The Blessings Around the Shema

The structure of these three blessings reflects both the historical progress from creation to revelation to redemption and the religious conception that each of these "events" is actually a process.

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Reprinted with permission from Back to the Sources: Reading the Jewish Classics.

The Shema proper is surrounded by three extended berakhot. (As a unit within the prayerbook, the whole structure of the Shema plus its berakhotis itself called the Shema.) The three berakhot deal respectively with the themes of creation, revelation, and redemption; the Shema proper comes between the second and the third.

Berakhah One: Creation

Berakhah Two: Revelation

Shema

Berakhah Three: Redemption 

The sequence creation-revelation-redemption forms the essential theo­logical drama of Judaism. There is a clear recapitulation here of the movement of sacred history as enacted in the Bible and interpreted by the rabbis: the formation of the world in Genesis, the giving of the Torah at Sinai in Exodus, and the messianic age-to-come as prefigured by the liberation from Egypt.

hebrew textYet history is only one level at which these prayers speak. Creation-revelation-redemption are presented not just as events located in the mythic past or the future, but also as processes ongoing within the life of the individual and the people. The first berakhah, for example, forcefully underscores this dimension when it declares that God "through His goodness daily renews the work of creation." Lest we lapse into an alienated conception of an Aristotelian prime mover, the text insists that the God of Israel continues in His moment-to-moment authorship of our reality.

The berakhah on Creation is the longest, encompassing fragments of ancient poetic litanies and a depiction of the acclamations of the angelic choruses. It is also one of the places where the hand of the rabbis in shaping the liturgy out of biblical materials is most conspicu­ous. Take the opening statement of the berakhah:

"Praised be You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace and creates all things."

Now take its source in Isaiah 45.7; God is the speaker:

"I form light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil."

The rabbis have changed the Isaiah verse from the first person to the third and absorbed it into the berakhah formula. But they have gone further; they have done nothing less than tamper with the biblical text by emending evil into the euphemized all things. In truth, this is not a gross violation. By setting up a series of antitheses (light/darkness, peace/evil), Scripture intends to convey the sense that God is the source of all phenomena, from A toZ, so to speak. The rabbis' "all things," then, is not far off the mark. The change, however, is more than a helpful gloss. While they too believed that God was the author of bad things as well as good, after the catastrophes that had befallen the Jewish people, the rabbis felt that in the context of prayer it was appropriate to underscore God's merciful nature. The berakhah on Creation was sup­posed to inspire awe of the glory and plenitude of the world. For the rabbis, "all things" told the truth, yet did not sound the minor chord of the original.

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Alan Mintz

Alan Mintz is the Chana Kekst Professor of Hebrew Literature and chair of the Department of Hebrew Language at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Dr. Mintz joined the JTS faculty in June 2001 after ten years at Brandeis University as the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature.