Birkot Keriat Shema (1)

  • Rav David Brofsky




The mishna (Berakhot 11a) teaches:


"In the morning two berakhot are said before [Shema] and one after it.  In the evening two are said before it and two after it, one long and one short…"


Keriat Shema, both in the morning and evening, is preceded and followed by berakhot, known as the Birkot Keriat Shema. 


            This week, we will discuss the nature of the berakhot and their relationship to Keriat Shema.



Berakhot BEFORE Keriat Shema:


            Before the performance of most mitzvot, we say a birkat ha-mitzva (see Pesachim 7b).  As Keriat Shema is certainly a mitzva, and it is preceded by two berakhot, in both the morning and evening, should we view these berakhot as birkot ha-mitzva, despite the absence of the classic formula “asher kiddeshanu be-mitzvotav,” “Who sanctified us with His commandments”?  Alternatively, should we view these berakhot as birkot ha-shevach, blessings of praise, which are meant to enhance the themes of Keriat Shema, yet are halakhically independent, as may be implied by their texts?


            A priori, we might ask: does Keriat Shema even warrant a berakha?  On the one hand, there are oratory mitzvot which ARE preceded by a berakha, such as Hallel and Keriat Ha-megilla; on the other hand, others are not, such as tefilla, Kiddush and Birkat Ha-mazon.  Seemingly, one could suggest that when the berakha itself is the mitzva, such as Birkat Ha-mazon and tefilla, a birkat ha-mitzva may be superfluous, while texts that do not assume the form of a berakha, such as Hallel and Megilla, require a birkat ha-mitzva.  If so, then there is even more reason to expect a birkat ha-mitzva to precede Keriat Shema!


            However, at least one gemara strongly implies that the Birkot Keriat Shema are NOT, at least exclusively, birkot ha-mitzva.  This gemara discusses whether one may recite these berakhot EVEN if one will not fulfill the mitzva of Keriat Shema.


            The Mishna (Berakhot 9b) rules that "One recites the Shema… until the third hour of the day… and one who recites the Shema later loses nothing, as he is like one who reads the Torah…"


            The Gemara (10b) elaborates,


Rav Chisda said in the name of Mar Ukba: “What is the meaning of ‘HE LOSES NOTHING’?  He does not lose the berakhot.” 

It has been taught to the same effect: “He who says the Shema later loses nothing, being like one who reads from the Torah, but he says two blessings before and one after…"


            In other words, while one has not fulfilled the mitzva of Keriat Shema, one may still recite the berakhot!  This seems to indicate that the Birkot Keriat Shema do NOT function as a birkat ha-mitzva.


            The words of the Rashba, taken from a different context, may explain this gemara.  The Rashba (Teshuvot 1:47) explains that "the berakhot of Keriat Shema are NOT literally blessings OF Keriat Shema, like Birkot Ha-torah and birkot ha-mitzvot; rather their berakhot were instituted separately, and were merely placed before Keriat Shema…"


            In another responsum (1:319), the Rashba rules that while our gemara is referring to a case in which one has yet to recite Keriat Shema, even one who has recited the Shema earlier, without the berakhot, should recite the berakhot, WITHOUT THE SHEMA! He proves from a passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi (also attributing this ruling to the Rambam!) that the berakhot are an independent mitzva, and they may be recited even WITHOUT the Shema.


            The Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 60:2) rules in accordance with the Rashba, although he does recommend reciting the berakhot WITH the Shema, even if one has already fulfilled the mitzva.


