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.

Print this page Print this page

The shaping hand of the rabbis is also evident in the second berakhah of the Shema cycle, which begins, "With abounding love You have loved us, O Lord our God; with unshifting tenderness You have graced us," and concludes, "Praised be You, O Lord our God, who chooses His people Israel in love" (p. 75). The choice in love is the covenant at Sinai described in Exodus 19-23: the singling out of Israel of all the nations to enjoy the intimate protection of God in exchange for adher­ence to the regime of divine commandments and obligations. Of the covenantal transaction, what the rabbis select for emphasis is neither the transcendent awesomeness of the event nor the difficulty of keeping its terms, but its basis in love: love expressed both in the choosing of Israel and in the granting of commandments, understood as opportunities for fulfilling His will.

If the primordial choosing of Israel is the historical event recalled in this prayer, the everyday experience described is the life of the Law, the living with and through the Torah. It is only through God's continuous love in the present, acknowledges the one who prays, that a Jew succeeds in keeping this discipline, and in keeping it with passionate devotion. God grants enlightenment, understanding, and learning: He is also the source of the will to take the further crucial step, to break through from cog­nition to practice. And through practice to love: God's love bestows the power to unify man's heart so that one can "cleave to the command­ments" and offer back to God the love one has received.

With the sounding of the theme of reciprocal love between man and God, the Shema proper is now recited. Why the Shema is lodged here between the second and third berakhot can now be understood. Again, the reason relates to the dual levels of event and process at which the service operates. In the succession of theological moments from creation to revelation to redemption, the Shema belongs to the second because it itself is the content of revelation. It is Torah: biblical text and not rabbinic prayer.

In their interpretation of the revelatory event at Sinai, the rabbis went a step further. They asserted that the assent given by the Israelites at that moment obligated all future generations, inasmuch as we were all present through our progenitors. Though we were pledged by that fate­ful "Yea!" we must nevertheless reconfirm the choice and make it our own. By reciting the Shema with passionate commitment, we make true the rabbinic doctrine: We stand again at Sinai and take upon ourselves the "yoke of the commandments."

God is imaged as the creator of life and as the endower of life with meaning through the Torah. Now, in the third and final berakhah, God is presented as the protector of the community that keeps faith with the Torah (pp. 79-81). The immediate background is the recapitulation of the Covenant embodied in the second paragraph of the Shema proper. If Israel remains loyal to the oneness of God and to the way of life set down in the Torah, the Covenant stipulates, it will enjoy a special relation­ship to history. A small and vulnerable people, Israel cannot long survive within the power contests of the nations without the active pro­tectorship of God. Whereas the previous berakhot stressed the divine attributes of mercy and love, the present context underscores power and force as the qualities displayed in the exercise of God's faithfulness to Israel.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.