15 – Keriat Shema

01 – The Mitzvah of Keriat Shema (The Recital of Shema)

It is a positive biblical commandment to recite Shema at night and in the morning, as it is written (Deuteronomy 6:7), “And you shall say them… when you lie down and when you get up.” “When you lie down” denotes nighttime, and “when you get up” refers to morning.

We read three paragraphs, the first: “Shema Yisrael” (“Hear O Israel”) (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), with which we accept the yoke of Heaven, and which discusses the unity and love of Hashem. The second is “V’hayah Im Shamo’a” (“And if you follow”) (Deuteronomy 11:13-21), which includes the acceptance of the yoke of the mitzvot. The third is “Vayomer” (“And He said”) (Numbers 15:37-41), including a command to remember the mitzvot through the commandment of tzitzit, and mention of the Exodus from Egypt.

The Chachamim arranged the Shema paragraph to precede V’hayah Im Shamo’a so that a person will first accept the yoke of Heaven, and only afterwards accept the yoke of the mitzvot. They also placed V’hayah Im Shamo’a which involves a general mandate to keep all the mitzvot, including those performed during both day and night, before the Vayomer paragraph, which discusses the mitzvah of tzitzit, performed only during the day (Berachot 13a).

In the opinion of some Rishonim, the biblical commandment is just to recite the verse “Shema Yisrael.” According to them, this is the meaning of (Deuteronomy 6:6-7), “These words I am commanding you today must be in your heart…when you lie down and when you get up.” However, the Chachamim instituted reciting the entire three paragraphs.

It can be explained, that the essence of the mitzvah of Keriat Shema is indeed that a person accepts upon himself the yoke of Heaven, and for that reason, even one who only recites the first verse fulfills the biblical commandment. Yet, the more a person enhances his acceptance of the yoke of Heaven, the more completely he fulfills the biblical commandment. Therefore, the Chachamim instituted the recital of all three paragraphs, for within them are the fundamentals of faith, the acceptance of the yoke of the mitzvot, and the remembrance of all the mitzvot through the mitzvah of tzitzit. Hence, in actuality, we fulfill the biblical mitzvah by reciting all three paragraphs.[1]


[1]. The question is to what the command, “Speak of them…when you lie down and when you get up,” applies. According to the Ramban, Ra’ah, Rashba, Ritva, Meiri, Rashbatz, Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid, and Beit Yosef 46:9, it applies only to the first verse. This is implied in the Shulchan Aruch 63:4, who writes only concerning the first verse, that if a person did not have kavanah, he does not fulfill his obligation. In the opinion of Talmidei Rabbi Yonah and the Yere’im, the biblical mitzvah applies to the whole first paragraph. However, the words in V’hayah Im Shamo’a, “Speak of them…when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 11:19), refer to the mitzvah of learning Torah during the day and at night. The Pri Chadash 67 maintains that the biblical mitzvah is the recital of both the first two paragraphs. See Yabia Omer 8:6:4. Also see Aruch HaShulchan 58:15, who infers from a few Rishonim that it is a biblical commandment to recite all three paragraphs. The Mabit explains in Kiryat Sefer that like in the mitzvah of learning Torah, a person who learned one verse already fulfilled the mitzvah, but the more he learns, the more he fulfills the mitzvah, so it is regarding the recital of Shema. There is a similar explanation in Yad Peshutah in his introduction to Hilchot Keriat Shema.

02 – Remembering the Exodus

It is a biblical commandment to remember the Exodus every day, as it says (Deuteronomy 16:3), “Therefore you will remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life.” The Chachamim learn from the word “all” (kol) that the mitzvah to remember the Exodus is performed both during the day and at night (Berachot 12b). This mitzvah can be fulfilled by reciting any verse that discusses leaving Egypt, or by mentioning the Exodus in one’s own words.