            The Ramban, however, disagrees.  He writes:


                        There was a custom in the towns to say ”Kel Melekh ne'eman” in between [the latter blessing] “Ahavat Olam” and Keriat Shema.  In my youth, I was troubled, as it was clear [to me] that the Birkot Keriat Shema are a birkat ha-mitzva, as every mitzva must be preceded by a berakha, e.g., Hallel, Megilla, and Keriat Ha-torah, and so much more so Keriat Shema! … Therefore, since it is clear that one who makes a berakha on a mitzva or on a fruit and answers “Amein” to his berakha is completely mistaken [so too here]… but since that was the custom I had to ask Rabbi Mei’ir Ha-levi (Ramah), and he answered that the practice was clearly mistaken… "


            As Keriat Shema contains 245 words, a mere three more words would make Shema 248 words long, corresponding to a man’s proverbial “248 limbs.”  The Ramban is describing the early custom of adding three more words (either to listen to or to repeat after the leader's "Hashem Elokeikhem emet"), in order to reach the mystically significant sum of 248 words.  The Ramban rejects this practice, identifying it as constituting an interruption between the berakha and the mitzva of Keriat Shema.


            The Ramban clearly views the latter berakha as a birkat ha-mitzva, and he therefore opposes interjecting "Kel Melekh ne'eman,” as it amounts to a hefsek (interruption).  While one might still maintain that this phrase is relevant enough to the Keriat Shema not to be considered a hefsek (see Me’iri in Magen Avot, Inyan 1, as cited below), the Ramban's position regarding Birkot Keriat Shema is clear.


            Similarly, the Beit Yosef (46) cites the Ra'a, who opposes the practice of reciting the first verse of Shema before Pesukei De-zimra, in the section beginning “Le-olam yehei.”  He argues that anyone who does so undermines Birkot Keriat Shema, as they will NOT be recited upon the performance of a mitzva.  The Beit Yosef claims that the Ramban also adopts this approach, which certainly makes sense in light of the above-cited ruling of the Ramban.


            Interestingly, Rabbi Ya'akov of Karlin (brother of the Keren Ora), in his Mishkenot Ya'akov (Chap. 80), questions whether one who has already said the Shema should recite the berakhot at all!  Only one who is unable even to recite the Shema may say the berakha, he argues, as a form of tashlumin, a make-up prayer. 



The Evening Shema:


            This question also arises regarding the evening Keriat Shema.  The Mishna teaches that the earliest time for Keriat Shema is when the kohanim may eat their teruma, which the Gemara (Berakhot 3b) identifies as tzeit ha-kokhavim (when the stars come out). 


            Rashi (Berakhot 2a) notes that the prevalent custom in his community was to say the evening prayers before dark in the beit ha-keneset, to return home and then to repeat the first paragraph of Shema before going to sleep.  The first Shema, Rashi explains, is in order to “pray following divrei Torah;” the second, recited on one's bed, fulfills the biblical commandment of Keriat Shema. 


            Tosafot (Berakhot 2a s.v. Mei-eimatai) asks how one can recite Shema with its berakhot during a time in which one cannot fulfill one's obligation, as the mishna teaches that one should precede Keriat Shema with two berakhot, and follow it with one!


            The Rishonim offer different interpretations of this custom.  Rabbeinu Tam, for example, denies that one cannot fulfill the obligation of Shema before dark and claims that the halakha is actually in accordance with Rabbi Yehuda (Berakhot 26a) who permits one to say the evening Shemoneh Esrei after pelag ha-mincha (when only one-tenth of the day’s light remains).  If one can fulfill one's obligation of the evening Shemoneh Esrei, he argues, then one can also fulfill one's obligation of Shema!  Consequently, according to Rabbeinu Tam, one actually does say the berakhot when one fulfills the mitzva of Shema. 


            Rav Amram Gaon (cited by Rabbeinu Yona, Berakhot 1a) adopts a completely opposite approach, claiming that one does NOT fulfill the obligation before dark and Keriat Shema DOES require a berakha; therefore, one should recite the birkat ha-mitzva of “likro et (to recite) Shema” before going to bed! 


            However, of interest to us are the opinions which relate to the relationship between the berakhot and Keriat Shema.  The Rashba (Teshuvot 1:47), for example, as cited above, claims that Keriat Shema really does not need to be recited with berakhot, and the relationship between the berakhot and Shema is almost coincidental. 


