In his farewell addresses, Moshe teaches the people of Israel to declare their faith and loyalty to Hashem:
Hear, O Israel (SHEMA YISRAEL)! Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One. And you shall love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. And you shall inculcate them in your children, and you shall speak them (V’DIBBARTA BAM), whether you sit in your home or you walk on your way, and when you lie down and when you arise (U’V’SHOCHBECHA U’V’KUMECHA) (Devarim 6:4-7).
This, of course, is the beginning of the quintessential statement of Hashem’s Oneness and of Israel’s love and duties to Him known as the “Reading of (keriat) Shema”.
According to Rambam (Book of the Commandments, Positive Commandment 10), there is a positive commandment to recite the Shema every day, both in the morning and at night, based on and you shall speak them (V’DIBBARTA BAM) … and when you lie down and when you arise (U’V’SHOCHBECHA U’V’KUMECHA). [Sefer HaChinuch (ascribed to either R. Aharon HaLevi or R. Pinchas HaLevi of Barcelona, mid-13th Century) agrees with this (§ 420), although he cites the view of Ramban, that the morning Shema and the nighttime Shema are counted as two mitzvot.] Through keriat Shema, one affirms his commitment to Hashem’s Sovereignty (kabbalat ol Malchut Shamayim, accepting the yoke of Heaven).
We would like to examine a law related to reciting keriat Shema in public that should shed light on its meaning and goal.
Halachot Gedolot (a work compiled during the period of the Gaonim, possibly by R. Shimon Kayyara, 8th Century) teaches that if an individual has already fulfilled his obligation to read Shema, and then enters a synagogue when the congregation is reading Shema, then he should read the first verse together with them. Rosh (Rabbenu Asher ben Yechiel, c. 1250-1327) in Berachot (Ch. 14) quotes this ruling as authoritative. Arbah urim (R. Yaakov ben Asher, c. 1270-1340) and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim (65:2,3) rule likewise; GRA (R. Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, 1720- 797) says one should read the entire Shema. The reason for requiring the individual to join the community in keriat Shema is “so that he should not appear as though he does not want to accept the yoke of Heaven with his comrades.”
The source for this law in Halachot Gedolot is the Mishnah (Berachot 20b) that discusses a ba’al keri, one who has had a nocturnal emission. Ezra decreed that a ba’al keri does not read Shema out loud, but rather meditates on it. (It is important to point out that this decree of Ezra eventually became void [Berachot 22a]. Nevertheless, certain important halachic principles can be derived from it.) The reason why the ba’al keri still meditates is “So it will not occur that the whole world is occupied with it, while he sits idle”: If the community collectively “accepts the yoke of Heaven” by reading Shema, then even though he is prevented from saying it, he may not exclude himself from it entirely. The same would apply, reasons Halachot Gedolot, to one who does not need to fulfill his personal requirement to read Shema.
Many authorities, such as SHeLaH (Shenei Luchot HaBrit, written by R. Isaiah ben Avraham HaLevi, c. 1565-1630), extend the requirement to also join in other prayers said by the congregation, “for this is courtesy (derech eretz)”: This would include Ashrei and Aleinu.
But aside from derech eretz, there is clearly a special significance to a communal kabbalat ol Malchut Shamayim, such that creates the impetus for one to join in. Terumat Ha’deshen (R. Yisrael Isserlein, 1390-1460; Ch. 3) says that one may not interrupt his prayer – in those sections of the service where interruption is prohibited – to join the congregation in Shema.
Instead, he should chanthis prayer in the melody of the Shema, so as not to even give the impression that he is excluding himself! Bayit Chadash (BaCH, R. Yoel Sirkes, 1561-1640), however, argues that one should interrupt his prayer: “Should not this insertion be permitted, so as to accept upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven with the community, and they will thus proclaim the Name of Heaven as King together with one voice?!”
Perhaps we can find the uniqueness of communal Shema in the Shema itself. First, the verse states Hear, O Israel (SHEMA YISRAEL)! Cannot this be the congregation of Israel calling one to another to proclaim Hashem’s Oneness?
Furthermore, Ramban notes that, throughout the book of Devarim, only here does Moshe include himself (Hashem is our G-d); usually he addresses Israel in the second person (“your G-d”; see 7:12, 8:2, 6, 7, 10, 14, 18-20, etc.). Maor VaShemesh (R. Kalonymus Kalman ben-R. Aharon Epstein of Cracow, d. 1823) explains that Moshe wants to join with Israel in accepting the yoke of Heaven. It is a powerful moment when Israel does so as a people.
And the strength of our nationwide kabbalat ol Malchut Shamayim radiates beyond the Jewish people alone. As the harbinger of monotheism to humanity, we can only hope that this message will spread, as Rashi expounds (6:4):
“Hear, O Israel (SHEMA YISRAEL) — Hashem Who is our G-d now, but not the G-d of the [other] nations, He will in the future be Hashem is One, as it says, For then will I change the nations to a clear language, for all of them to call upon the Name of Hashem (Tzefania 3:9). And it says, On that day will Hashem be One and His Name One (Zecharia 14:9).”