Obligation of Shema by Zach Margulies


We all grew up assuming the Mitzvah of Keriat Shema was a Mitzvah DeOraita (Torah obligation). We said it with our parents every night before we went to sleep and we continue to say it diligently twice a day. The source of obligation to read the Shema can be found in Parashat VaEtchanan. Amidst the chapter of Shema, the Torah states, “VeDibarta Bam BeShivtecha BeVeitecha U’VeLechtecha VaDerech U’VeShochbecha U’VKumecha,” “And you shall speak of them while you sit in your home and while you walk on the way, when you lie down, and when you rise” (Devarim 6:7). However, an obvious question arises whether this commandment is referring to the chapter of Shema itself or merely relaying the obligation of a Jew to study Torah in general.

This question may be related to a debate in the Gemara in Berachot. We can analyze this Gemara to fully understand the extent of the obligation to recite the Shema. The Gemara (Berachot 21a) quotes a Machloket (dispute) between Rav Yehudah and Rav Yosef. Rav Yehudah says that if one has a Safeik (doubt) whether or not he recited Keriat Shema, he should not recite it again. The reason is Safeik DeRabanan LeKula – when one has a doubt regarding a rabbinical obligation, one should be lenient (and regarding a Torah obligation, one should be strict). Therefore, Rav Yehudah says one should not repeat Keriat Shema due to the fact that it is DeRabanan, and, therefore, we act leniently when in doubt. Rav Yosef, however, argues by quoting the Pasuk from the Shema itself, “UVShochbecha UVKumecha,” “[And you shall speak of them…] when you lay down, and when you rise” (6:7). This Pasuk implies that the recitation of Shema is a DeOraita obligation. Rav Yehudah then responds by claiming that the laws present in the chapter of Shema are applicable only to Torah in general.

 Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah, commenting on this Gemara, explain Rav Yehudah’s opinion. They assert that we have a DeOraita obligation to study Torah. This obligation is derived from Shema. But we can learn and fulfill this obligation from anywhere in the Torah. The Rabanan, therefore, decided that we should read this chapter of Shema to fulfill our Torah obligation, but the recital of the Shema itself is only Derabanan.

 A major question arises regarding this understanding of Shema. If it is true that Shema is read only to fulfill an obligation to study Torah, then do we really need to understand the words themselves? How can we reconcile this with the major theme of the first chapter of Shema, which is to focus on accepting Hashem as our God, if the Mitzvah is only to read the words and does not require any focusing?

 We can answer this based on an understanding of the Rav. In his work entitled “Worship of The Heart,” he discusses Keriat Shema. He discusses whether it is an obligation to study Torah or to accept the yoke of heaven, “Ol Malchut Shamayim.” He explains that it must be both. In order to fully attain the yoke of heaven, thereby connecting ourselves to the Ribono Shel Olam, we must first understand and learn His Torah. The only way to gain a relationship with someone is by getting to know him, understanding his beliefs, and sharing his goals. Therefore, Keriat Shema is an opportunity to learn which will eventually lead to attaining Ol Malchut Shamayim. BeEzrat Hashem, by understanding Shema and learning it through our intellect, we can eventually use our hearts to gain an eternal relationship with our creator, HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and we will be able to combine our love for Hashem with his Torah through the daily recital of Shema and our eternal devotion to the Torah.

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