from your mouth, and you shall engage it day and night, in order that you shall guard to do as all that is written in it, for then your way will be successful, and then will you understand.” (Joshua, 1:8) The Shima as well says we must recite it when lying down and rising. What concept do all of these cases point to?
Regarding man relieving himself, we learn that man has an inclination to be less modest at night, thus, relieving himself in a less modest fashion. Joshua’s command also addresses the night, as does the Shima. In all of these cases, we learn that man tends to act at nighttime, in a different manner than he does during the day. Nighttime carries with it darkness, something which effects man’s mood. He feels less stress as the workday is over: it’s relaxation time. He also feels more isolated, not in a negative senses, but in a sense of being “alone”. Thus, we are warned by the Talmud that modesty has nothing to do with who is watching, but with one’s perfection. One must not be less modest at night, for this means his modesty is not true modesty – he is in fact only fearful of onlookers – not of adhering to Torah modesty. One who is truly modest is this way at all times, as it is an expression of his inner values. As far as relaxing goes, Joshua teaches that one should not satisfy the desire to remove himself from his Torah obligations at night, due to an emotion of relaxation. This does not mean man does not require relaxing, but that night should not be man’s excuse not to learn. In fact, Maimonides teaches that one who wishes to earn the “Crown of Torah” (become truly wise) will not forfeit any of his evenings in sleep. The Talmud also teaches that any house in which the sound of Torah is not heard at night, will be destroyed. Joshua said, “…for then your way will be successful, and then will you understand.” This means that if someone looks to a certain time frame as “recreation time”, it reflects his true value not to engage in Torah study. If one earnestly toils in his study, he will find it quite enjoyable. He will not look for other pleasures. His free time will be spent in study. Only then will he become wise, as all of his energies are absorbed by study. One can truly come to a stage where he anticipates learning as an adventure: he excitedly awaits what new ideas he will discover today!
We may answer one side, that the Shima is recited due to its mention of lying down and rising. It reminds us of our much-needed perfection, to align our emotions with the Torah prescription not to seek fantasy and pleasures, when those emotions are aroused in the evenings. Therefore, this side of the argument suggests that the Shima is recited for the purpose of correcting man’s “internal world.”
How may we explain the Rabbi who says that the Shima is recited because it refers to the Ten Commandments? I believe his view is that we must reiterate and be mindful of the Torah system - as a whole. According to Saadia Gaon, the Ten Commandments are the head categories for the remaining 603 commands. As such, the Shima, which refers to the Ten, in fact, makes us mindful each day of the entire body of Torah. This Rabbi understands the Shima as addressing man’s need to be cognizant of the entire Torah system on a daily basis. Man must recognize the “external world” of wisdom. According to this Rabbi, the Shima is not so much to correct his emotional weaknesses and digressions, as it is to remind him of a complete Torah system. Accordingly, it is insufficient that man performs only those commands required each day, even if he learns all day, while not acknowledging the greater, complete Torah system. So the argument may be defined as whether Shima addresses our “internal world”, perfecting our values, or the “external world” reminding us of a complete system of wisdom.
But I wonder, according to this latter view, why must we be Torah-cognizant to such a degree? What do we lack by not recognizing the system of Torah as a whole, each day? It would appear that by viewing the daily commands as isolated from the rest of the Torah, and certainly, by not acknowledging Judaism’s tenets daily, such individual performances will be compromised. But in what manner?
Maimonides outlines certain fundamentals in his 13 Principles, which perhaps shed some light on this question.
Principle VIII. That the Torah is from Heaven
“…And on this our sages of blessed memory said, "he who believes that the Torah is from heaven, except this verse, that God did not say it, but rather Moshe himself did [he is a denier of all the Torah].”
Principle IX. The Completeness of the Torah
“And this is that the Torah is from God and is not lacking. That to it you cannot add or take away from - not from the Written Torah or from the Oral Torah. As it says "Do not add to it and do not take away from it.”
