The Three Paragraphs of the Sh'ma

by Rabbi Richard Sarason, PhD

[In Mishkan T’filah, the Sh’ma can be found on p. 64–68.]

A distinctive feature of Mishkan T'filah is its inclusion of more passages from the traditional liturgy. (Actually, each of the successive North American Reform prayer books published by the CCAR since the original version of the Union Prayer Book in 1895 has included more Hebrew texts than its predecessors.) A survey of Reform congregants' worship desiderata, conducted by the CCAR in the mid-1990s, which helped to generate the guidelines for editing the new Reform prayer book, recommended:

The CCAR should take note of the greater appreciation now being given to the traditional texts and should consider, for example, the paragraphs of the Sh'ma which have been deleted in Gates of Prayer, resurrection of the dead, and other elements of the traditional siddur which Reform has dropped…Consideration should be given to the possibility of alternatives within the same prayer (e.g., m'chayeih hakol next to m'chayeih meitim ).

Here we examine in historical perspective the three paragraphs of the Sh'ma .

The traditional K'riat Sh'ma (Recitation of Sh'ma ) comprises three biblical paragraphs: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. The Rabbis (MishnahB'rachot 2:2) characterize the content of the first paragraph as "Acceptance of the Discipline [Yoke] of God's Sovereignty," and the second as "Acceptance of the Discipline [Yoke] of the Commandments." The third paragraph is called both the "Paragraph about the Fringes" and the "Exodus from Egypt" (with reference to the beginning and the end of its content; Babylonian Talmud B'rachot 12b). Early on, there was a difference of opinion as to whether the third paragraph was to be recited in the evening, since one did not wear fringes at that time (Mishnah B'rachot 1:5, 2:2; Babylonian Talmud B'rachot 14b), but its evening recitation quickly became standard practice. Interestingly, the newly restored option in Mishkan T'filah of including the third paragraph, but only in the morning when the tallit is worn, corresponds to this ancient variant custom and invokes the same logic!

The earliest Reform congregational prayer book (Hamburg, 1819) includes all three paragraphs of the Sh'ma. The first radical Reform prayer book (Berlin, 1848), however, omits all but the first paragraph, which only appears (after the first verse) in the vernacular, German. The first verse ( Sh'ma Yisrael ) and its (non-biblical) response ( Baruch shem kavod ; found in MishnahYoma 3:8, 4:1-2, and 6:2 as the congregation's response upon hearing the name of God pronounced in the Temple on Yom Kippur) are given in Hebrew and singled out for special performance practice: they are recited and sung in responsive repetition by the prayer leader, then by the choir and congregation, while the congregation stands. A variation of this practice would become normative in the North American Union Prayer Book. That is how the traditional first paragraph came to be reconceived as two separate entities, "the Sh'ma " and "theV'ahavta " in popular Reform liturgical understanding.

The deletion of the second and third paragraphs of the Sh'ma in the more radical Reform prayer books (Berlin, followed in North American by Leo Merzbacher's Seder Tefillah at Temple Emanuel in New York, 1855; David Einhorn's Olat Tamid in Baltimore, 1856; and the Union Prayer Book , 1895, and its successors) was justified in terms of both length and theology. In order to shorten the worship service (on the theory that less is more), repetitions were omitted. Thus, the second paragraph, which contains much of the same language as the first, was deemed redundant. But there were also theological problems with the second paragraph: It affirms that God rewards the observance of the mitzvot through rainfall in its proper season, and punishes violations through drought. To the modern scientific mind, this seemed rather primitive and gross, both as an account of the weather and as an understanding of divine providence. (In 1945 Mordecai Kaplan also deleted this paragraph from the first Reconstructionist prayer book as offensive to his naturalistic theology, and substituted for it Deuteronomy 28:1-6.)

In more radical Reform circles, the third paragraph, (or minimally, its first part, dealing with the mitzvah of tzitzit ), was deemed expendable because the tallit , as distinctively Jewish, non-western prayer garb, was also deemed expendable. Also, the passage describes the function of the tzitzit as reminders to perform God's mitzvot---but many of these, too (particularly the ritual ones), were deemed archaic and dispensable in the modern world.

In more recent years, the new Reconstructionist liturgies have reinstated the second paragraph of the Sh'ma as an option (while also retaining Kaplan's alternative passage), arguing that it can be interpreted along ecological lines: "If we continue to pollute the environment---and thus display contempt for the integrity of God's creation---pure rain will cease to fall, and the ground will cease to give forth its produce." This rationale also was suggested in the first trial-draft ofMishkan T'filah (2002), which included the second paragraph as an option, noting that "traditional Reform thinking challenges Deuteronomic theology, that bad events which occur are a result of communal sinful behavior. We do accept responsibility for social and natural ecology: how we treat one another and our environment has a powerful, direct impact on society and the planet."

Nonetheless, the verses describing an angry God "sealing up the heavens" were printed in smaller type, indicating the theological difficulties with this image. The paragraph ultimately remained sufficiently problematic to require both a recommendation from the Siddur Editorial Committee and a vote by the CCAR Executive Committee. Both decided to uphold the earlier Reform deletion of the paragraph in its entirety: even though subject to mitigating non-literalist interpretations, the text itself remains difficult for a modern Jew to recite in the liturgy. The third paragraph, on the other hand, has been restored as an option, since many Reform Jews have embraced the tallit as distinctively Jewish prayer garb; viewing the tzitzit while praying can usefully remind us of our religious obligations.

Rabbi Sarason is professor of Rabbinical Literature and Thought at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.This piece appeared originally in Ten Minutes of Torah in February 2006.