The Chachamim instituted reciting the Vayomer paragraph in order to fulfill the mitzvah of remembering the Exodus from Egypt. Therefore, there are two reasons why Vayomer was incorporated into the recital of the Shema. First, it mentions the mitzvah of tzitzit that reminds us of all the mitzvot. Second, it talks about the Exodus from Egypt. It is therefore customary to say Vayomer even at night, for although there is no need to mention the mitzvah of tzitzit then, we say it to remember the Exodus (see Berachot 14b, and Kesef Mishneh, Hilchot Keriat Shema, chapter 1: 2-3).

There is a difference between the mitzvah of Keriat Shema and the mitzvah of remembering the Exodus from Egypt. The mitzvah of Keriat Shema can only be fulfilled within the first three hours of the day because that is the time we wake up, whereas the daytime mitzvah of remembering the Exodus can be performed throughout the entire day. However, following the enactment of the Chachamim, we fulfill the mitzvah of remembering the Exodus with the recital of Shema, and if the time to say Shema has passed, a person can remember the Exodus from Egypt by reciting the berachah of “Emet V’Yatziv.” If four hours have passed, one may fulfill the mitzvah by saying the Vayomer paragraph or by remembering the Exodus in another way (Mishnah Berurah 58:27, 67:3; see earlier in this book 11:11; and see the laws of Ma’ariv, further in this book chapter 25, end of note 3).

03 – The Content of the Shema Paragraph

The Shema paragraph (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) consists of three sections: 1) the foundation of faith, 2) the meaning of this foundation in our lives, and 3) instructions on how to instill faith into our lives.

1) From the first verse, “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One,” we learn the foundation of the unifying belief of Israel, that Hashem Blessed Be He is the Master of everything, and there is no force in this world other than He. Even though it may seem to us that there are other distinct powers, separate from one another, Hashem, Who is One, sustains all life, and there is no one else.

2) The significance of this belief in our lives is that there is no other value in this world aside from the devotion to Hashem Blessed Be He. Hence, “Love Hashem your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” The Chachamim (Berachot 54a) interpret these words: “With all your heart” – with both your inclinations: your good inclination (yetzer hatov) and your evil inclination (yetzer hara), – because one’s evil inclination must also be controlled to serve Hashem, whether by force or by transforming it into good. “And with all your soul” – even if it takes your life, for a person must be ready to give his life for his belief in Hashem. “And with all your might” – with all your resources; even a person’s money should serve as a basis and a means to serve Hashem, so that if it were demanded of a Jew to violate his religion or lose all his wealth, he would forfeit his money rather than defy his belief. Additionally, they interpret, “With all your might” – for each and every measure that Hashem bestows upon you, be grateful to Him very very much.”

3) In the third section, the Torah instructs us regarding how to instill these foundations of belief in ourselves. First, “Put these words that I am commanding you today into your heart” and additionally, “Teach them to your sons.” Even after a person learns the basic tenets of faith very well, if he does not repeat them to himself every day, life’s dealings and worries can cause him to forget them. Therefore we are commanded, “And say them when you sit in your house, when you walk on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up.” From this we learn the obligation to recite Shema both in the morning and at night. Nevertheless, the Torah does not suffice with its recital alone, but rather adds the commandment to place these paragraphs of belief into our tefillin and to bind them on our arms and heads, as it is written, “And you shall bind them as a sign on your arm and they should be as frontlets between your eyes.” We are also commanded to fix them firmly in the mezuzot on our doorposts, as it is written, “And write them on your doorposts of your houses and your gates.” This is so that every time we enter and exit our houses, we look at the mezuzah and are reminded again of the foundations of Israel’s faith. Thus, the paragraph that discusses belief and the oneness of the Creator constantly guides us, in our hearts with Keriat Shema, on our bodies through tefillin, and on our property, meaning our houses, via the mezuzah.

