Parashat Va’etchannan 5777

Rabbi Dr Dalia Marx, 4 August 2017

This week’s parashah, Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11), contains perhaps the two most well-known pieces of Hebrew writing; the opening verse of the Shema and the Ten Commandments.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu, Adonai Echad is the first liturgical text that Jewish infants are taught to recite, and it is supposed to be a Jew’s final sentence before falling asleep. When death approaches, Jews are expected to recite a confession that concludes with Shema Yisrael. Throughout their history, Jews have met martyrs’ deaths with the words of the Shema on their lips. This practice began with Rabbi Akiva, whose soul left his body as he pronounced the word ehad while being tortured by the Romans for teaching Torah in public (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 61b), and continued through to the victims of the Holocaust, who went to their deaths reciting Shema Yisrael. The six words of the verse sometimes constituted the only bit of liturgy transmitted by the Spanish anusim (conversos) from parent to child for generations. While the Mishnah permits the Shema to be recited in any language (Sotah 7:1), it was still recited in Hebrew even in synagogues where most of the service took place in the local vernacular.

It is not clear when the Jews first began reciting the Shema. In the Mishnah (completed c220CE) we find the requirement to recite the Shema in its full three paragraphs and with its accompanying benedictions appearing as part of the priestly rite of the Second Temple. The Temple was, of course, destroyed some 150 years before the Mishnah was completed and thus whether the Jewish masses outside the Temple recited the Shema is unclear although there is no reason to believe that they did not.

It is interesting to note that alongside the Shema and its benedictions, the Ten Commandments were also recited in the Temple service. Nevertheless, the custom of reading the Ten Commandments in the framework of the daily Shema and its benedictions has not persisted. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman and Rabbi Matna offer an explanation of this in the Jerusalem Talmud:

In principle, the Ten Commandments should be read every day.
And why are they not read?
Because of the claims (tar’omet) of the sectarians,
That they should not say: “Only these were given to Moses at Sinai.”

(Jerusalem. Berakhot 9b; 1:3)

That is to say, it would be proper to read the Ten Commandments, but we don’t do it because of the “claims of the sectarians” (taromet haminim). It has been argued that the exclusion of the Ten Commandments was a polemical action made by the Rabbis, maybe against the early Christians who renounced the Torah’s commandments, accepting only the Ten Commandments, which they understood as Divine Law. The Rabbis sought to demonstrate that the Ten Commandments lacked any special status among the mitzvot, and that the entire Torah was holy. That is why they removed the recitation of the Ten Commandments from the daily prayer. Further, Maimonides ruled against the custom of standing during the reading of the Ten Commandments from the Torah.1

Reading parashat Va’etchanan – which includes the Ten Commandments and Shema Yisrael – immediately after the 9th of Av creates an important and meaningful combination. Many nations had temples grander and more impressive maybe even than the two Temples in Jerusalem. When the enemy invaded and those fabulous buildings were destroyed, the people who worshipped in them became historical anecdotes; once their spiritual, cultural, social, and economic centers were demolished, those people never found anything else to unite them. It was not so with the Jewish people. Despite the confusion, the fear, and the hopelessness that accompanied the destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of the centre in Jerusalem, a group of intrepid and determined spiritual leaders took the helm and established a new center in Yavneh. Those rabbis, led by Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, offered their stunned compatriots the possibility of new hope and new meaning to being Jews.

The sacrificial rite carried out by the priestly caste in the Temple was replaced by words of prayer in the synagogues. Judaism had brought monotheism into the world, and monotheism’s purest expression can be found in the Ten Commandments of Va’etchanan.

Judaism, as we know it today, was formed after the destruction of the Temple, as it centred itself on three institutions, the home, the house of study and the synagogue. In contrast to the Temple with its passive audience watching the priests, the synagogue offers to each and every worshipper the opportunity to recite the Shema and reads the Ten Commandments in any location.

This remarkable transformation from the local Jerusalem-centred Second Temple cult to today’s synagogue based international faith demonstrates the power of Judaism to change. Liberal Judaism and its response to modernity is just its latest phase.

1 Teshuvot HaRaMBaM, Y. Blau edition, Jerusalem:5720 II:263, pp. 495-499.

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