Keriat Shema at Night

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash




This shiur is dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.

               The first mishna in Shas (Berakhot 2a) establishes the proper time to perform keriat shema at night.  Though there is some disagreement about the moment UNTIL which keriat shema may be performed, all opinions in the mishna designate tzeit ha-kokhavim (the appearance of evening stars) as the moment FROM which this mitzva may be fulfilled.  Though halakhically tzeit ha-kokhavim is the agreed-upon moment, the mishna describes this time as the moment at which kohanim begin eating their teruma (which actually coincides with tzeit, as the gemara on 2b clarifies ). 


               What is intriguing is the fact that the Torah does not require recitation of shema during the evening (or morning) per se; instead it mandates (Devarim 6:7) reading shema "when you retire and when you awaken" (be-shakhbekha uv-kumekha).  It is the mishna and the ensuing gemarot which translate the Torah's intent as referring to a classic time-marker, tzeit ha-kokhavim, the conventional and universal commencement of halakhic evening.  Is keriat shema truly a mitzva which begins with the onset of evening, as the Torah merely employs colorful language to describe this marker?  Or might we claim that keriat shema is contingent upon the experience (and period) of retiring, which roughly corresponds to tzeit ha-kokhavim (at least in the era before the advent of electricity)?


               This question may have actually been debated by several Tana'im.  Though the mishna only provides one position describing the commencement period for keriat shema, the Gemara cites a beraita with several additional opinions.  Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Meir, despite their subtle differences, allow shema to be recited from shekia (sunset) while Rabbi Yehoshua (in line with the mishna) insists that it may be recited only after tzeit ha-kokhavim.  Despite the differences between these opinions they all point to classic halakhic time-markers: shekia or tzeit.  By contrast, the beraita cites the opinion of Rabbi Chanina, who claims that shema can only be recited from the time a poor person begins his evening meal, which, presumably, is later than the aforementioned times.  Several Rishonim cite an explanation in the name of Rav Hai Gaon, claiming that Rabbi Chanina does not view keriat shema as dependent on night and day and therefore does not allow it to be recited after shekia or after tzeit; instead, he views it as dependent upon the period of retiring and assesses that people begin to retire just as a poor person begins his meal.  Conceivably Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Eliezer, who all suggest more classic start times for shema, may viewed the mitzva as dependent upon day and night in the classic sense. 


               Defining the 'time-dependency' of shema may also impact the endpoint BEYOND which shema cannot be recited.  The first mishna cites a machaloket between Rabbi Eliezer, who allows shema to be recited until the first third of the evening has elapsed, and Rabban Gamli'el, who allows it to be recited the entire evening.  Possibly, Rabban Gamli'el believes that keriat shema is essentially centered around night and day, and therefore the evening shema may be read the ENTIRE night.  By contrast, Rabbi Eliezer may view keriat shema as a function of the period of retiring to sleep, and therefore shema cannot be recited after a third of the evening has passed and most people have already retired. 


               Of course, it should be noted that, earlier, we investigated Rabbi Eliezer position that the onset of the mitzva of keriat shema is at shekia.  We suggested that by selecting a classic time-marker, he may be indicating that the mitzva revolves around "night" and "day."  The seeming inconsistency in Rabbi Eliezer's position may force us to adjust our view of either shekia as the onset or the first third of the evening as the terminus. 


               It is also important to note that Rashi (Berakhot 4b) offers a different read of Rabban Gamli'el's position.  He too attributes shema to the period of sleep; however the entire period of sleep is acceptable – until morning — and not just the initial stages of evening when people first retire to sleep. 


               There is a fascinating passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi which the Vilna Gaon believes proves that keriat shema is a function of classic time periods of night and day.  Based upon the mishna which discounts keriat shema recited before tzeit, the Yerushalmi infers that anyone who is uncertain as to having recited shema must repeat it.  Bein ha-shemashot (after sunset but before the stars come out) is halakhically considered a safek laila, a period of time which may be regarded as belonging to halakhic night, and yet keriat shema recited during it (before tzeit) is meaningless.  Evidently, according to the Yerushalmi, the possibility of a properly executed keriat shema is irrelevant, and shema must be repeated. 


               The Vilna Gaon senses, in this Yerushalmi, a perspective of shema which depends upon night and day.  Were the Yerushalmi to condition keriat shema upon the "period of sleep" - zeman shekhiva, pre-tzeit recitation of shema would not be considered a safek (doubt) and would not prove the status of a doubtful recitation.  Prior to tzeit, no one begins to sleep, and this period is DEFINITELY not considered zeman shekhiva, in any fashion.  No implication could therefore be derived regarding someone who is unsure whether he has recited shema.  If keriat shema is tethered to formal definitions of night and day, we can appreciate the Yerushalmi's logic.  Shema recited after shekia and before tzeit is at least considered a doubtful keriat shema, since this period is considered safek laila.