04 – The Second and Third Paragraphs

In the second paragraph, “V’hayah Im Shamo’a” (Deuteronomy 11:13-21), we learn about the value of the mitzvot, the reward for those who fulfill them, and the punishment for those who transgress them. If we love Hashem, serve Him with all our hearts, and fulfill all His mitzvot, we will be worthy of His blessing. The land will bring forth its crops, and we will live long lives, we and our children, on the land that Hashem promised to give to our ancestors and to us. However, if we, God forbid, stray from the path, Hashem will be angry with us, the ground will not yield its produce, and we will be exiled from upon the good land. We are then told to put tefillin on our arms and heads, and to post mezuzot on the entrances to our houses, thereby commanding us to deeply internalize these fundamentals of our faith not only by reciting Shema but by fulfilling other mitzvot as well. In the first paragraph, the emphasis is on our appeal towards the heavens, by dedicating all our powers to serving Him. In the second paragraph, the emphasis is on revealing Hashem’s autonomous rule in the world. The fulfillment of the mitzvot is an expression of the revelation of Hashem’s will in this world. Reward and punishment also confirm His supervision over this world.

In the third paragraph, “Vayomer” (Numbers 15:37-41), the mitzvah of tzitzit is elucidated. This commandment possesses special merit, for tzitzit have the power to remind us of all the mitzvot and to inspire us to fulfill them, as it says, “And you shall remember all of Hashem’s mitzvot and you shall perform them.” As an indication of that, the mitzvah of tzitzit can only be performed during the day and not at night because the day reminds us of the clear revelation of Hashem’s word in the world. By revealing the light of the mitzvot and remembering them, we have the strength to overcome our evil inclination, as it says, “And you shall not seek after your heart and your eyes after which you go astray.” The conclusion of the paragraph tells of the Exodus from Egypt, which we are commanded to remember both day and night. Just like tzitzit, which reveal the light of all the mitzvot, so too, the Exodus proved to us that there is a Leader in this world, and that the nation of Israel was chosen to reveal His word.

Thus, each of the three paragraphs is a continuation of and an expansion on the foundation of faith introduced by the verse “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.” In the first paragraph, we learn the fundamental significance of belief, which is the one and only foundation of our lives. This is an extension of the words “Hashem Echad,” (“Hashem is One”). From that, we accept upon ourselves the yoke of all the mitzvot in the second paragraph, which parallels the words “Hashem Elokeinu,” (“Hashem our God”). In the third paragraph, the mitzvah of tzitzit appears and proclaims to us all the mitzvot and reminds us of them. At the end of the paragraph, the Exodus from Egypt, which showed the world that Hashem chose Israel and that He is the overseer and ruler of His world, is an expression of the words, “Shema Yisrael,” (“Hear O Israel”). Thus the meaning of the Shema is capsulated in the very first verse, and explained in the paragraphs which follow. In the laws of Birkot Keriat Shema 16:1, we will learn that the berachot that the Chachamim instituted are also a continuation of and a supplement to the Shema prayer.

05 – The Significance of the Exodus

The Egyptian kingdom, which enslaved Israel, was essentially the kingdom of materialism. Historical research verifies this. Among all the ancient nations, no culture was more materialistic than the Egyptian culture. The Egyptians denied the existence of a soul and did not believe in the afterlife. Only the human body and material objects were of importance to them. They therefore invested enormous effort into mummifying their dead and preserving their bodies. Even the great pyramids are none other than tombs for their bodies. Their immoral culture worked in conjunction with their beliefs, the main purpose being to satisfy bodily urges. As Chazal tell us, no other country was more absorbed in lusts than Egypt (Torat Kohanim, Acharei Mot, chapter 9). The nation of Israel represents the exact opposite, its main objective being spiritual aspirations.

The materialistic Egyptian nation ruled over Am Yisrael and enslaved the Jewish people in excruciating physical labor. It seemed that the great spirit that began to appear with our forefathers would not rise again. The material had prevailed over the spiritual, until the King of Kings Himself appeared in His glory and freed us from Egypt.

