Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Evolution of a Custom - Halacha, Aggada and Kabbalah - a revealing brew.

Recently I worked through an interesting custom that has become so mainstream that most of us do it automatically without thinking, twice daily. What intrigued me about it is that it entered Halacha even though it contravenes Halachik rulings.

Whenever we say Shema in shul with a minyan, the Mitpalelim wait for the Hazan to repeat aloud the last two words – Hashem Elokeichem – adding the word Emet, which is the first in the next paragraph. The most blatant issue is that it contravenes the prohibition of repeating words in Shema as ruled in Rambam Hil. Kryat Shema 2:11

קרא פסוק וחזר וקראו פעם שנייה, הרי זה מגונה; קרא מילה אחת וכפלה, כגון שקרא שמע שמע, משתקין אותו.

It is frowned upon someone repeating a verse. However if someone repeats a word, for example repeating Shema, Shema, he is silenced.

Although Rashi in the Gemara rules the opposite, one is silenced for repeating sentences while repeating words is only frowned upon, repetition in Shema is definitely not a priori acceptable.

The source for this interesting custom goes back to the Geonim and early Rishonim. The Ra’avyah R. Eliezer ben Yoel Halevi (d. 1225) quotes a Yerushalmi that the Shema has 245 words. The Rabbis added El Melech Ne’eman to make it 248 which equals the number of limbs of a person. The idea being that the Mitzvah of reading the Shema protects a person’s limbs. This Yerushalmi is not mentioned by anyone else nor does it exists in our current editions. (That is not surprising as there are other such cases where early Rishonim quote Yerushalmi that we have no record of. It was the basis for the famous Yerushalmi on Kodoshim forgery issue). The idea of adding EMN is that the acrostic thereof is Amen, אמןan appropriate response at the end of the Blessing before Shema. (I do not want to digress and discuss the issue of whether one responds Amen to this Bracha). Apparently this custom of adding EMN took hold in Germany - where Ra’avyah lived - and eventually in Spain too as we see from the Ramban’s (1194 – c.1270) query (see Chidushei Haramban on Berachot at the beginning) made to the Ramah – R. Meir ben Todros Halevi Abulafia (c.1170 Burgos, Spain - 1244) on the subject. Ramban himself has an interesting take on the basis for this custom. He suggests that in the earlier times, when it was more common for people who did not know the liturgy to be part of the congregation, the custom was for the Hazan to read the Berachot aloud. The Shema itself each one read for himself as the Halacha requires. They therefore answered Amen on the Bracha of the Hazan saying EMN. That evolved into the minhag of everyone saying it. Thus it is a minhag based on Amei Ha’aretz.

The Tur, R. Yaakov ben Asher, (1270-ca 1340) in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 61 reports the Ramah’s answer who considers the minhag erroneous. First one may not answer Amen on one’s own Bracha (except under certain conditions but this Bracha is excluded specifically see Rambam Hil Berachot 1:16). Second one mentions the name of Hashem in vain (El) and finally one is creating a hefsek, a separation between the Bracha and the Mitzvah. It would be acceptable to say Amen after the Bracha of the Hazan, but not when one says the Bracha himself. (Apparently this answer led to Ramban’s suggestion above.) The way the Tur reports this Ramah it is clear that he agrees with him and the Minhag is considered erroneous. However apparently it prevailed as we will see.

The Beit Yosef, R. Yosef Karo (born 1488, Spain-died March 24, 1575, Safed, Palestine) reports that at his time it was already a custom that the Hazan repeated the words Hashem Elokeichem Emet at the end of Shema. He explains that as the EMN idea was found to be incorrect and it was felt that the need to have 248 words in Shema was important, it was decided to replace EMN with the HEE repetition. He quotes a Zohar as the basis, to which I will return later.

This Minhag was not a straight evolution but rather a process. There is a report that in the time of the Geonim the Hazan said aloud from להיות לכם לאלהים onwards to remind people not to stop at the end of Shema but continue straight to Emet Veyatziv. At first, when the 248 words idea came into being, having finished the Shema ahead of the Hazan, the people would listen to the Hazan and that was seen as sufficient to count the Hazan’s words as if they had repeated those words to complement the number. As time went on different new methods were developed until the current minhag became mainstream. R. Moshe de Leon (born c. 1240, León-died 1305, Arevalo) offers two suggestions for the Hazan’s repetition – Ani Hashem Elokeichem and Hashem Elokeichem Emet.

Now let us revert to the Beit Yosef. He quotes the Tikkunei Zohar who clearly says that the earlier Rabbis had a custom to say EMN but had a problem with it and instituted the new approach of HEE. He further quotes a lengthy discussion from Zohar. There were apparently two versions in Zohar, the two suggestions of R. Moshe de Leon, and BY quotes his Rebbis who opted definitely for HEE.

Apparently in Minhag Ashkenaz EMN remained (see Remah who kept it only for someone who says Shema by himself) and in Frankfurt HEE was not repeated just the word Emet was announced loudly by the Rav. Rav Kafih in his three volume letters, printed a responsa by R. Moshe Tzarum, the last Rav of Sana’a, the capital and largest city in Yemen, who also argues that HEE is a new Minhag introduced by the Mekubalim, and that the normative Minhag Teiman is to not say EMN nor HEE.

What fascinates me in this story is the coincidence of the two versions of R. Moshe de Leon finding their way into the Zohar. He also seems to be the earliest to suggest this idea. Ramban the great Kabbalist had no tradition for the HEE minhag, rejected the EMN one and did not find the need to have 248 words in Shema. Apparently as the Kabbalah evolved these new ideas took hold and were so strong that they prevailed against all Halachik objections. Making sure that a person limbs are protected is apparently an irresistible imperative.

It is also fascinating how much history and complications a simple Minhag has. I have only summarized and reported what was pertinent for my observation. For a comprehensive discussion of all the different versions of this Minhag see Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz by Rav Hamburger Vol. 2 where it takes up over half of that volume.


  1. And now Artscroll has codified it as pratically being halacha with thier english instructions. (along with kissing the tefilin, and thinking carefully about "poteach et Yadecha"

  2. Upon learning the Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz piece, I also reached the conclusion that it would be better not to repeat HEE. However, it has been practised by most communities for so long that tampering with it carries dangers. While hashkafa must "make sense", so you are free go ignore subsequent philosophical views and become a Rambam purist, halakha is based on minhag, in addition to reason. It feels a bit Conservative to re-write minhag Yisroel, even if the rationale for doing so is logically cogent. Rav Hamburger himself is only trying to defend a dying minhag, not create a new one. Either way, I am left feeling uneasy, much the way Rav Lichtenstein describes shemitta nowadays as a "halakhic tragedy" because, whichever way we turn, something is still wrong.

  3. Maran, I appreciate and share your discomfort in changing mimhagim. However, though I am not an expert on them I do have a problem with Kabbalistic invasions into ritual especially as many come from suspect sources (see Dan's piece on ledavid.I therefore try as i go along and discover suspect ones to chnge my habit especially if the i find a community that has maintained their old way. Here we have two very old and reliable communities Ashkenaz and Teiman who have a tradition not to repeat Hee. Ashkenaz adds Emn while Teiman does not do that either. i feel very comfortable following the Teiman way which I have been doing for the last several years. I need Kavannah because otherwise i find myself ending Shema with Emet;-)

  4. why do we wait for the rabbi to finish shma?
    mer daf votin far d'rov tzu kumen tzu der EMES och

  5. Hersht der Rov darf kumen tzum emes!

  6. I was in the bet knesset instabuli in Jerusalem a little while ago. The community has attempted to maintain its liturgy as close as possible to the way it was in Spain. They have their own Siddur. What I saw amazed me. Let me share.

    The congregation have a very simple style of praying. At certain sections the congregation conclude each section out aloud together and are follow by the chazan who "repeats" the concluding word/s out aloud and continues. At other sections the congregation sing a whole section together and the chazan "repeats" the concluding word/s.

    For example, in az yashir, the congregation sing the whole song including 'adonia yimloch leolam vaed.' Then the chazan "repeats" 'adonia yimloch leolam vaed' and continues. It isn't actual repeating of the words because the chazan does not say those words when the congregation says them.

    In perkie d'zimrah, the chazan starts by reading the chapter. When he get up to the last two+/- lines the congregation sings it together till the end. Then the chazan "repeats" the conclusion (for the helluyahu's it is only the last word) and continues.

    It is really interesting when they get to shema. The chazan reads aloud all the berachot and the congregation remain silent. The congregation read out shema out aloud together. They read till the words 'lelohim ani hashem elolohkem.' The chazan "repeats" the words 'hashem elolohkem' and continues 'emet...'

    This isn't the first time I have seen shema read like this. The Yemenites in Har Nof do exactly the same thing. I am pretty sure this is the type of repeating Rabbi Yosef Karo is referring to. It is us who do not follow the minhag of reading the shema in this style who get into the halachic problem of repeating words.

    If I remember correctly, the Rambam codifies this custom of the chazan reading all the berachot aloud and the congregation reading the shema aloud.

    When reading the Torah as the reader reaches the last few words he stops. The whole congregation sings the last few words together and then the readers continues. I have been to many synagogues where some people attempt to sing the last few words. Generally they sing it over the reader and it definitely is not the whole congregation together. This custom has never been enjoyable till I visited the bet knesset instabuli.

    Hope you enjoyed my observations.