            Those, however, who believe that Birkot Keriat Shema function as the birkot ha-mitzva of Shema have a much more difficult time explaining this custom.  Rabbeinu Yona, for example, suggests that one say Ahavat Olam before Shema on one's bed.  He argues that since Ahavat Olam may exempt one from Birkot Ha-torah (Berakhot 11b), it apparently functions as a birkat ha-mitzva!  Incidentally, while the relationship between Ahavat Olam and Birkot Ha-torah is worthy of a separate discussion, it is worth noting that the ability of Ahavat Olam to exempt one from Birkot Ha-torah may actually prove the opposite, i.e., that both Birkot Ha-torah and Ahavat Olam are birkot ha-shevach acknowledging the same phenomenon: namely, the Torah!


            Alternatively, the Or Zarua (Hilkhot Keriat Shema 1) cites the Ri of Courville, who suggests that the berakhot recited in the beit ha-keneset ALSO cover the Shema recited before bed, regardless of the fact that many hours may elapse between them.  One may also suggest that even if Ahavat Olam functions as a birkat ha-mitzva (see Ramban’s comment cited above, Berakhot 11b), the value of communal prayer pushes aside the need for preceding a mitzva with a berakha. 


            We should note that not every halakhic authority is wiling to justify this custom.  As early as in the Gaonic period, Rav Hai Gaon (cited by the Rosh, Berakhot 1:1) grapples with this question, and records that the rabbis of Eretz Yisra’el would say Shemoneh Esrei with the community and recite the Shema with its berakhot after dark.  Similarly, the Rokeiach (Chap. 326) records of Rabbi Yitzchak ben Asher (the Riva):


                        He would read the Shema with the tzibbur (congregation) when they prayed while it was still day and would say Shemoneh Esrei with them, as a person's prayers are only heard when they are said with the community, but when the stars came out he would recite the Shema WITH ITS BERAKHOT on his bed…"


            The Rokeiach adds that the "ikar mitzva" (essential mitzva) is to recite the Shema, with its berakhot, and to attach them to Tefilla, after dark.  Similarly, the Sefer Chassidim (Margoliyot 269) writes that while one should "leave the tzibbur to pray while it is still day… the God-fearing should recite it, with its berakhot, after dark…"  Finally, the Me’iri (Magen Avot, Inyan 11) records a difference of opinions concerning how Torah scholars should behave regarding this question.


            This discussion continues through later generations.  Interestingly, while the Gra (Responsum 233 and Ma'aseh Rav 65) rules that one should even pray privately rather than say the evening prayers before dark, both the Arukh Ha-shulchan (235) and the Mishna Berura (267:2) defend the practice of accepting Shabbat early by reciting the evening prayers before dark.


            Regarding a similar question which arises during the morning prayers, the She'elot U-tshuvot Peri Yitzchak (Chap. 1) rules that it is preferable to say Keriat Shema on time (i.e., during the first quarter of the day’s light) WITH its berakhot, ALONE, than to say Shema early and repeat it after the first quarter, with its berakhot, alongside the congregation!


            While it that seems to be the common custom to permit praying early on Erev Shabbat, there are different customs regarding the weekdays.  The difficulty in assembling a tzibbur after dark certainly has played a major role in determining communal practice.  As for the morning prayers, while it is certainly preferable to pray with a minyan BEFORE the end of the first quarter, common practice is to permit one to recite the berakhot, with a tzibbur, even later.  We shall discuss saying the Birkot Keriat Shema “late” in a separate shiur.


            In any case, we see from the above discussion that our understanding of the Birkot Keriat Shema and their relationship to Shema may have far reaching ramifications.



A Middle Approach—The Me’iri:


            The Me’iri (Berakhot 11a) seems to offer a more reasonable, balanced view.  He agrees with the Rashba that these berakhot stand alone and can be recited WITHOUT the Shema. 


                        They were fundamentally established independently, the first one (“Yotzer Or”) for the reality of day and light, and the second (“Ahava Rabba”) for Torah; however, once they were instituted, they placed them before the Shema, thereby removing the need [to say] “asher kiddeshanu… likro et Shema.”  Nevertheless, one who does not know the berakhot yet knows the Shema should recite a blessing of “asher kiddeshanu… likro et Shema…"


            According to the Me’iri, Birkot Keriat Shema are fundamentally birkot ha-shevach, thought they also function as birkot ha-mitzva.  This brilliant formulation may resolve many of the difficulties we have encountered, and it is most likely the position of other Rishonim as well.