By taking us out of Egypt, Hashem proved to the world, for the first time, the ultimate power of spirituality and moral values. The Exodus illustrates the victory of spirituality over materialism. As much as materialism tries to enslave spirituality, in the end, spirituality will free itself from its chains. Just like Israel left Egypt triumphantly and in great wealth, so will every battle between the spiritual and the material ultimately end victoriously for spirituality.

And just as the nation of Israel, who gave the world Torah and ethics, was freed from the material bondage of the Egyptian empire, so too, each individual of Israel must free himself from the chains of materialism in order to discover spirituality and to connect to the Master of the world by performing mitzvot. Therefore, we are commanded to remember the Exodus every day and every night. In doing so, we recall Israel’s great moral and spiritual calling, thereby freeing ourselves from the chains of materialism to embrace eternal Divine truths.

06 – Kavanah While Reciting the First Verse

One must have upmost kavanah while reciting the first verse of the Shema, in accepting the yoke of Heaven, as it is written (Deuteronomy 6:6), “Put these words… in your heart.” Therefore, a person must concentrate in his heart on the words he is saying while reciting the first verse. If he did not concentrate on the words he recited, he did not fulfill his obligation (Berachot 13b; Shulchan Aruch, 60:5, 63:4).

Even a person who concentrates on the full meaning of every word with kavanah must try not to let his mind wander to other thoughts in the middle of the verse. However, b’dieved, as long as he was also thinking of the meaning of the words, he fulfilled his obligation.[2]

Thus, when saying “Shema Yisrael,” it is proper to reflect upon how the mitzvah of accepting the yoke of Heaven is destined for Israel, a nation that was created in order to reveal the belief in the unity of Hashem in the world. The word “Hashem,” which is not read as it is written, is spelled, “yud” “heh” “vav” “heh” and pronounced “A-donai.” While saying it, one should have in mind the way it is pronounced, that Hashem is the Master (Adon) of everything, and concentrate on the way it is written, that He was, is, and will be (Hayah, Hoveh, V’yihiyeh). In reciting the word “Elokeinu,” one should know that God is firm and omnipotent, Master of all existing powers, and that He rules over us (Shulchan Aruch 5:1). When a person says “Echad,” it should be with the kavanah that Hashem is the only ruler of the world, in the heavens and the earth, and the four directions of the world. This meaning is implied in the letters of the word “Echad”: “Alef” – that He is One, “Chet signifying the seven heavens in addition to the earth, and “Dalet – representing the four directions. One must extend the pronunciation of the letter dalet as long as it takes for him to think of the fact that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is One in His world and that He rules in the four directions of the world (Shulchan Aruch 61:6; and see Mishnah Berurah 18).

B’dieved, even if a person did not have in mind the exact meaning of the Name of Hashem and each and every word, but he understood their overall significance  –  the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven – he fulfilled his obligation.[3]

However, if his mind wandered and he did not concentrate on even the general meaning of the words – the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven – then he did not fulfill his obligation, and he must repeat the words and recite them with their meaning in mind. If he remembers this immediately upon finishing the first verse, he must wait a bit, so as not to be seen as one who is reciting Shema twice, and then repeat the first verse quietly. If he remembers in the middle of the first paragraph, he must stop, start from the beginning of the first paragraph, and recite the whole passage in order. If he remembers in the middle of the second paragraph, he finishes that paragraph, after that goes back and repeats the entire first paragraph, and then skips to the third paragraph, Vayomer. He need not repeat the second paragraph because he already had the appropriate kavanah while saying it and b’dieved, the order of the paragraphs does not prevent him from fulfilling his obligation (Mishnah Berurah 63:14; Kaf HaChaim 17-18).

In order to arouse kavanah, it is customary to read the first verse out loud and to cover one’s eyes with his right hand so as not to look at anything else that might interfere with his concentration (Shulchan Aruch 61:4-5; Mishnah Berurah 17).


