09 – The Laws of Reciting Shema

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A person must recite Shema with great kavanah, fear, awe, and trembling, and concentrate in his heart that he is now proclaiming the sovereignty of the King, Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Even though Shema is recited every day in Shacharit and Maariv, one must try hard to concentrate on the meaning of the words, as if they were new to him (Shulchan Aruch 61:1-2).

In addition to kavanah, the person saying Shema must pronounce the letters precisely, being careful not to swallow any letter nor to emphasize the soft sounds, or weaken the strong ones. Therefore, l’chatchilah, one should make a distinction in sound when pronouncing an alef and an ayin, a chaf and a chet, a kamatz and a patach, a tzeirei and a segol (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 61:14-23). The Chachamim say, “One who recites Shema and is careful to pronounce its letters exactly, Gehinnom is cooled down for him” (Berachot 15b). B’dieved, if he did not recite the Shema meticulously, he nevertheless fulfilled his obligation provided that he did not miss a word or a full syllable of a word (Shulchan Aruch 62:1; Mishnah Berurah 1).

A person’s ears must hear what is coming out of his mouth. B’dieved, if he read the words only with his lips but did not hear what he was saying, since he mouthed the words, he fulfilled his obligation. However, regarding one who only recited Shema in his mind, since he did not mouth the words, he did not fulfill his obligation (Shulchan Aruch 62:3; and see earlier in this book 1:9).[6]

In principle, though it is proper to recite Shema and the Amidah in Hebrew, if a person recited Shema and prayed the Amidah in a different language, he fulfilled his obligation, provided that he understands that language (see earlier in this book 1:10). However, a few of the major Acharonim write that today we cannot fulfill the obligation of Keriat Shema by reciting it in a different language because there are words that we do not know how to translate accurately. For example, the Hebrew word “v’shinantam” means both learning (shinun) and sharpening (chidud). There is no such single word in other languages. Hence, since the Shema cannot be translated exactly, it may not be recited in a different language (Mishnah Berurah 62:3).[7]


[6].Talmidei Rabbi Yonah maintain that it is proper to recite Shema with cantillation signs and there are those who are accustomed to enhancing the mitzvah in that way (Shulchan Aruch 61:24). Others say that since kavanah is of principal importance, if someone finds that reciting Shema with cantillation signs disrupts his concentration, it is better that he recite Shema without them (Rama; Mishnah Berurah 61:38).

The Mishnah Berurah 61:40 writes that, according to the majority of poskim, a person can fulfill his obligation of Keriat Shema by hearing another person recite it. In the opinion of the Aruch HaShulchan 62:8, one can fulfill his obligation by hearing Shema on condition that a minyan is present. (There is disagreement as to whether the person fulfilling his obligation by hearing the Shema is required to understand the whole paragraph. See Mishnah Berurah and Ishei Yisrael 20:26.)

[7].This is problematic, for translations are never precisely like the original and if Chazal say that one who recites Shema in any language fulfilled his obligation, it can then be understood that it is unnecessary for the translation to be perfectly accurate. The Aruch HaShulchan 62:4 explains that, indeed, during the time of the Mishnah and Talmud, they completely understood the Hebrew language. However, today, we have doubts regarding the meaning of some words, and therefore we cannot translate perfectly. The Aruch HaShulchan continues by giving some examples of uncertainties and concludes, “Therefore at this time, it is forbidden to recite the Shema, the prayers, and all the berachot in any language other than the holy tongue. And that is what the prominent learned scholars taught for approximately eighty years.” Still, this remains problematic, for were there no doubts regarding language prior to that time? If so, why did they not teach then that one may not fulfill his obligation with a translation? Maybe this question was not very common and therefore it was not written down. Or perhaps it is possible to say that nowadays (especially after the invention of the printing press) we are more meticulous concerning the precise meaning of the words, and as a result doubts have increased. Hence, regarding our translations today, there is no precision, and therefore one may not fulfill his obligation with them. However, when people were not so meticulous in translating the external meaning of the word, but rather focused on the idea that could be understood from the context, the translation was thought to be exact. As a rule, even today, the Makor Chayim 62:2 writes that a ger tzedek (righteous convert) who does not read or understand Hebrew may recite Shema in translation.

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