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Torah Reading:  Deuteronomy 3:23 to 7:11.
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26.

This week's Torah reading, Va-Etchanan, includes Moses's repetition of the 10 Commandments, Deuteronomy 5:6-18, and one of key prayers recited in the synagogue, the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4-9:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.

Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  

These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.

Impress them on your children.  Recite them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.

Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.

Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

These lines are called the Shema from the first word, Shema, Hebrew for Hear.  Jews from ancient times until today have taken the words "Recite them . . . when you lie down and when you get up" literally by incorporating the Shema into the daily evening and morning prayers. Congregations recite these words loudly and in unison. Students often get their first taste of the Talmud from the Mishnah that begins the tractate Berakoth:

From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening?  

"From the time that the priests enter their houses to eat their sacrificial food, until the end of the first watch."  These are the words of Rabbi Eliezer.  But the sages say, "Until midnight."

Rabbi Gamaliel says, "Until the sun rises."  

Once it happened that his sons came home late from a wedding feast, and they said to their father, "We have not yet recited the evening Shema."  He said to them, "If the sun has not yet come up, you are still obligated to recite it."  

And not in respect to this alone did they so decide, but whenever the sages say "until midnight" the precept may be performed until the sunrise. . . .

Why then did the sages say "until midnight"?  In order to keep a person far from transgression.

Notice that the Talmud does not begin by instructing us to recite the Shema every evening - Jews in the second century CE were already reciting the Shema twice a day.  The Gemorrah, compiled over the next several centuries, continues:
On what does the Sage base himself that he begins with the words, "From what time"? Furthermore, why does he deal first with the evening?  Let him begin with the morning Shema!  He bases himself on Scripture, where it is written "Recite them . . . when you lie down and when you get up."  ["Lie down" comes first] . . .  And he also learns the prcedence of evening from the account of the creation of the world, where it is written "And there was evening and there was morning, one day" [Genesis 1:5].
Hence, we learn from the opening lines of the Talmud how these two verses of Scripture, Deuteronomy 6:7 and Genesis 1:5, are the basis on which, in Judaism, the day, including Shabbat and holidays, begins and ends not at dawn or at midnight, but at dusk.

And in case you are puzzled over the lines:

And not in respect to this alone did they so decide, but whenever the sages say "until midnight" the precept may be performed until the sunrise. . . .

Why then did the sages say "until midnight"?  In order to keep a person far from transgression.

The Talmud, after several pages, explains that as well:
The Sages' reason for saying "until midnight" is to keep a person far from transgression. For so it has been taught.  The Sages made a fence for their words so that a man, on returning home from the field in the evening, should not say, "I shall go home, eat a little, drink a little, sleep a little, and then I shall recite the Shema" . . . and meanwhile sleep may overpower him and as a result he will sleep the whole night.  Rather should a man, when returning home from the field in the evening, go to the synagogue . . . and then let him recite the Shema . . . and then go home and eat his meal . . . .
Berakoth 4b.

Several paragraphs later, the Talmud quotes Rabbi Joshua ben Levi:  "Although a person has recited the Shema in the synagogue, it is a religious act to recite it again upon going to bed." And for thousands of years, pious Jews have not only recited the Shema when going to bed, but have also recited the Shema as they were about to enter that final sleep of death.  Jews martyred for their faith have died uttering the words of the Shema.  The first Jewish martyr who did so was Rabbi Akiva, who supported the Bar Kokhba revolt, 132-136 C.E. against the Romans, and was arrested when it failed. The Talmud tells the story:

Rabbi Akiva was arrested and thrown into prison. . . .  When Rabbi Akiva was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema, and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the Kingship of Heaven.  His disciples said to him, "Our teacher, [you are reciting the Shema] even at this point?"  He said to them:

"All my days I have been troubled by the verse [of the Shema] 'with all my soul' [Deut. 6:5], which I interpret 'even if God takes my soul.'  I thought 'When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this?  Now that I have the opportunity, shall I not fulfill it?"  

And he prolonged the word Echad [One] [Deut. 6:4] until he died while saying this word. And a Heavenly Voice went forth and proclaimed, "Happy are you, Akiva, that your soul has departed with the word Echad!"  The ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He, "Such Torah [learning], and such a reward?  He should have died 'from them that die by your hand, O Lord'" [Psalms 17:14].  The Divine Voice went forth and proclaimed:  "Happy are you, Rabbi Akiva, that you are destined for the life of the world to come."

Berakoth 61b.  

From the Roman crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt, through the Crusades to the Holocaust, pious Jews murdered for their faith have gone to their deaths proclaiming the Judaism's motto: "Hear O Israel the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One."  May we hastily see the day when martyrdom ceases, when all humanity will respect our fellow men and women regardless of their faith or their color or their nationality or whether they are gay or straight, when a great peace will engulf the world, and mankind will not again know war.

Shabbat Shalom.

Originally posted to Elders of Zion on Fri Aug 03, 2012 at 12:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets .

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (6+ / 0-)

    "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

    by Navy Vet Terp on Fri Aug 03, 2012 at 12:30:02 PM PDT

  •  I appreciate your posts for several reasons.. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Navy Vet Terp, remembrance

    First of all, they are so well written, and often are very inspiring as to the hope that I too hold for a time of peace for all mankind.

    Also, they have either taught me or inspired me to learn the meaning of many of the words that you use that were unfamiliar to me, as a Christian. This is of course, good for my elderly brain, but also makes the Jewish religion more familiar, and I think that is a good thing.

    Finally, your posts just bring things to mind for me. For example today, the piece about Rabbi Akiva brough to mind the first prayer I was taught to pray as a child, at bedtime. It was "Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. If I should live for other days, I pray the Lord to guide my ways." This may sound trite or saccharine to your ears, but to me it was a reminder that I no longer always pray before I sleep, and that it is probably a good thing to do so!

  •  We have absolutely no one signed up (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I'll post a sign up schedule this weekend.  Please volunteer.  You don't even have to be Jewish!

    "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

    by Navy Vet Terp on Fri Aug 03, 2012 at 02:25:36 PM PDT

  •  I just got to it. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Navy Vet Terp

    I can do another, but not this coming week.  Let me know.

    Not only the early Jews, but also other early peoples, began the day with the evening.  We still begin our festivals, including Shabbat, at sundown.

    To use midnight is fairly late, since it presupposes telling time other than by the sun and moon.  It would make sense to use the older sunset and sunrise for prayers.

    Old people are like old houses - lots of character, but the plumbing leaks.

    by ramara on Sun Aug 05, 2012 at 03:09:28 PM PDT

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