[2]. See Bei’ur Halachah 101:1 s.v. “Hamitpalel,” based on the Rashba brought by the Beit Yosef 63:4. The Rashba indicates that one must not let his mind wander and thereby not have kavanah to accept upon himself the yoke of Heaven. However, b’dieved, if he had kavanah and also dreamed in the middle, his dreaming did not nullify his kavanah.

[3]Chazal explain that this kavanah for the word “Echad” is only l’chatchilah, as it is told in Berachot 13b that Rabbi Yirmiyah greatly extended the word “Echad.” Rabbi Chiya said to him, “Because you have anointed Him up and down and in all four directions, it is not necessary to have further kavanah.” So it is regarding the kavanah in saying Hashem’s Name. If the halachah is such that one who does not have the kavanah specified in the Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 5 does not fulfill his obligation, the Talmud should have specifically explained this obligation. Additionally, it seems from the words of the Mishnah Berurah 62:3 that the required kavanah is for a general understanding of the verse. He writes that it is best that even one who does not understand the holy tongue recite Shema in Hebrew, since it is highly unlikely to find a Jew who does not understand the meaning of the first verse. This implies that he is referring to a general understanding.

07 – The Second Verse and Its Kavanah

Immediately following the first verse, we say quietly, “Baruch shem kevod malchuto l’olam va’ed,” (“Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity”). Although this sentence does not appear with the Shema paragraph and is not a verse from the Torah, the Chachamim instituted its recital as part of Shema based on ancient tradition.

It is told in the Talmud (Pesachim 56a) that before Yaakov Avinu died, all of his children gathered around him. Yaakov wished to reveal the end of days, but at that moment the Shechinah left him and he could not show them the future. He asked his sons, “Perhaps one of you is not righteous, like Yishmael, who came from Avraham, and Eisav, who came from my father Yitzchak, and that is preventing me from revealing to you the end of days?” Everyone opened their mouths and said, “‘Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One.’ Just like there is only One in your heart, there is only One in our hearts.” At that moment, Yaakov said, “Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity.” Chazal ask, “Now what should we do? Should we recite this sentence [in Shema] even though it is not written in the Torah portion? Or should we refrain from saying it even though Yaakov Avinu said it?” Therefore, they established to recite it quietly.

This sentence is considered to be a continuation of the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven found in the first verse, and therefore also requires kavanah on the meaning of the words. If a person recites it without the proper kavanah he must go back and repeat it with the proper kavanah (Mishnah Berurah 63:12).

One should pause briefly between “l’olam va’ed” (“for all eternity”) and “V’ahavta” (“You shall love”) in order to distinguish between the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven and the rest of the paragraph. Also, it is proper to pause between the first verse and “Baruch shem” (“Blessed be the name…”) to differentiate between the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven as commanded by the Torah and the enactment of the Chachamim (Shulchan Aruch and Rama 61:14).[4]

Although the belief in the oneness of God holds unfathomable depths and meanings, we will nonetheless briefly discuss its significance. The first verse, Shema Yisrael, expresses the absolute and unifying higher belief and is called “yichud elyon” (the supernal unification). In this realm of higher understanding, nothing else substantially exists in the world besides Hashem. He is One in His world, and we are all insignificant in relation to Him. Since Hashem’s infinite power is not visible to us, it is difficult to grasp the supernal union permanently. Therefore, only twice daily, when we recite the verse Shema Yisrael, are we commanded to rise to its level. The second verse is called “yichud tachton” (the lower unification), and by saying it, we accept upon ourselves the yoke of Heaven according to the belief that is revealed in this world. This is the belief that the world is not void, rather tangible and existent, and Hashem Blessed Be He gives it life and rules over it. By His will He creates life, or God forbid, takes it away. In so doing,  His Name and kingdom are revealed in the world, as we say, “Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity” (Tanya, Sha’ar HaYichud V’HaEmunah, and Nefesh HaChaim, Sha’ar 3).


[4]. In the opinion of the Levush and Magen Avraham, since the Chachamim instituted saying “Baruch shem…,” if a person skipped it, he did not fulfill his obligation and he must go back and recite the Shema paragraph. However, according to the Shiltei HaGiborim, Bach, and Bei’ur Halachah (61:13, s.v. “Acharei”), he fulfilled his obligation. Their proof is from Berachot 13a, where it is written that a person who read the paragraph of Shema from the Torah, and had kavanah in his heart to perform the mitzvah of reciting Shema, fulfilled his obligation (even though the verse “Baruch shem…” is not written in the Torah.) According to this, if a person starts V’ahavta and realizes that he did not have kavanah when he said “Baruch shem…” he is not required to repeat it. This is also written in the Aruch HaShulchan 61:6. However, according to the Levush and Magen Avraham, one is required to go back and recite it again, and so writes Kaf HaChaim 61:45. Additionally, in 63:16, he writes according to the Ari that if one goes back to repeat “Baruch shem…” he must start over from “Shema Yisrael.”

08 – Mitzvot Require Kavanah

The Amora’im and the Rishonim disagree regarding the question, do mitzvot require kavanah? When the Torah commands us to perform a certain mitzvah, is the actual performance enough, or must a person have in mind the correct intent in order to fulfill the commandment? The halachah rules that mitzvot require kavanah. Just as a person has a body and a soul and one cannot live without the other, so too, the mitzvot need both body and soul, the body being the act of the mitzvah, and the soul being the kavanah that accompanies it.

Therefore, regarding a person who is reading the Torah portion of Parashat Va’etchanan, in which the Shema paragraph is written: when the time to recite Shema arrives, if he has kavanah in his heart to fulfill the mitzvah of reciting Shema, he has fulfilled his obligation. However, if he continues reading as he was, without having kavanah to fulfill the mitzvah of saying Shema, he has not fulfilled his obligation (Berachot 13a; Shulchan Aruch 60:4).

It is therefore apparent that when reciting Shema, we must concentrate on two meanings. First, as with all the mitzvot, we must have in mind that in performing this act, we are fulfilling Hashem’s commandment. Second, pertinent specifically to the mitzvah of reciting Shema, we must concentrate on the meaning of the words that we are saying. Since the essence of this mitzvah is to accept the yoke of Heaven, we are obligated to focus on the meaning of our words. As we have learned in halachah 6, if one did not concentrate on the meaning of the words in the verse Shema Yisrael, he did not fulfill his obligation and must go back and read it with the required kavanah.

We will now return to discuss the general kavanah required in the performance of all the mitzvot. Sometimes, one has implicit kavanah, and that suffices b’dieved. For instance, a person who comes to pray in a synagogue, and in his prayers he recites the Shema paragraph, even though he did not explicitly intend to perform the mitzvah of reciting Shema, he fulfilled his obligation. For if we were to ask him, “Why did you say Shema?” he would immediately answer, “To perform the mitzvah.” Thus, in his recital he had implicit kavanah to fulfill his obligation. Similarly, someone who puts on tefillin, even though he didn’t meditate on what he was doing, it is nonetheless clear that his only intention could have been to fulfill the mitzvah, and because implicit kavanah was present, he fulfilled his obligation (Yerushalmi Pesachim 10:3; Chayei Adam 68:9; Mishnah Berurah 60:10).[5]

Many people do not know that the main reason for the recital of the Vayomer paragraph is to fulfill the commandment of remembering the Exodus from Egypt, which is mentioned at the end of the paragraph. Those unaware of this fact do not fulfill their obligation. For even if we were to ask them why they said the Vayomer paragraph, they would not know that it was in order to remember the Exodus. Apparently, there was not even implicit kavanah within them. Therefore, it is important to teach that the reason for the recital of the Vayomer paragraph is to remember the Exodus from Egypt.


