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The Proper Times of Keriyat Shema and its Berakhot

  • Rav David Brofsky



The Torah (Devarim 6:6-9) instructs us,


"And these WORDS, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently unto your children, and shall TALK of them when you sit in you house, and when you walk by the way, and when you LIE DOWN, and when you RISE UP …"


We are obligated to recite "these words," (which we defined in the previous shiur), "when thou lie down, and when thou rise up…" How are we to define these times? What is the earliest time? The latest?


            Perhaps the Torah refers to the astronomical times of day and night. The Mishna (Megilla 20a), for example, teaches:


"One should not read the Megilla, perform a berit mila, immerse in a mikveh… until sunrise (henetz ha-chama). [However] any of these performed from dawn (amud ha-shachar), are valid…"


Rashi, based on the Gemara (Megilla 20b) explains that amud ha-shachar IS considered day, but we are concerned that since not all are experts at discerning the beginning of the day, these mitzvot should preferably be performed after sunrise.


The Mishna (Megilla 20b) continues:


"The entire day is valid for reading the Megilla, reading Hallel, blowing the shofar, taking the lulav… this is the principle: a mitzva meant to be performed during the day, may be fulfilled the entire day…"


Based upon the above sources, one might suggest that Keriyat Shema, like other mitzvot, may be fulfilled, bediavad, as early as amud ha-shachar, for the entire day.


            Yet, the simple understanding of the verse, as well as the sugyot, yields a different conclusion. If so, what is the earliest time one may read Shema? And until when may one fulfill the mitzva?


            Interestingly, the Rambam (Hilkhot Keriyat Shema 1:1) writes:


"Twice daily we read Shema, in the evening and in the morning, as it says, 'And when thou lie down, and when thou rise up.' The time when one lies down, THIS IS NIGHT, and the time one rises, THIS IS DAY…"


This intriguing formulation, while outside of the scope of our shiur, is certainly worth investigating.


The Earliest Time to Say the Morning Shema:


The Gemara (Berakhot 8b) implies that one may read Shema as early as amud ha-shachar:


"…Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says in the name of Rabbi Akiva: Sometimes one may recite Shema twice in the daytime, once before sunrise and once after sunrise, and thereby fulfill his duty once for the day and once for the night… It is in reality day, but he calls it night because some people go to bed at that time. … The halakha is in accordance with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who said it in the name of Rabbi Akiva. R. Simeon who said in the name of R. Akiba… it happened that a couple of scholars became drunk at the wedding feast of the son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, and they came before Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi [before the rise of the sun] and he said: Rabbi Shimon is a great enough authority to be relied on in a case of emergency…."


This Gemara implies that one may actually read Shema much earlier, most likely from the time of amud ha-shachar! The Gemara, however, does not clarify the position of Rabbi Shimon, nor does it explain the ability to rely upon his opinion.


            Incidentally, Tosafot (Berakhot 8b s.v. lo) explains that this Gemara does not refer to the time from amud ha-shachar to sunrise, but rather, from the time that one "distinguishes between blue and green," in accordance with the above Mishna.


            Most Rishonim, however, disagree, and explain that bediavad one may recite Shema from amud ha-shachar.


            The Rif (Berakhot 2b), for example, rules that "bediavad, or in an emergency situation such as one who rises early in order to travel…" one may recite Shema from amud ha-shachar. The Rambam (Hilkhot Keriyat Shema 1:12), Rosh (1:9) and Tur (58) accept this position.


            Rabbenu Tam (Sefer Ha-Yashar Teshuvot 8:1) explains differently, and suggests that the period before sunrise "isn't fully day… and in my opinion, one who rushes to read [Shema] before sunrise, has not completely fulfilled his obligation (lo yatza yedei chovato kol kakh)."


            The Shulchan Arukh (58:3-4) rules in accordance with the majority of Rishonim, that one who reads Shema from amud ha-shachar, in an emergency situation, or bediavad, has fulfilled the mitzva. 


The Earliest PROPER Time to Say the Morning Shema:


            In the previous section, we demonstrated that bediavad one may say Shema as early as amud ha-shachar.


            When, however, is the earliest optimal time to say Shema?


