A well-known story, still true in many synagogues today.
The Story: what is the tradition?
A new rabbi comes to a well-established congregation. Every week on Shabbat when it comes to recite the Shema, a fight erupts during the service. Half of the congregation stands and the other half sits. Those standing say, “We stand for the Shema – it’s the credo of Judaism.” Those who remain seated say that it is the Jewish Law, according to the Shulḥan Arukh. The code of Jewish law says that if one sits when the Shema is recited, one remain seated.
The people who are standing yell at the people who are sitting, “Stand up!”. At the same time, those who sit yell at the people who are standing, “Sit down!”. This argument destroys the whole decorum of the service, and drives the Rabbi crazy.
The rabbi learns that at one of the founding members of the congregation, a 98 years old man, leaves nearby. So, the rabbi takes two congregants – one from each camp – to pay a visit to the old man. As they enter his room, the man who stands for the Shema rushes over to the old man. He asks: “Is it true that our tradition is to stand for the Shema?”. “No,” the old man answers in a weak voice: “That wasn’t the tradition.” Then the other man jumps in excitedly: “Than the tradition in our synagogue is to sit during Shema?”. “No,” the old man says: “That wasn’t the tradition.”
At this point, the rabbi, annoyed, cuts in angrily: “I don’t care what the tradition was! Just tell them one or the other. You don’t want to know what is going on in services every week. The people who stand yell at those who sit, the people who are sitting yell at those who are stand…”
“Yes! That was the tradition,” the old man says.
What is in the Shema Prayer?
The Shema prayer has three sections. The first, with the most famous sentence in Jewish Liturgy, is in Parashat VaEtchanan, Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The second is also from Deuteronomy, Parashat Ekev. I have an article in my website that elaborates on this section. The third part is at the end of Parashat Shlach Lecha.
The full shema is recited twice daily: in the morning and the evening services. The shorter version (only the first section) is recited before going to sleep. The first verse itself, ‘Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad’, is recited a few more times during the morning service.
What does the Talmud teach us about this Sugya (Issue)?
We read in B’rakhot Tractate (Pages 10b, 11a):
MISHNA: Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disputed the proper way to recite Shema.
Beit Shammai say: One should recite Shema in the manner indicated in the text of Shema itself. Therefore, in the evening every person must recline on his side and recite Shema, in fulfillment of the verse: “When you lie down,” and in the morning he must stand and recite Shema, in fulfillment of the verse: When you rise, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 6:7): “When you lie down, and when you rise.”
And Beit Hillel say: Every person recites Shema as he is, and he may do so in whatever position is most comfortable for him, both day and night, as it is stated: “And when you walk along the way,” when one is neither standing nor reclining. If so, according to Beit Hillel, why was it stated: “When you lie down, and when you rise”? This is merely to denote time; at the time when people lie down and the time when people rise.
The Gemara answers, Beit Shammai could have said to you: If so that the verse means only to denote the time for the recitation of Shema, as claimed by Beit Hillel, then let the verse say: “In the morning and in the evening.” What is the meaning of the ambiguous formulation: “When you lie down, and when you rise”? It must mean that at the time of lying down one must recite Shema while actually lying down, and at the time of arising one must recite Shema while actually risen.
The Gemara continues, asking: And what do Beit Shammai do with this verse: “And when you walk along the way,” which Beit Hillel use to prove that every person recites Shema as the way he is?
And the answer is: Beit Shammai need this verse in order to derive other halakhot, as it was taught in a baraita which interpreted this verse that the obligation to recite Shema applies when you sit in your home, to the exclusion of one who is engaged in performance of a mitzva, who is exempt from the recitation of Shema; and when you walk along the way, to the exclusion of a groom, who is also exempt from the recitation of Shema.
Rav Yeḥezkel taught: One who acted in accordance with the opinion of Beit Shammai has acted appropriately and is not in violation of the halakha. One who acted in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel acted appropriately as well.
According to this opinion, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai agree that one who acted in accordance with the opinion of the other fulfilled his obligation. Although the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel, Beit Hillel agree that one who acted in accordance with the opinion of Beit Shammai fulfilled his obligation.
Do you think it ends here? Not at all. There are many arguments that disagree with Rav Yeḥezkel with supporting citations and Halakhot. I myself agree with Rav Yeḥezkel. Logically, the restrictions that Beit Shammai impose are a particular case within the more general ruling of Beit Hillel.
21st Century opinion of a single person.
Few years ago, I received from my friend, Ḥayyim Ben Avraham, a profound email. Ḥayyim expressed in a clear and loud voice his take on the subject. With his permission it is my privilege to quote him:
I always wondered why some people stand for the whole of the Shema and some sit. I than realized that it was a point of debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. The Talmud recounts that and elaborates on the substantiations made by each.
On a trip to Poland a while ago I had the cause to think about how we decide to observe traditions so they have meaning for us.
In the town of Oswiecim in Poland the husk of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp still stands. The S.S. blew up with explosives the undressing rooms, gas chambers and crematoria at the end of the war, trying to hide the Nazi’s crimes. Only the footprint of these buildings remains, burnt and recessed into the ground, like an open mass grave.
Walking between the non-existent chambers it is not hard to convince yourself that you can hear the roaring sound of Shema. Innocent, naked and terrified yet still clutching to each other and to their faith, Jews showed their defiance in the final moments of their lives by reciting this ancient prayer. As the cyanide pellets fell through the vents in the ceiling and walls, many used their last breath to pronounce faith in God and commitment to Judaism.
At Auschwitz and the other killing centers: Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor and Treblinka, these Jews had no choice as to how to observe their last Shema. The S.S. forced them into “the showers” with their arms raised above their head so that the largest amount of people could be crowded into the gas chamber. This way when the pellets fell and reacted with the water and heat the cyanide gas would suffocate them much faster. There was no room to sit or even fall. Those that proclaimed their faith did so standing. They knew what was awaiting them but they never forgot who they are and where they came from.
So, although we have the freedom to observe the Shema sitting or standing, in the memory of those who perished in Auschwitz and to honor the strength of their commitment, I now always stand.
And back to Talmud, in support of Ḥayyim’s opinion.
My answer to Ḥayyim was also based on B’rakhot tractate (page 61b):
The Gemara relates: When they took Rabbi Akiva out to execute him, it was time for the recitation of Shema. And they were raking his flesh with iron combs, and he was reciting Shema, thereby accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven.
His students said to him: Our teacher, even now, as you suffer, you recite Shema? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by the verse: With all your soul, meaning: Even if God takes your soul. I said to myself: When will I have the opportunity to fulfill this verse? Now that it has been afforded me, shall I not fulfill it?
He prolonged his uttering of the word: One, until his soul left his body as he uttered his final word: One. A voice descended from heaven and said: Happy are you, Rabbi Akiva, that your soul left your body as you uttered: One.
Reading the Talmudic text in Hebrew, I feel that “accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven” means that Rabbi Akiva was saying “Barukh shem k’vod malḥuto le’olam va’ed” (Blessed be the name of His kingdom for ever and ever).
Rabbi Akiva returns to the Shema verse just seconds before he dies. He also, was standing.
How should one recite “Baruḥ shem k’vod malḥuto”?
A similar dispute also exists when it comes to reciting the next verse of the Sh’ma. This is “Baruḥ shem k’vod malḥuto le’olam va’ed” (Blessed be the name of His kingdom for ever and ever). Many sing it aloud after the Shema, while other would only whisper it. Those who hold to the later, do recite it aloud only on Yom Kippur. So, who is right about this? One can read an explanation why only whisper this proclamation in Dvarim Rabba (ch.2 36):
The rabbis said: When Moshe went up to the heavens, he heard the ministering angels saying to the Holy Blessed One: “Baruḥ shem k’vod malḥuto le’olam va’ed”. He liked it very much and brought it down to Israel. And why doesn’t Israel say it in public (aloud)? Rabbi Asi said: To what is it similar? To one who stole jewelry from the King’s palace and gave it to his wife. He tells her, “Don’t adorn yourself with it in public, rather (wear it) in your house.” However, on Yom Kippur when they are as clean as the ministering angels, they say it publicly: “Blessed is the name of the glory of God’s sovereignty for all time.”
In whispering this verse every day I feel that I honor Rabbi Akiva reciting it just before his death. I would only say it aloud at the holiest days of all, on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, we are in the state of spirit, mind and body of just about to die. We wear white cloths that remind the shrouds, admit and confess of our misses and transcreations. Following the recognition of our sins, we then ask for forgiveness from those (including God) that we offended. We hope for the compassion of God and human beings to forgive us. At the same time we also accept the yoke of heaven and the just reward to our deeds.
Whispering this proclamation may intensify the Kavannah (intent) we have. We are not the only ones hearing ourselves. God hears nonetheless.