[5]Likewise, a person who comes to synagogue to hear the blowing of the shofar, or the reading of the megillah, even though he did not explicitly have kavanah to fulfill the mitzvah, he fulfilled his obligation b’dieved, for the fact that he arrived at the synagogue indicates his desire to fulfill the mitzvah, and that he had implicit kavanah. However, if he was in his house and he heard the shofar being blown, or the megillah being read from the synagogue, and he did not explicitly have in mind to fulfill the mitzvah, he did not fulfill his obligation. Nevertheless, according to those poskim who believe that mitzvot do not require kavanah, he did fulfill his obligation.The origin of the disagreement can be found in Berachot 13a and Rosh Hashanah 28-29a. According to Rava, mitzvot do not require kavanah; however, Rabbi Zeira is of the opinion that mitzvot do need kavanah. The following are the opinions of a few of the poskim: the Tosafot and Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah write that mitzvot do not require kavanah, in contrast to the Ba’al Halachot Gedolot, Rif, and Rosh who maintain that mitzvot do require kavanah. That is also how the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 60:4, rules. The Bei’ur Halachah explains that even those who maintain that mitzvot do not need kavanah still assert that two other conditions must be present: 1) when he is performing the mitzvah the person must know that such a mitzvah exists; for example, to recite Shema or eat matzah. If he knew this and at that particular moment he did not have even implicit kavanah to fulfill the mitzvah, according to them, he still fulfilled his obligation. 2) He must have in mind to perform the act and cannot be like a mitasek – one who is merely busying himself. In other words, if he unthinkably puffed into the shofar and kosher sounds came out, he did not fulfill the obligation of the mitzvah.

Further, there is dispute as to whether lack of kavanah in performing rabbinic commandments prevents a person from fulfilling his obligation. The Magen Avraham writes in the name of the Radbaz that the lack of kavanah while performing rabbinic commandments does not prevent a person from fulfilling the mitzvah. His reasoning is that we are unsure as to whom the halachah follows, and therefore, concerning biblical commandments we go according to those poskim who are stringent, and regarding rabbinic commandments we follow those who are lenient. However, according to the Eliyah Rabbah, Gra, and Chida, rabbinic commandments also require kavanah, and that is what is implied in the Shulchan Aruch. In any case, regarding berachot (even those recited on biblical commandments) we take into consideration those poskim who believe that mitzvot do not require kavanah, since “safek berachot l’hakel” – if there is doubt regarding the recital of berachot, we are lenient. Therefore, a person who did not have kavanah at the start, although required to go back and fulfill the mitzvah, he may not recite the blessing again due to the uncertainty that perhaps the halachah goes according to those who maintain that mitzvot do not require kavanah (Mishnah Berurah 60:10 and Bei’ur Halachah there).

09 – The Laws of Reciting Shema

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.

10 – The Manner in which to Recite Shema

It is permissible to recite Shema while standing, sitting, or lying down on one’s side. Indeed, according to Beit Shamai, one must recite the Shema of the evening while lying down, and the Shema of the morning while standing, as it says, “When you lie down and when you rise up.” Yet, the halachah follows Beit Hillel who interpreted the verse to mean the times that one is required to recite Shema – when people lie down (to go to sleep in the evening) and rise (wake up in the morning). According to Beit Hillel, whether the person stands, sits, or lies down is optional (Berachot 10a; Shulchan Aruch 63:1).

We can learn from this halachah that faith is not something detached from this world, something that can only be achieved under specific circumstances. Rather, the faith expressed in saying Shema encompasses all of a person’s life in this world, and therefore it is possible to recite Shema in any position.