The Mishna (Berakhot 9b) teaches:


"From what time may one recite Shema in the morning? From the times that one can distinguish between blue and white. Rabbi Eliezer says: between blue and green. And he has time to finish until sunrise. Rabbi Yehoshua says, until the third hour of the day, for such is the custom of kings, to rise at the third hour…"


The Gemara continues:


"What is the meaning of between blue and white? …between the blue in it and the white in it. It has been taught: Rabbi Meier says: [the morning Shema is read] from the time that one can distinguish between a wolf and a dog; R. Akiva says: between an ass and a wild ass. Others say: From the time that one can distinguish his friend at a distance of four amot. Rav Huna says: The halakha is as stated by the Others. Abaye says: … in regard to [the recital of] Shema, as practiced by the VATIKIN. For Rabbi Yochanan said: the vatikin used to finish it [the recital of Shema] with sunrise, in order to join geula with Tefilla, and say the Tefilla in the daytime (at sunrise)…"


Rashi explains that the vatikin were "humble men who loved mitzvot."


            The Gemara presents a number of opinions regarding the earliest time to recite Keriyat Shema. We should note that these times, as mentioned above, do NOT correspond with the normative definitions of day.


            The Gemara's conclusion presents Rav Huna, who rules that Shema should be recited from the time that one can distinguish his friend at a distance of four amot, and Abaye who suggests that the practice of the vatikin is optimal.


            Most Rishonim (Rabbeinu Yona 4b, Rosh 1:10, Rashba 8b) rule in accordance with Rav Huna, and argue that Abaye DOES NOT DISAGREE, but rather merely notes that pious individuals who wish to pray AT sunrise say Keriyat Shema slightly before henetz ha-chama.


            The Rambam (Hilkhot Keriyat Shema 1:11), however, omits Rav Huna's ruling, and writes:


"When is its time during the day? Its mitzva is to begin reading it BEFORE SUNRISE. In order to finish it and the final berakha with henetz ha-chama… and one who delayed and read Keriyat Shema AFTER sunrise has fulfilled the obligation…"


The Rambam believes that the earliest optimal time for Shema is slightly before sunrise.


(We will discuss Tefilla ke-vatikin in a future shiur, but it is sufficient to say that the Rishonim seem to argue as to whether vatikin enhances one's Tefilla, or also one's Keriyat Shema.)


            Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafot Yoma 37b) also disagrees. He explains, "The proper time for Keriyat Shema is AFTER sunrise, as the vatikin would rush, inappropriately, in order to pray with the sunrise… and they would incorrectly recite Shema because of their affection for prayer… Abbaye also concurs, and when he said 'like the vatikin,' he meant close to sunrise like the vatikim, but not exactly like the vatikin."


            We saw above that Rabbeinu Tam also describes saying Shema before sunrise as "not completely fulfilling the mitzva." Rabbeinu Chananel, cited by the above Tosafot, agrees with Rabbenu Tam.


            The Ba'al Ha-Maor (Berakhot 2b) adopts the most radical position, arguing that one who reads Shema before sunrise has not fulfilled the mitzva!


            The Shulchan Arukh (58:1-2) rules, in accordance with the majority of Rishonim, that the earliest proper time for Keriyat Shema is "from the time that one can distinguish his friend at a distance of four amot."  He also notes that the "mitzva min ha-muvchar" is to recite Shema slightly before sunrise, like the practice of the vatikin. However, one who did not recite Shema before sunrise should read it as soon as possible.


            It is difficult to properly assess the time "that one can distinguish" ("mi she-yakir"). Furthermore, seemingly this time should change depending on the time of year, and one's location.


            The authorities in Eretz Yisrael, for example, cite a number of customs. Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yechaveh Da'at 2:8) rules that one may say Shema 66 minutes before sunrise, while other customs in Jerusalem range between 50 and 60 minutes. The recent halakhic compendiums on Tefilla, Ishei Yisrael and Tefilla Ke-Hilkhata, both define "mi she-yakir" as about 50 minutes before sunrise.


            Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe OC 4:6) writes that he estimates "mi she-yakir" at about 35-40 minutes before sunrise (in New York). 


Latest Time for Morning Keriyat Shema:


The Mishna (Berakhot 9b) teaches:


"…Rabbi Yehoshua says, until the third hour of the day, for such is the custom of kings, to rise at the third hour…"


Apparently, the Mishna understands "And when thou rise up" as referring to hours during which people actually wake up. In contrast to "And when thou lie down," which the Mishna (Berakhot 2a) understands as referring to the hours during which one is lying down, and not the hours in which people "lie down."


