Usually, when a biblical paragraph is incorporated into the liturgy, it is read straight through without interruption. A notable exception is the first paragraph of the Shema which is comprised of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 with the words, “Blessed be the name of God’s glorious kingdom for ever and ever” inserted between verses four and five.
The addition of these words reflects an ancient practice. When the leader recited the first line of the Shema, which invokes the divine name, the congregation would reply with the response that was used whenever God’s name was uttered in the Temple. As Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a scholar of Jewish liturgy, explains: “When this [liturgical] practice ceased, possibly the result of Roman interdiction of the recitation of the Sh’ma, this response seemed out of place. There was no need for a response to something one said to oneself. Furthermore it seemed inappropriate to interrupt the biblical text. Therefore, although the words are retained, they are said silently and, in printed texts, appear in smaller type.” This historical explanation is that we retain an ancient practice but modify it to reflect a new reality.
That is one explanation. On today’s daf, we encounter another — a midrashic one:
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said that it is written: And Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather around and I will tell you what will occur to you in the end of days” (Genesis 49:1). Jacob wanted to reveal to his sons when the complete redemption would arrive at the end of days, but the Divine Presence abandoned him, rendering him unable to prophesy. He said: Perhaps the Divine Presence has abandoned me because, Heaven forfend, one of my descendants is unfit, as was the case with my grandfather Abraham, from whom Ishmael emerged, and like my father Isaac, from whom Esau emerged.
In response to Jacob’s distress about their being unfit for inclusion in the covenant with God, his children seek to buoy him with the ancient liturgical words that are the familiar first line of the Shema:
Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
Here, the midrash places the first line of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4 — in that context spoken by Moses to the entire assembly of Israel) in the mouths of the children of Jacob, also known of course as Israel, as they address their father on his deathbed. By speaking these words, the midrash explains, they remind their father that God is in their hearts, and comfort him.
With their declaration, the midrash reports that Jacob was indeed comforted and responded:
Blessed be the name of God’s glorious kingdom for ever and ever.
This gorgeous midrashic explanation of the interposed line leads the Gemara into a dilemma. On the one hand, the extra line (“Blessed be the name of God’s glorious kingdom for ever and ever”) is not part of the text spoken by Moses as reported in Deuteronomy, and so should not be part of the liturgy. But on the other hand, it was (according to this midrash) spoken by the patriarch Jacob — so how can we not say it? The Gemara explains that the rabbis chose a compromise: reciting the line in a whisper.
Today, when Jews say the Shema and include that quiet, murmured phrase, “Blessed be the name of God’s glorious kingdom for ever and ever,” they are doing two things. They are both responding to God’s name as was the practice in the Temple and reenacting a tender moment between a parent and children, transferring the covenant from one generation to the next. The historical explanation helps us understand the origin of the practice; the midrashic one adds to its meaning.