In principle, it is permissible to recite Shema even while walking, as it says, “When you are walking on your way.” However, the Chachamim maintain that it is not proper for a person to accept upon himself the yoke of Heaven casually. Therefore, one who is walking should stand still when he recites the first verse of Shema (Shulchan Aruch 63:3; Mishnah Berurah 9). It is also forbidden to say Shema while lying on one’s stomach or back, since this is not a respectful recital (Shulchan Aruch 63:1; and see Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 23:3).[8]

Because of the importance of the first paragraph, in which we accept upon ourselves the yoke of Heaven, a person must be careful while saying it not to occupy himself with anything else, and not signal with his eyes, fingers, or lips (Shulchan Aruch 63:6).


[8]According to the ShulchanAruch 63:1, based on the majority of Rishonim, one may l’chatchilah recite Shema while lying on his side. However, according to Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah, only when a person has already gotten undressed, lies down, and it is difficult for him to sit up, is he permitted to recite Shema on his side, yet, l’chatchilah, Shema should not be recited while lying on one’s side. The Rama rules like them. Regarding the recital of the bedtime Shema, which is not a biblical obligation, it is the opinion of the MagenAvraham that one need not be strict about this. Also see MishnahBerurah 239:6. 

11 – Tefillin and Tzitzit while Reciting Shema

We must pray and recite Shema of Shacharit with tefillin, as it says in the Shema paragraph, “And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.” The Chachamim say, “A person who recites Shema without wearing tefillin is as if he gives false testimony of himself” (Berachot 14b). Nevertheless, even a person who does not have tefillin is required to recite Shema, since these two mitzvot are not interdependent. If a person cannot fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin, he should at least fulfill the mitzvah of Shema, and he is not considered giving false testimony, since it is due to circumstances beyond his control (Mishnah Berurah 46:33; see earlier in this book 12:9, footnote 10).

It is customary to touch the tefillin of the arm when saying, “Bind them as a sign on your hand,” and the tefillin of the head while saying, “And they shall be as frontlets between your eyes,” and then to kiss the hand that touched the tefillin (Shulchan Aruch 61:25; Chayei Adam 14:15).

It is also customary to wrap oneself in tzitzit before Shacharit since the third paragraph of Shema discusses the mitzvah of tzitzit. It is customary to hold the tzitziyot with one’s left hand adjacent to the heart during the time one says Shema as a reminder of what is written, “Put these words… on your heart” (Shulchan Aruch 24:2). Some take the two tzitziyot in front and others gather all four tzitziyot.[9]

It is customary before the paragraph of Vayomer to take the tzitziyot with one’s right hand (Mishnah Berurah 24:4) or with both hands (Kaf HaChaim 24:8) and while saying the word “tzitzit,” kiss the tzitzit, and while saying, “u’re’item oto”, (“and you shall see them”), look at them. Some pass them over their eyes and kiss them. It is also customary to kiss the tzitzit at the end of the paragraph while saying “emet.” We continue to hold the tzitziyot until the words, “v’nechemadim la’ad,” in Birkat Emet V’Yatziv, and then we kiss the tzitziyot again and put them down (Mishnah Berurah 24:4; Kaf HaChaim 24:8, 18). There are additional customs concerning this; however, all these customs are enhancements of the mitzvah and do not prevent one from fulfilling one’s obligation if they are not performed.


[9]The ShulchanAruch, in 24:5 and 61:25, explains that a person takes the two tzitziyot in front of him. So writes Yam Shel Shlomo and the Gra in Ma’aseh Rav 39. There is an additional reason to do so, for sometimes the search for the two tzitziyot in back can disrupt one’s concentration while saying BirkatAhavatOlam. However, the Ari says that one should take hold of all four tzitziyot, as is brought by KafHaChaim 24:8, and so it is written in the BirkeiYosef and KitzurShulchanAruch 17:7. The BirkeiYosef writes in the name of the Ari that one should hold his tzitziyot in his left hand between his ring finger and his pinky; so writes the MishnahBerurah 24:4. Also see KafHaChaim 24:9.
A few Acharonim write that a person should gather his tzitziyot when he says, “And bring us in peace from the four corners of the earth” in the berachah of Ahavat Olam (Derech HaChaim, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 17:7).

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.