The Shema and its Blessings

Listen Yisrael Hashem is our G-d. Hashem is one. (Sefer Devarim 6:4)

1. The commandment of Keriyat Shema
The standard morning and evening prayer service is composed of two fundamental components. The first of these components is Keriyat Shema. Keriyat Shema – the reading of the Shema – is the reading of three specific paragraphs selected from the Torah. The second component is the recitation of the Amidah. The Amidah is composed of a series of blessings. The weekday version consists of nineteen blessings. These blessings collectively include praise, petition, and thanksgiving. According to Maimonides, these components are commanded by the Torah.[1],[2] The other components of the service were developed and established by the Sages.

Maimonides rules that all three of the paragraphs recited in Keriyat Shema are ordained by the Torah.[3] Other authorities differ. Some argue that performance of the mitzvah of Keriyat Shema, on a Torah level, is accomplished through reading the first paragraph.[4],[5] Some argue that the Torah level obligation is fulfilled by reading the very first passage of the first paragraph.[6] The above quotation is that passage.

2. The first component of the Shema’s first passage
The passage begins with an instruction. We are commanded to be attentive to the passage’s contents. It continues with two declarations:
• Hashem is our G-d.
• Hashem is one.

The first issue that arises in considering this passage and its components is the purpose of the introductory instruction. We are told to be attentive. Why is this instruction required in advance of the passage’s declarations?

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that the intent of the passage is that we are to carefully consider and contemplate the coming declarations.[7] In other words, the instruction forewarns us that the coming declarations are not to be regarded as simple, easily grasped and absorbed concepts. We are commanded to carefully contemplate the meaning of the declarations and thoroughly consider their implications.

3. The second component of the Shema’s first passage
The second component of the passage is the declaration that Hashem is our G-d. This declaration is puzzling. Its content is obvious. What is Hashem if not our G-d? Sforno asserts that this declaration includes two ideas. The first idea is communicated by the name Hashem. This name communicates the idea that Hashem is the source of all that exists. Every element of the material and non-material universe requires a cause to come into existence and its existence is sustained by a cause external to itself. Hashem is this cause. Second, because He is the ultimate cause of all existence, He is exalted above all creation. He is the ultimate determinant of our destinies. Therefore, only He is worthy of our devotion. Our petitions should be directed to Him alone. Included in this idea is acknowledgment that it is inappropriate to employ an intermediary to deliver our petitions to Hashem. Therefore, appealing to an angel or any other creation to deliver our prayers to Hashem is inappropriate.[8],[9]

4. The third component of the Shema’s first passage
The third component of the passage is the declaration that Hashem is one. According to Maimonides, this important declaration is an acknowledgment a fundamental doctrine of the Torah – Hashem’s unity. This means that Hashem is not composed of components; He does not have characteristics, qualities, or aspects. He is an absolute unity, a pure indefinable and incomprehensible essence. [10]

Sfrono suggests an alternative explanation of the declaration. He interprets the declaration as an acknowledgment of Hashem’s uniqueness. Hashem created the universe and all that exists therein ex-nihilo. Consequently, His existence is different or more fundamental than the existence of all elements of the created universe.[11]

The substance of this idea is not very different from the first idea in the prior declaration. However, the context is very different. When declaring that Hashem is G-d, we focus on our relationship with Him. We recognize that, as Creator, His dominion and awareness extends to and penetrates the entire universe. Our acknowledgment of Hashem’s uniqueness is an expression of praise and awe.

And you should love Hashem with all your heart, all your soul, and all your possessions. (Sefer Devarim 6:5)

5. Knowing Hashem loving Him and studying His Torah
The next passage of the first paragraph of the Shema directs us to love Hashem. We are commanded to love Hashem with our heart and soul and to place our adoration of Hashem before our most prized possessions. The paragraph continues with a statement of our obligation to study Hashem’s Torah and to maintain an ongoing awareness of the Torah.

In its entirety the paragraph contains three themes. It opens with two declarations regarding Hashem. It declares that He alone is worthy of petition. It then asserts that His existence is completely unique. The paragraph continues with the commandment to love Hashem. It concludes with the commandment to study His Torah and to maintain a constant state of awareness of its precepts and lessons. How are these messages related?

Sforno suggests an interesting relationship between the first two passages. He interprets the second passage’s instruction to love Hashem to mean that we should serve Hashem as an expression of love. In other words, our devotion to Hashem should be an expression of an awareness of His unique, exalted place within the universe. This is an expression of the concept developed by the Mishne in Tractate Avot. The Mishe explains that we should not serve Hashem for the purpose of securing His favor and rewards. Instead, our service should express our recognition of infinite grandeur and majesty.[12]

Maimonides, in his discussion of our obligation to love Hashem, explains that this love is achieved through contemplation of Hashem’s creations and the infinite wisdom expressed in His works.[13] In other words, Hashem reveals Himself to humanity through His creations – His Torah and the universe He fashioned and sustained. We know Hashem and draw close to Him through contemplation of the wisdom revealed through His creations.

