July 18, 2013

Va’Etchanan: The Double Shema

“Listen (Shema), Israel: Hashem is our God, Hashem is one.” (Deut. 6:4)

To recite the Shema, the central message of the Jewish people, is to accept “ohl malchut shamayim,” God’s kingship and authority. The Torah instructs us to recite the Shema twice a day — “when you lie down and when you rise up” (6:7). Why isn’t once a day sufficient?

Public and Private Domains

The purpose of meditating on a particular concept is to deepen its impact on the soul. The day has two parts: the daytime hours, when we interact with society, and the evening, when we rest in the quiet sanctuary of our homes. By reciting the Shema every morning and evening, we accept malchut shamayim during both parts of the day. Thus the principle of Shema guides us in our public activities in the daytime, as well as our private lives at night.

The Shema at the start of the day helps prepare us for the daytime hours, ensuring that our social interaction and public activities will be according to the ethical teachings of the Torah. And the Shema of the evening helps ensure that our private lives are imbued with holiness and purity.

This idea is not trivial. Ethical living should not be restricted only to one’s private life, just as it surely should not be limited to the sphere of one’s public affairs. But there is an additional message here: the ethical directives for society as a whole are different than those for the individual. Public life is far too varied and complex to be governed by the same guidelines that guide private individuals. Thus the Shema of the morning is inherently different than the Shema of the evening.

The Private Service of the Kohen

This insight helps us understand a peculiar statement in the Talmud. The very first Mishnah teaches that the evening Shema may be recited “after the kohanim enter to eat their terumah offerings” (Berachot 1:1). (If a kohen became ritually impure, he must immerse in a mikveh and wait until nightfall before eating terumah.) When in fact did the kohanim become pure and could once again eat terumah? At tzeit hakochavim, when the first stars may be seen in the night sky. But why does the Mishnah not teach this time explicitly? Why the digression about kohanim returning home to eat their terumah?

In fact, this is a beautiful metaphor for the evening Shema. While the kohen’s principle service takes place during the day, partaking of terumah is also a form of Divine service (see Pesachim 73a). The image of the kohen entering his home to eat terumah parallels our own recital of the evening Shema, as we accept God’s dominion in our private lives. We recite Shema in the evening to indicate that we belong to a ‘kingdom of kohanim’ also in the privacy of our own homes.

The Shema of the Nation

This distinction between the evening and morning Shema, between our private and public service of God, also exists on the national level. There are times and situations in which the Jewish people must be a “people who dwells alone” (Num, 23:9), a people separated from all other nations in order to safeguard their special heritage. On the other hand, the Jewish people is also charged to influence and uplift the rest of humanity, to be “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).

The evening Shema corresponds to the unique spiritual life of Israel, a nation living its own existence in pure faith. The blessing recited after the evening Shema is thus “Emet va’Emunah” — ‘Truth and Faith.’ This is a time when the special nature of the Jewish people must be protected from foreign influences. It is like the kohen who returns home in the evening, after publicly representing the people in the Temple during the day. In the privacy of his home, the kohen must separate from non-kohanim as he partakes of his terumah.

The morning Shema, on the other hand, corresponds to our national mission of declaring God’s name in the world. Therefore, the blessing recited after the morning Shema is “Emet VaYatziv.” The word yatziv is simply emet (truth) translated to Aramaic — so that the nations of the world may also understand and be uplifted by this acceptance of God’s kingship (see Zohar Chadash Terumah 42a).

Adapted from Eyn Eyah vol 1. p173


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