Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ekev 5762/ July 27, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Ekev 5762/ July 27, 2002

First Principles: The Shema

Yehiel Amrani
Hod Ha-Sharon

The three passages comprising the Recitation of the Shema appear in the Torah as follows:

  1. In Parshat Shelah, the passage of "Va-yomer," from Numbers 15:37-41, commanding fringes on the corners of our garments, and appearing third in the Shema.
  2. In Parshat Ve-Ethanan, the passage of "Shema," from Deuteronmy 6:4-9, commanding us to love the Lord our G-d, and appearing first in the Shema.
  3. In this week's reading, Parashat Ekev, the passage of "Ve-haya im shamoa," from Deuteronomy 11:13-21, commanding us to fear the Lord and worship Him, and situated in the prayer between the above two passages.
The following questions have been raised regarding these passages that comprise the Shema:

  1. What special merit did these passages have, to be included in the Jewish prayer book as part of the prayer which we are obliged to recite morning and evening, as it is written, "reciting them ... when you lie down and when you get up" (Deut. 11:19).
  2. How are these three passages that have been connected into a single prayer related, and why do they appear in this order?
Analyzing the substance of each passage will help us understand why they were established as part of this prayer.

It should be noted that both passages, Shema and Ve-haya im shamoa, have something in common: both mention the commandments of tefillin, of teaching one's children, of constant concern with the Torah, and of mezuzah. Perhaps this is one reason why, when the Sages began to establish the liturgy, they chose these two passages as part of the obligatory prayers morning and evening, later also adding the passage on fringes.

Now, in view of the content of these passages, we can answer our first question. The commandment of fringes has a unique significance, namely the causal relationships that follow from observing this commandment. The duty of Jews to observe this commandment stems from the beneficence disposed upon them by the Lord, choosing them as His people and delivering them from Egypt: "I the Lord am your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your G-d: I, the Lord your G-d."
The passage of Shema deals with commandments of monotheism, acknowledging the Creator, being devoted to Him and accepting His sovereignty; He and none other is our G-d. In other words, the servant accepts the rule of his Master, undertaking devotion to Him and awe of Him.

The passage of Ve-haya im shamoa deals with the instruction to observe all His commandments. In other words, the servant must carry out all that his Lord instructs him to do.

Next, if we examine the order of these passages, we can appreciate their importance and the connection between them:

The gemara in Tractate Berakhot (14b) explains the order of the passages as follows:

Shema should rightfully precede Ve-haya im shamoa, since it concerns learning, instructing, and performing ("impress them upon your children...recite them ... bind them ... inscribe them"). Ve-haya im shamoa [precedes] Va-yomer, since it contains a reference to instructing and performing ("bind them, ... teach them to your children, ... inscribe them"). Va-yomer has only the element of performing ("instruct them to make for themselves fringes"). ... [Another reason for Shema to precede Ve-haya im shamoa is] that first the Lord's sovereignty is accepted, and then, obeisance to His commandments.

According to this gemara, the order of the passages accords with their scope. Shema subsumes three areas of activity: learning, teaching, and doing. Ve-haya im shamoa only covers two: teaching and doing. Va-yomer only pertains to one: doing. Regarding the relationship between the former two, the gemara says they are ordered according to important stages in faith: first a person must accept the Lord's sovereignty, and only after that can obeisance to His commandments be undertaken.
According to the gemara in Tractate Berakhot (12b), the passage on fringes was added to the prayer as part of the recitation of Shema because of five additional elements that specifically relate to the commandment of fringes. We quote:

Why was the passage on fringes instituted as part of the prayer? Rabbi Judah bar Haviva said because it contains reference to five things: the commandment of fringes, the exodus from Egypt, obeisance to the Lord's commandments, heresy, wayward thoughts, and idolatrous thoughts. Obeisance to the commandments, as it is said: "look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord." Fringes, as it is said: "make for themselves fringes." The exodus from Egypt, as it is said: "who brought you out of the land of Egypt." "[Do not] follow your heart" refers to heresy, for it is said: "The benighted man thinks, 'G-d does not care'" (Ps. 14:1). "[Do not follow] ... your eyes" refers to wayward thoughts, as it is said: "But Samson answered his father, 'Get me that one, for she is the one that finds favor in my eyes" (Judges 14:3). "In your lustful urge" refers to thoughts of idolatry, as it is said: "the Israelites went astray [the Hebrew verb, znh, is the same as 'lustful urge'] after the Baalim" (Judges 8:33).

In Yad Ha-Hazakah Maimonides set the order of the passages, giving the following reasons:

What is one to recite? These are the three passages: Shema, Ve-haya im shamoa, Va-yomer. The first passage that should be read is Shema because it refers to the principle of monotheism, love of the Lord and His teachings, which is the great principle on which all else depends. Next one recites Ve-haya im shamoa, which contains the command to recall all the other commandments. Last is the passage on fringes, which also contains a command to recall the commandments. Even though the commandment of fringes is not observed at night, the passage is read at night because it contains a reference to the exodus from Egypt, and we are commanded to recall the exodus from Egypt at night as well as in the morning, as it is said: "so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt as long as you live" (Deut. 16:3). These three passages, read in the order specified here, constitute Recitation of the Shema.

According to Maimonides, what we have here are three stages in accepting the Lord's sovereignty. The first is to love the Lord altruistically, which means accepting His sovereignty and believing in the Creator as the one and only Lord, there being none other than Him. The second: loving the Lord non-altruistically, or fearing Him in the hope of receiving a reward or for fear of punishment; accepting the burden of performing the commandments, which means being willing to do all that He instructs and worshipping Him truly and wholeheartedly. The third: performing the Lord's commandments, meaning practical acceptance of His sovereignty by wearing the garment that uniquely defines us as His servants, the way piercing a slave's ear serves as incontrovertible evidence that he belongs forever to one master. This garment, which is like the earring worn by the slave, serves as a constant reminder to us that we are the servants of the Creator and proclaims to all creatures that we are the Lord's chosen and His servants. Proudly we wrap ourselves in this garment.

In conclusion, these three passages were made part of the morning and evening prayers since they form a solid foundation for faith in the Creator and His providence over His creatures, in that He rewards those loyal to Him and punishes those who rebel against Him. These passages are concrete evidence of the reciprocity of chosenness between the Jewish people and G-d, showing that we love Him and He loves us: "I the Lord am your G-d who has set you apart from other peoples... You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other people to be Mine" (Lev. 20:24-25).

The reciprocity in choosing finds expression in Deuteronomy: "You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your G-d, that you will walk in His ways, that you will observe His laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey Him. And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people ..., and that He will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that He has made; and that you shall be, as He promised, a holy people to the Lord your G-d" (Deut. 26:17-19).

Having studied the merits of these three texts, we can better appreciate the importance of the Recitation of Shema in our prayers.