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Parashat Va'etchanan 5756


Hear O Israel ("Shema Yisroel"), Hashem is our L-rd, Hashem is One! Love Hashem with all your heart, all your soul and all your wealth...Teach the words of the Torah to your children; speak them while sitting at home and while on the road, when you go to sleep and when you rise.
(Devarim 6:4,5,7) The above verses from this week's Parasha begin the prayer known as "Keriyat Shema". Reading the Keriyat Shema twice daily constitutes a biblical injunction. The Gemara tells us why this particular selection is read as the first of the three selections that comprise the Keriyat Shema:

Said Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korchah: Why is Shema Yisrael read before V'haya Im Shamoa? Because it is necessary to first accept upon ourselves Hashem's sovereignty [by saying "Hear O Israel...] before we accept upon ourselves to fulfill His commandments [in V'haya Im Shamoa]. (Mishnah, Berachot 13a)
The Mishnah makes it clear that the primary emphasis of the verses of Shema Yisrael is that we are accepting upon ourselves Hashem as our King.


However, the Gemara later in Berachot points out what would appear to be an entirely different theme in Shema Yisroel:

Said Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai: It is appropriate to read Shema Yisrael before V'haya Im Shamoa because Shema Yisrael instructs us to learn the Torah ourselves, while V'haya tells us to teach it to others [and one cannot teach the Torah before learning it one's self - Rashi]. (Berachot 14b)
From this it would appear that the keynote of Shema Yisrael is that we must learn the Torah. As the Gemara (ibid.) continues, the two sources do not disagree; Shema Yisrael underscores *both* the theme of accepting Hashem's sovereignty and of learning His Torah.

The Torah-learning theme that Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai attested to is again evident in a statement he himself made elsewhere.

Said Rav Yochanan in the name of R' Shimon bar Yochai: One who reads Shema Yisrael morning and evening has fulfilled the injunction thatt "the words of this Torah shall not move from your mouth (Yehoshua 1:3)". (Menachot 99b)
Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai is telling us that Shema Yisrael not only *bids* us to learn the Torah -- it is a self-fulfilling lesson! The biblical requirement to recite Shema twice daily is not only meant to remind ourselves of our obligation to learn Torah. It is actually starting us on our way, providing us with a minimal amount of Torah study through reading Shema itself. Similarly:
When a child begins to speak, it is incumbent on his father to teach him two verses [in order to begin him in the study of Torah -- Shenot Eliyahu to Berachot 3:3]: "Moshe gave us the Torah, it is the legacy of the Jewish People (Devarim 33:4)": and "Hear O Israel...." (Sukkah 42a)
Shema Yisrael is the archetypal Torah-learning.


The two motifs encapsulated in Shema Yisrael are reflected in the blessings we recite before saying Shema Yisrael in our daily prayers. In the morning, Shema is preceded by two blessings: The first ("Yotzer Or") describes the grandness of the celestial bodies which constantly bear witness to the exalted nature of their Creator. This is a proper blessing for the aspect in Shema Yisrael that emphasizes accepting Hashem's sovereignty -- a lesson that may be learned through reflecting on the heavenly bodies (see Tehillim 19:2; Parasha-Pages for Sukkot and Vayishlach 5756).

In the second blessing ("Ahava Rabba") we beseech Hashem to teach us His Torah. This corresponds to the second aspect of Shema. (The Gemara in fact tells us that this prayer serves not only as a blessing upon the recital of Shema, it serves as a blessing upon Torah learning in general as well (Berachot 11b)). The same two themes repeat themselves in the blessings that precede the evening recital of Shema ("HaMa'ariv Aravim" and "Ahavat Olam").

It may be shown that these two themes are actually one and the same. As the Midrash tells us:

We are told to love Hashem (Devarim 6:5)-- but how does one bring himself to love Him? The verse provides the answer: "The words of the Torah which I command you today shall remain in your hearts...(ibid 6:6)" -- through this, you will come to recognize the Creator and cleave to His ways. (Sifri, Devarim #33, quoted in part by Rashi to Devarim 6:6)
Learning Hashem's Torah is a direct path towards developing a love for Hashem and accepting His sovereignty. When we see the beauty of the Torah's laws and its outlook on life, we appreciate the love that Hashem has bestowed upon us by giving us His Torah and we show our love for Him in return. This is why the pre-Shema blessings on the Torah (Ahava Rabba in the morning and Ahavat Olam at night) both begin with an emphasis on the love that Hashem has shown us.

The Torah learning involved in reciting Shema is poignantly described by the Maharal (16th century Prague):
Pronouncing the words of the Torah alone is not the desired goal. The main goal of learning Torah is understanding what is learnt, and it is normally impossible to *fully* understand any part of the Torah. Reading the Shema however, is different. Although, Shema too, is a selection from the Torah, it is meant to be *read* although it ought to be understood as well, nevertheless, reading it alone is the most important part of the Mitzvah -- which is why we refer to it as "the *recital* of Shema ("Keriyat Shema"). When one enunciates the Shema properly, it is therefore Torah learning of the highest level [i.e., it is comparable to learning any other portion of Torah with the highest level of understanding]! (Maharal in "Netivot Olam", Netiv Ha'Avodah Ch. 9)
One source for Maharal's words is undoubtedly the Gemara's statement (Berachot 10b) that one who reads Shema as required by the Torah is performing a greater Mitzvah than learning Torah. Aren't we told that learning Torah is the greatest of Mitzvot (Pe'ah 1:1) -- how can the Mitzvah of reading the Shema surpass it? It must be that reading the Shema is a higher level of *Torah-learning*!

But why is the reading of Shema unique in this respect? Aren't there other portions of the Torah that must be read on various occasions (such as Viduy Bikkurim, Viduy Ma'asrot, Parashat Zachor, Parashat Sotah and Birchat Kohanim)? Why is it not said about them as well that reading them is reater than Torah-learning, according to the Maharal?

The answer to this question is that each of these selections are read only because the message contained in its text is appropriate to the situation during which it is read -- whether that message is a declaration, reminder, curse or blessing. We are not reading them as "portions of the Torah," but as statements specific to the circumstances with which they are dealing.

The reading of Shema, however, is different. Since the nature of its message is, as we have explained, "Learn Torah!" its very *reading* is meant as a Torah-learning experience as well. This is why simply *reading* the words of Shema can be considered a fulfillment of the biblical injunction to *learn* Torah!

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