Perhaps we learn from here, that to obtain a true appreciation of each command, we must be cognizant of its place in the complete, Torah system. To lack conviction in a part of the Torah being divine, one denies the entire Torah. Exactitude is demanded in this area. Similarly, if one does not realize that individual laws form part of a greater whole, he too errs, although his error is nowhere as grave.
What is the loss if we do not realize that specific laws form part of the whole? One commonly found corruption are those individuals who are vigilant in a few commands, forfeiting the perfection that can only come through fulfillment of the whole Torah system. These individuals may go so far as to assume a singular command is some kind of panacea – a command or a non-commanded practice takes on a life of its own. An example would be Tehillim groups, who believe that by their recital, some good comes to others. The group recites Tehillim diligently, however, the Torah demands a different approach: those in need must reflect, repent, pray to God, and give charity. Isolating singular activities, and certainly new practices not commanded by the Torah, carries with it such a danger: one forfeits the philosophy of Torah, only afforded by accepting and being mindful of all the commands, and only that which is commanded. And even if one were to perform something actually commanded, with the thought that it affords some good of its own, this in no way improves the situation. Commands are indispensable, but not an end unto themselves. The Torah prescription is to follow God, not commands, and follow His entire word, not creating new activities, or favor one command over the other. For this reason, the Torah does not disclose the rewards of the commands. We must be vigilant in each one, as this is truly the way to follow God, and not our emotions.
This flaw is generated out of man’s nature to attach himself to particulars, for this is how the emotions operate. We notice in general that people get excited about “specific things”, like cars, homes, clothing, etc. Emotions latch onto individual objects. Surprisingly, this emotional flaw also extends to the commands, and must be corrected. The Talmud states that when a command comes to your hand, you may not pass it up, even for the sake of an even greater command. There is one condition that would allow one to pass up a lesser command: when another person is available to perform the lesser command. In this case, one may wait for the greater command. How do we reckon this with our view? The answer is that in the latter case, one does not discount the entire Torah system. He admits to all of the commands. However, when one dismisses other commands, he has erred.
This idea, that we must be mindful of the entire system of Torah, is the very concern expressed by the Rabbis who prohibited the Ten Commandments from being continued in the morning service. The idolaters wished to impose their view that Torah is simply the Ten Commandments, and nothing more. Conversely, the Shima’s recital counters this problem, by calling to mind the entire system of Torah. Perhaps for this very reason, we are informed of the idolater’s mischief in this same section of the Talmud: it contributes to the primary focus of the Shima.
It is interesting that unlike the Shima, which is a Torah law, the blessings of the Shima are based on the words of King David, “Seven by day I have praised You for Your righteous statutes.” (Psalms, 119:164) The Talmud teaches that this verse obligates us to recite the seven blessings over the Shima. King David teaches that it is insufficient to simply “respond”, and merely fulfill the commands. King David formulates an additional obligation that we praise God for giving us the Torah’s statutes. Man must feel a great sense of appreciation for God, as He bestowed upon us such a kindness, in designing and granting mankind a means for appreciating His existence, where we may learn wonderful truths that perfect us. It is befitting that praising God for the system received by man, is based on a man’s (King David) appreciation. The very philosophy of this command is embodied in its source.
King David teaches that one fulfills “praising God for His righteous statutes” by reciting blessings over the Shima. We thereby learn that the Shima satisfies the role of “His righteous statutes”. The Shima, then, is a concentrated formulation of the Torah’s primary statutes and philosophies.
In addition to commands, the Shima includes the fundamentals of God’s existence, His unity, the Exodus, and Reward and Punishment, seen in the promises of agricultural prosperity and drought - for our Torah adherence and idolatrous offenses, respectively. So vital are these ideas, we are also commanded in the Shima to post its words on our doorposts as Mezuzas, and to wear them as Tefillin. Tzitzis are also included as its own paragraph in the Shima, as it states therein, “and you will see them (Tzitzis) and you shall remember all the commands of God, and you shall do them, and you shall not go astray after your hearts and after your eyes…” Tzitzis too points to the entire body of Torah.
The Rabbis teach, he who wears Tzitzis, dons Tefillin and posts Mezuzas, will not sin. Why is this? It is due to what these three items address: man’s securities. Tzitzis reminds one that his garb improves him I no way, despite society’s glorified fashions. One’s body cannot shield him from God’s punishments, as Tefillin remind him, as they are worn on the body. And Mezuza belittles our greatest feeling of security: the home. In all three areas, body, clothing, and home, man is reminded not to project his baseless feelings of security, but to be mindful of God’s ultimate security stated in the Shima and contained in the Mezuza and Tefillin.
But how do these items prevent sin? Sin is generated from egotistical emotions. The person feels he is far more correct that God’s commands, and therefore feels secure enough to violate them. What attacks such a disease is man’s recognition of God’s security. Man is now faced with the realization that God ultimately defines his fate. With this knowledge, man will not sin.
Tangentially, why may the form of Tzitzis – strings – be the appropriate method of “remembering”? Perhaps their hair-like design, which moves when we walk, catches our attention. Something rigid does not stand out, and we pass it by. But for something to alert us, it must be distinguished, and the Tzitzis’ motion is distinguished from our rigid body. A woman’s hair is also the one feature, which catches a man’s eye due to its motion. Therefore, this is the precise feature that women are commanded to conceal, demonstrating that gaining attention from others after marriage is not appropriate, or modest behavior.
For what exactly do we praise God with these seven blessings?
The first blessing praises God for His creation. We describe His constant guidance over the luminaries, and describe both day and night, in both our morning and evening Shima blessings. The Talmud states this is done so no one would erroneously assume that God controls only one half of the day, as was assumed by idolatrous peoples who had both, sun and moon gods. Praising God in both parts of the day, for both aspects of the day, prevents this error. Also, in both evening and morning prayers, we refer to God as “King”. This teaches us that even prior to man’s creation, God’s role is the One King. “King” is thereby defined as Creator, and this role does not rely on man’s proclamation of His greatness. Man was created after the luminaries and stars, and in our blessings of the luminaries we refer to God as King, teaching that God’s Kingship is independent of God’s reign over mankind. Without man, God is still King. This makes sense. For a human king has conditional kingship: if his subjects abandon him, he loses his role. Not so with regard to God. His Kingship is unconditional, based on His role as Creator. He who grants man’s very existence is the ultimate King. But he whose kingship is limited to ruling others, and did not create his subjects, is a far lesser king by comparison.
“Creator” is the most defining role of God. It is for this reason that we commence with this praise.
But God did not only create the physical world, He also created that which is not physical, which includes angels. These angels are intelligences that praise God, as stated in our blessings. To omit part of God’s creation in our praises would be a grave error. When praising God, the praise must be as complete as humanly possible. Now if this was so, why don’t we simply refer to angels, and nothing more? But we do find much more discussed, such as the angels’ praising God. Why is this included? We may also ask why there is no reference to the angels in our evening blessings.
I would suggest that angels praising” God teaches an important lesson: even the greatest of all creations, and those which partake of the greatest realization (intelligence) of God, are completely involved in one thing: realizing God’s greatness, and praising Him. In contrast to us mortals, we should be humbled that if those greater intelligences recognize God, so too must we.
Another important feature of this first blessing is that these angels are occupied with a specific praise: God is unknowable. The angels recite “Holy, Holy, Holy, God of hosts, the entire universe is filled with His honor”, and “Blessed is God from His place”. “Holy” is better translated as “distinct” as in “distinct from what the angels know”. In other words, the angels witness creation (“the entire universe is filled with His honor”) and praise God, simultaneously admitting that they are completely ignorant of what G-s is. Other angels then say, “God is blessed from His place”, declaring His unknowable nature.
Also stated in this praise is, “they all accept the yoke of Heaven (God’s greatness) from each other”. What does this mean? I believe it teaches that although not commanded in Torah, of their own accord, the angels are completely preoccupied in praising God. This embellishes the concept we stated, that the greatest created intelligences see God as their sole focus. Recognizing and praising God is the ultimate purpose of all creation. Perhaps, the fact that our blessing records the angels blessing God on two occasions, teaches that this is not a one-time activity, but the entire existence of all angles is unanimously and eternally involved in, and awed by, God’s creation.
How may we answer our last question, why there is no reference to the angels in our evening blessings? If we are careful with our analysis, we will find the answer. What is the distinction between creation, stated in the morning Shima blessing, versus the evening? The morning blessing alone refers to creation, as that which God “made”, or “formed”. In contrast, the evening does not mention these words. Instead, it describes God as “changing” the times (of day), “arranging” the stars, and that He “brings” day and night. The distinction is clear: the morning blessing discusses God’s creation of “objects”, while the evening blessing describes the “behavior”, or rather, the “laws” of creation. We thereby learn that God created two creations: 1) existences, and 2) properties. Therefore, when describing the existences, angels are included, as they form part of the creation. However, as we nothing of “how” angels exist, or what they are, we cannot include them in the evening blessing, as this blessing describes what man may know about creations’ “behavior.” Compare Genesis chapter I to Genesis chapter II, and you will discover this very same distinction.
The next blessing refers to man - another aspect of creation. In this blessing, we do not simply refer to man as a creation, but to his purpose: Torah study and love of God. God desired our good, displayed through His love, by His favoring of the patriarchs, and His gift of the Torah system to Israel. We ask God to imbue us with a love of Torah, and to teach us. And in the evening we again make mention of our previously stated idea, that Torah study must be embraced in all parts of the day: nighttime and daytime. This is properly mentioned in the nighttime blessing, for as we said, it is the night, which carries the danger of man’s emotions overcoming him.
This blessing of God’s love for us by giving us the Torah, and our love for Him and Torah, immediately precedes the Shima’s recital, as the Shima refers to the Torah’s tenets. This blessing is an introduction to Shima.
The next blessing comes after the Shima, and is referred to as “Geula”, or redemption. We describe God’s Exodus, the destruction of Egypt and their firstborns, the parting of the Red Sea, and the triumph at its shores where the Jews unanimously proclaimed God’s great, unmatched salvation. God is our one and only Savior. In the evening version, we add our request that he saves us regularly and the future. We thereby demonstrate our conviction in God’s past salvation, and trust in His future redemption. (Rashi and Tosfos, Brachos 12a) This is based on another verse, “To speak of His kindness in the mornings, and His trust at night.” (Psalms, 92:3) The Hashkivenu blessing continues this theme.
The Talmud states that anyone who does not mention these two versions of the Geula, does not fulfill his requirement of the Shima blessings. Why is this statement reserved for the Geula blessings alone? Perhaps, it is “conviction in God” that demonstrates man’s perfection, where man lives in accord with Torah truths. This is the ultimate goal for man, and without express conviction, man falls short of his perfection, and does not fulfill his Shima blessings.
We conclude, that these blessings are initially generated out of King David’s intense appreciation for the Torah, as is embodied in the Shima. It is this receipt of Torah and our appreciation that demands our additional praises. God created man with the ability to arrive at true knowledge through Torah. This demands our praise. These praises center on praising God in the best possible way: creation is the ultimate expression of God’s greatness, including luminaries, angels and mankind. We enunciate the great gift of Torah and God’s love for us, and our love for God as our purpose. We then culminate in describing our praise for His Egyptian salvation, and our complete trust in His continued providence over Israel.
Not only is Torah what we praise God for, but it is only through Torah, that we merit His salvation, and let it be soon, when the Torah will be fulfilled completely.