Difference between Ahava Rabba and Yotzer Or:


            The Ramban (Berakhot 11b, as cited above) writes that while the berakha of Ahava Rabba is a birkat ha-mitzva, "Birkat ‘Yotzer Or’ and ‘Ha-ma'ariv Aravim' (the first blessing before the evening Keriat Shema) are birkot ha-shevach, as the discussion whether one who has never seen the lights of the sky may recite these berakhot proves…"


            This distinction may raise an interesting halakhic question.  The Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 66:1), summarizing Berakhot 13a, rules that in between paragraphs, one may inquire as to the welfare of a respected individual and respond to any person.  However, if the berakha of Ahava Rabba functions (either exclusively or additionally) as a birkat ha-mitzva, should one be more stringent regarding interruptions between the berakha and the mitzva, i.e., Keriat Shema?


            The Rosh (Teshuvot 4:19) writes that he would hurry to finish the berakha of Ahava Rabba in order to answer ”Amein” after the leader.  Clearly, the Rosh feels that there is no reason to distinguish between the berakhot; if one can respond to someone in between those paragraphs, then certainly one can answer ”Amein”!


            Rabbeinu Yona (Berakhot 33b) writes that the Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 1:17), the Ramah and the Rambam (as confirmed by their position cited by the Ramban, Berakhot 11b) disagree, and all oppose answering ”Amein” after the leader finishes Ahava Rabba.  The Beit Yosef writes that the custom is NOT in accordance with the Rif; rather, we recite the berakha word-for-word with the leader in order that we can avoid answering afterwards ”Amein.”


            Rav Yosef Karo, the Mechaber, rules in the Shulchan Arukh (59:4) that one should NOT answer ”Amein” in between the berakha of Ahava Rabba and Shema; however, the Rema (51:3) writes that the correct custom is to answer ”Amein” after the conclusion of Ahava Rabba.  Furthermore, when praying in private, one may add the words "Kel Melekh ne'eman" (a practice the Ramban criticized above).


            It seems that the Mechaber and Rema are debating our question: what is the relationship between the berakhot and Keriat Shema?  While the Rema denies that the berakha of Ahava Rabba is said ON the Shema, apparently the Mechaber holds that the berakha functions, even if only partially (see the opinions of the Rashba and Me’iri above), as a birkat ha-mitzva.


            To this day, there are different customs.  The Mishna Berura (59:24-5 and 61:16) recommends concluding the berakha simultaneously with the leader and avoiding the doubt.  Interestingly, the Eshel Avraham of Butshatsh says that one who has already fulfilled the mitzva of Keriat Shema by reciting all three paragraphs should answer ”Amein” after the berakha of Ahava Rabba; apparently, in this case, the berakha certainly does not function as a birkat ha-mitzva, but only as a birkat ha-shevach.


            As for “Kel Melekh ne'eman,” the custom (see Mishna Berura 61:14) is to say it only when praying privately.  The Me’iri (Magen Avot, Inyan 1) justifies this practice, claiming that even if the berakha functions as a birkat ha-mitzva, saying “Kel Melekh ne'eman” would NOT constitute an interruption.





            In this shiur, we proposed two different understandings of the berakhot before Shema (most specifically Ahava Rabba) and their relationship to Shema.  We questioned whether the berakha serves as a birkat ha-mitzva, recited immediately before the performance of a mitzva, or a birkat ha-shevach, a daily independent obligation "attached" to Keriat Shema.


            We raised a number of practical questions, which we suggested were linked to this issue: What should one do if he or she misses the proper time for Keriat Shema?  If one must recite Shema early, may one recite the berakhot later in the morning?  May one recite them before dark?  May one answer ”Amein” after the berakha of Ahava Rabba?   May one say "Kel Melekh ne'eman"?



Next week we will continue our study of Birkot Keriat Shema.