מאימתי קורין את שמע בערבית

When (lit. “From what time”) do we say the Shema in the evening? [1]

Years ago, I bought an edition of the Talmudic tractate “Berachot.” I eagerly opened it to see what the Talmud would say about Jewish spirituality. My first reaction? Dismay! Was the acme of Jewish spirituality simply the rote saying of the Shema? Over time, I came to think differently.

The Mishnah — therefore the Talmud —  begins with the above question. It opens tractate “Berachot,” the first tractate, in “Zera’im” (“Seeds”), the first of the six divisions, or “orders,” of the Mishnah/Talmud. The Mishnah, which had been transmitted orally, was edited by (or at the direction of) Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi in about 200 CE. With the later addition of its commentary, the Gemorah) it’s the “user’s manual,” as it were, for Torah; the guide to applying Torah in everyday life. We must therefore assume that Rabbi Yehudah had some very good reason for specifying the above question as the starting place of Jewish learning.

First, we should consider that the “Shema” is not actually a “prayer.” Not a petitionary prayer, anyway. Properly understood, the Shema is a “meditation” (in the “literary” sense). [2] When we say it, we’re not talking to G-d; we’re listening to G-d tell us things we should — must — think about: there’s only one G-d, in Whose Presence and Influence we’re always living; we should love G-d; etc. It’s not just a “list” we recite. We’re supposed to actually think about those things! “Shema! Hear!”

It’s also useful to know that originally, the “Shema” was not said by the general public at all. Instead, it was said by the kohanim — the priests — before they performed the daily burnt offering, in order to perform the sacrifice(s) in the correct frame of mind. Of course, the Shema doesn’t formally appear in Torah, although its assorted verses come from there. We can assume that it was a brief selection that developed over time for the devotional needs of the kohanim in the Temple. Transferred to Jewish liturgy, it’s still meant to re-orient our attention from the mundane to the Divine, and to remind us of our ideal relationship with that Presence.

Why begin with “the evening?” Why not tell us we should say the Shema as soon as we get out of bed in the morning (as the Talmud does elsewhere with the “Birchat ha-Shachar” — the morning blessings)? Because the “Jewish day” begins at sundown. Thus, speaking of what should be done “in the evening” is, functionally, speaking of what should be done at the beginning of the day! I might add here that it “prepares” us for the next day, too.

Saying the Shema, we affirm that one G-d is creating everything continually and is always in command of the things created. We can’t say this sincerely until we have personally wrestled with its implications. There isn’t a god of the sea, separate and distinct from a god of wind, or a god of good luck, etc. All the powers, and more, that polytheistic traditions ascribe to various gods are included in the Divine power of G-d.

We might wrongly think this is cause for fear. Instead, we say (silently, except on Yom Kippur): “Baruch Shem K’vod…” — “Bless the Name of His Kingship…”

In the three subsequent paragraphs, we’re told to love G-d; to be aware that our actions always have consequences; and to remember the specific directions we’ve been given and to comply with them.

This, Rabbi Yehudah tells us, is the foundation of daily Jewish life.

It’s interesting that for children, Torah (or chumash) education traditionally began with “Va’yikra” — “Leviticus” — dealing with mitzvot of the daily sacrifices. Torah itself, of course, begins with G-d’s Creation of everything. Talmud study began with the 2nd chapter of tractate “Bava Metzia” (part of seder “Nezikin”), dealing with the laws of returning lost objects.

Yet, despite the various “beginnings” that evolved historically, Rabbi Yehudah wants us to know that the Shema is not only the starting place of Jewish learning. It’s the starting place of Jewish life.

Our spiritual life is based on and maintained by our continual awareness and affirmation of G-d’s Presence and Goodness.

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[1] Berachot 1a

[2] “Meditation: A discourse intended to express its author’s reflections or to guide others in contemplation.”
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/meditation