            Rav Yosef Karo, in his commentary on the Rambam (Kesef Mishna Hilkhot Keriyat Shema 1:13) questions this lack of symmetry, and concludes that mi-de'oraita, one may recite Shema the entire day! The Mishna's limitation to the end of the third hour, he explains, is only mi-derabanan. This suggestion was rejected by nearly all rabbinic commentators, who understand "And when thou rise up" as referring to hours that one rises, not the hours the one is awake. 


            The hours referred to by the Mishna are sha'ot zemaniyot. In other words, we divide the daylight hours into twelve equal units, declaring each "one hour." One may recite Shema until the end of three of these units, or for one quarter of the day.


            From when are these daytime hours calculated?


            The Magen Avraham (233:3 and 443:3) questions whether one calculates the sha'ot zemaniyot from amud ha-shachar or henetz ha-chama. He concludes (58:1), since Keriyat Shema is mi-de'oraita, that one should follow the more stringent opinion, held by the Terumat Ha-Deshen, the Bach, and the Eliyah Rabba, and count from amud ha-shachar until tzeit ha-kochavim. This opinion is known as "shitat Magen Avraham."


            The Gr"a (Biur Ha-Gr"a 459) enlists a host of Gaonim/Rishonim (Rav Saadya Gaon, Rav Hai Gaon, Rambam) and Acharonim (Levush 233, Tosafot Yom Tov etc.) and argues that the day is calculated from sunrise until sheki'at ha-chama (sunset). This opinion is commonly referred to as shitat Ha-Gr"a."


            As Keriyat Shema is mi-de'oraita, seemingly we should adopt the more stringent approach, of the Magen Avraham, since "safek de-oraita le-chumra."


            However, it seems that most communities and calendars follow the shitat Ha-Gr"a. The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (5:14), as well as Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe OC 1:24), clearly rule that the halakha is in accordance with the Gr"a, and testify that such was the custom in Lithuania. The Chazon Ish (OC 13:3) and the Minchat Yitzchak (3:71) also accept the Gr"a's approach.


            Elsewhere, Rav Moshe Feinstein (YD 3:129) writes that one should be stringent. Some calendars list both times.


The Latest Time for Birkhot Keriyat Shema:


            The Gemara (Berakhot 10b) teaches that while one who recites Keriyat Shema AFTER the third hour has not fulfilled the mitzva of Shema, he has not lost the opportunity to recite the berakhot.


            The Rishonim disagree as to the latest time one may recite Birkhot Keriyat Shema. The Rambam (Hilkhot Keriyat Shema 1:13) rules that one may recite the berakhot the ENTIRE DAY!  The Rosh (Berakhot 1:10) question whether Birkhot Keriyat Shema may be recited all day, or are the linked to the time of Tefilla, either the fourth or sixth hour. Rav Hai Gaon, cited by the Rosh, rules that they may be recited until the end of the fourth hour.


            Seemingly, the fact the one may recite the berakhot AFTER the latest time to fulfill the mitzva of Shema is troubling, and may indicate that berakhot are NOT linked to Shema, but rather function as independent tefillot. We will grapple with this issue in a future shiur.


            The Shulchan Arukh (58:6) rules in accordance with Rav Hai Gaon, and instructs one who has yet to say Shema and its berakhot after the fourth hour, to say Shema WITHOUT its berakhot. The Mishna Berura (58:26) even considers Birkhot Keriyat Shema recited after the fourth hour "berakhot le-vatala" (blessings said in vain).


            However, the Biur Halakha (s.v. koreh) cites the Mishkenot Yaakov (Rav Yaakov of Karlin) who permits, bediavad, reciting the berakhot until midday. The Biur Halakha suggests that "perhaps one who was unable (haya lo ones) to recite the berakhot before the fourth hour may rely upon this…" (See Rav Yehuda Amital in Alon Shevut 1:2 who permits soldiers who, due to their army responsibilities, were unable to recite the berakhot on time, to say them until midday.)


            Clearly, these halakhot call into question the propriety of minyanim which meet after the fourth hour.


            To conclude, one who fears that he may miss the latest time to recite Shema, should say Shema, even in the middle of Pesukei De-zimra, and repeat Shema, with its berakhot, during the next hour.


Next week we will continue our study of Keriyat Shema.