When Yaakov and Yosef finally meet after decades of separation and uncertainty, Yosef embraces his father and weeps – but it seems that Yaakov doesn’t return this gesture! (Bereshit 46:29.) Rashi explains that Yaakov was reciting “Shema”.
This thought-provoking Midrash may make us reconsider Yaakov Avinu’s relationship towards his son, but it also serves as the basis of a purely halakhic discussion, as we will now explain:
The Mishna tells us that in the middle of Kriat Shema and its blessings we may “greet someone out of awe, and return a greeting out of respect”; whereas if we are in between sections we may even “greet out of respect, and reply to anyone” (Berakhot 13a). The only exception is in the middle of the “Shema” verse itself and“barukh shem kevod”. Then we may interrupt only in case of clear and present danger.
The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayim 66) explains that we are in awe of our father or Rabbi, or any great Torah scholar, and we also fear (in a different way) a king or other powerful figure.
The Taz (66:1) asks: Since Kriat Shema may be interrupted to greet a king, why didn’t Yaakov interrupt his recitation of Shema to embrace his son? After all, Yosef was like a king in Egypt. The Taz answers that Yaakov was still reciting the first verse of Shema.
It is easy to understand why we may not interrupt the first verse of Kriat Shema – after all, saying this verse constitutes the focus of our acceptance of the Yoke of God’s kingdom. It is more remarkable that we may interrupt the following paragraphs – after all, the entire Kriat Shema is kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim.
This surprising permission is derived in the Yerushalmi from the words of the first paragraph of the Shema itself. The phrase “vedibarta bam” – “and you shall speak of them [the words of the Shema]” is rendered “and you shall speak in them”, in other words, in the middle of the Shema! (End of Berakhot 2:1)
Their is an important lesson in this halakha. Our primary, fundamental acceptance of God’s sovereignty needs to be completely unconditional (no interruptions in the first verse – perhaps Yaakov Avinu wanted to emphasize this lesson to Yosef). However, this acceptance needs to be expressed in a way that respects and leavesroom for ordinary human interaction – even when this relates to human weakness like the need for honor or the fear of a powerful figure (permissible interruptions in the following paragraphs.)
Another halakha of Kriat Shema bears a similar message. The gemara (Berakhot 9b) suggests several criteria for deciding when the time of Kriat Shema begins; the one that is finally adopted, and which is mentioned in the Shulchan Arukh (OC 58:1) is “when he can see and recognize his friend from four paces.”
Figuratively, this seems to suggest that if a person is so benighted that he is not sensitive to his fellow man – even to his friend who is right next to him – he is not yet at the stage where he is ready to accept the yoke of HaShem’s kingdom. “Derekh eretz kadma laTorah” – thoughtful conduct precedes Torah.
Rabbi Asher Meir is in the process of writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha. Rabbi Meir – who has given a series on Business Halacha at the Center, as well as three sessions of Meaning in Mitzvot – the Shiur. He will, IY”H, be continuingthe series on a regular basis. See back page for details.