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12 – 248 Words

The Torah provides life and healing to the world and to mankind. This is especially true concerning Keriat Shema, in which the fundamentals of faith and the fulfillment of the mitzvot are included. The Chachamim teach that Shema is comprised of 248 words and that in a person’s body there are 248 organs. When a person recites Shema properly, each and every organ is healed by the word corresponding to it. However, in the three paragraphs of Shema there are actually 245 words, and in order to total 248, the chazan repeats the last three words, “Hashem Elokeichem emet” (“Hashem, your God, is true”), thereby completing the count to 248 (Zohar Chadash Ruth 95:1).

A person who prays individually is missing the last three words. There are a few minhagim concerning their completion. According to the Ashkenazic minhag, before Shema a person says, “Kel Melech Ne’eman” (“Almighty faithful King”). According to the Shulchan Aruch, one should have specific kavanah while pronouncing the first fifteen “vavs” in the opening words of Birkat Emet V’Yatziv (“V’Yatziv, V’Nachon, V’Kayam, V’Yashar, etc.…”) because they allude to three names of Hashem and are a substitute for the three missing words (Shulchan Aruch and Rama 61:3).

It is the minhag of most Sephardim that a person praying individually should complete the three missing words on his own and repeat “Hashem Elokeichem emet,” instead of the chazan. Although an individual’s repetition of these words is clearly less important than the chazan’s reiteration, nevertheless, there is a certain substitution in it. Additionally, a person who finishes reciting Shema after the chazan concludes “Hashem Elokeichem emet” should repeat those last words so as to complete the three missing words (Kaf HaChaim 61: 15-16).[10]

[10]. The Acharonim are divided. According to the MahariAyash, Sha’areiTeshuvah, and many others, because he heard the chazan say “HashemElokeichememet,” even though he did not finish saying Shema, those three words are considered part of the 248 words. That is the Ashkenazic minhag and the minhag of a few Sephardim (as is clarified in Sha’areiTefillah). However, the KafHaChaim 16 writes, based on Kavanot HaAri, that the recital of the three words must be in order. Therefore, if he heard the chazan say them before he concluded his recital of Shema, he repeats individually “HashemElokeichememet.”There is also a difference of minhag regarding how the chazan (and according to the Kaf HaChaim also an individual praying) should complete these words, for if he says, “Hashem Elokeichem emet” twice, he will have recited 249 words. Asarah Ma’amarot and the Gra maintain that when the chazan finishes reciting Shema he should only say “Hashem Elokeichem” and afterwards go back and say “Hashem Elokeichem emet.” The Shulchan Aruch and the Pri Megadim write that the chazan should also say “emet” the first time so as not to interrupt between “Elokeichem” and “emet” and that one of them is not considered part of the 248 because it belongs to the berachahEmet V’Yatziv.” That is how Ashkenazim practice. It is the custom of the Sephardim that at the conclusion of the Shema the chazan says out loud “Hashem Elokeichem” and the congregation completes the words and says after him “emet.” At the same time, the chazan says “emet” quietly. Afterwards the chazan repeats the words “Hashem Elokeichem emet” out loud (Kaf HaChaim 61:12).

According to the Chesed La’alafim, it is the Sephardic custom that the congregation only says “emet” out loud after the chazan when they finish together with the chazan. However, if they finish before him, they say “emet” individually so as not to pause between “Elokeichem” and “emet” and they should not repeat the word “emet” after the chazan recites it. According to the Kaf HaChaim 61:12, when they finish individually, they do not say “emet,” but rather wait until the chazan finishes and answer after him “emet.”

In Ma’ariv, a person who did not hear the chazan, according to the Kaf HaChaim, should individually complete the words Hashem Elokeichem emet.” The Ashkenazic minhag is either to say “Kel Melech Ne’eman” before the recital of Shema or, while saying “emet,” to have in mind that it represents the three names of Hashem (Mishnah Berurah 12). Ma’amar Mordechai writes that it is not necessary to complete 248 words in Ma’ariv, since the ruling in the Gemara is that there is no requirement to say the Vayomer paragraph at night.

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Editor: Nechama Unterman