According to Maimonides, we can identify an alternative connection between the first two passages of the Shema. The first passage is a declaration of Hashem’s unique nature and existence. We are enjoined to carefully consider and contemplate the meaning of these declarations. The next passage discusses the commandment to love Hashem. Our careful, extensive contemplation of the ideas in the first passage should illicit the love described in the second passage.

The balance of the paragraph is composed of the mitzvah to study the Torah and the requirement to maintain an ongoing awareness of its precepts. Rashi discusses the connection between this final theme and the material that precedes it. However, his intent in his comments is not completely clear. One interpretation is that according to Rashi, the study of the Torah and devotion to its precepts express our love of Hashem. We acknowledge Him and seek to walk in His ways as they are described by and embodied in the Torah and its precepts. Siftai Chachamim suggests that Rashi is not identifying Torah study and observance as an expression of love of Hashem. Instead Rashi is asserting that Torah study and devotion to its precepts are means of achieving this love.[14],[15]

Blessed are you Hashem Who formed light and created darkness, Who makes peace and creates all. (Morning service, Blessings accompanying the Shema)

6. The first blessing of Keriyat Shema
The recitation of the Shema in the morning is accompanied by three blessings. Two of these blessings are recited before the recitation of the Shema and the third follows its recitation. These blessings are an elaboration of the content of the three paragraphs of the Shema. The first of these blessings is the most enigmatic of the three. It begins with recognition of Hashem as the Creator. The blessing declares that Hashem renews the creation continuously. This segues into acknowledgment of the immense wisdom revealed in the various aspects of the created universe. Creation testifies to Hashem’s greatness. All creatures and every element of creation, through the wonder of their very existence, gives praise to their exalted creator. Next the blessing describes the ministering angels praising Hashem. The blessing concludes by stating that He alone is the source of all salvation.

Viewed superficially the blessing seems to lack cohesion and continuity. However, when understood as an elaboration of the ideas that are more briefly stated in the first paragraph of the Shema, the meaning and intent of the blessing emerges.

Sforno understands the first passage of the Shema as communicating the following ideas:
• Hashem is the cause of all that exists. He created and sustains all existence.
• Because He is exalted over all of creation, Hashem alone is worthy of our devotion, worship, and prayer. Our petitions are to be directed to him alone. He alone has ultimate control over our destinies. We do not pray to any intermediary.
• Hashem’s existence is unique and He is exalted over all of creation.

The first of these ideas is expressed clearly and concisely in the first component of the blessing. The blessing’s first component focuses on the relationship between Hashem and the universe. He is its creator and His will sustains it every moment.

The blessing then declares that Hashem’s wisdom is revealed in creation. All creation gives praise to Hashem. He is exalted above all His creations. The angels embody the cognizance of Hashem’s majesty that we strive to emulate. Their awareness moves them to glorify Him with their praise. This material focuses on Hashem’s exalted nature and existence and His majesty and dominion over all creation. It is an elaboration upon the second and final idea that Sforno identifies in the passage.

Finally, the blessing declares that only Hashem is source of salvation. This corresponds with the idea expressed in the Shema – only Hashem is worthy of receiving our prayers and petitions.

1. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Keriyat Shema 1:1; Hilchot Tefilah 1:1.

2. According to Maimonides, the Torah requires daily prayer. However, the Torah does not establish a precise formulation of this prayer or a standard for how many times in the course of a day a person should pray. The Sages formulated the text of the prayers and a standard of frequency. The recitation of the Amidah three times daily fulfills the Torah commandment and conforms to the requirement established by the Sages.

3. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Keriyat Shema 1:2.

4. It should be noted that the status of the final paragraph is complicated by a second consideration. According to Maimonides, this paragraph is read in order to fulfill the mitzvah of Keriyat Shema as ordained by the Torah. Others argue that although the reading of this paragraph is required by the Torah, it is not part of the mitzvah of Keriyat Shema. Instead, this last paragraph is read in order to fulfill a different commandment – the daily or twice-daily requirement of recalling our redemption from Egypt.

5. This position is attributed to Rashi. See Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Berachot 1a.

6. Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 420.

7. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim, 6:4.

8. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim, 6:4.

9. There are a few instances in the standard liturgy in which petitions are directed to intermediaries. No doubt Sforno would excise these petitions from the liturgy as have many contemporary authorities.

10. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 1:7.

11. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim, 6:4.

12. Mesechet Avot 1:3.

13. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 2:1.

14. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 6:6.

15. Although it is unclear whether this is actually Rashi’s intention in his comments, this position is clearly stated by Chizkuni as his understanding of the relationship between the second and third passages.

16. The following table summarizes the correspondence between this blessing and the content of the first paragraph of the Shema. The text of the blessing used in the table corresponds with the Ashkenazic tradition. Variations between the Ashkenazic and Shepardic tradition are minor and not relevant to this discussion.