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Kavana in Shema and Brachot

Rabbi Dovid Bendory, 19 Cheshvan, 5767
Wall Street Synagogue

Listen to the audio. (10:19)

Birshut HaRav: We previously learned that one who is prevented from reciting the Shema out loud due to sickness or some other reason, and therefore one only recited the Shema in his heart, b'dieved he has fulfilled his obligation to recite Shema.

We learned yesterday that the Mishna Brurah says that in such a case I fulfill my obligation, but when I have the chance I should go back and recite Shema again. The Rama says that you can fulfill your obligation to recite Shema by meditating deeply on the words in your heart and not saying any words aloud if you are in a situation where, not by your own volition, you're not able to speak for some reason, such as when you're sick.

Then the Rama brings another such situation: what if you're in a place that isn't clean? Now we haven't learned these halachos together; I will say briefly that you cannot say Shema in a place that is disgusting; certainly not in a bathroom, for example. Even our bathrooms today, that by the standards of the time of chazal are immaculately clean, it's still a bathroom and considered a disgusting place where you cannot say Shema. So the Rama asks: What should you do if if you are in a place that is not completely clean or if you yourself aren't clean? He answers: you should just think about the Shema in your heart. This is what to do, so long as you are not in a place that is so completely despicable that you shouldn't even be thinking about Shema, as it is forbidden to even think about Torah in a place that is completely despicable.

So let's go through this in a little more detail get the halacha down. You're not even allowed to think about Torah in the bathroom. You're not allowed to think about Torah, you're not allowed to think about Shema, etc. If you're in the bathroom you are luck. You cannot fulfill any of this mitzvah.

What if you're in a place that simply is not so clean? You're maybe on a bus or a train commuting into the city and every once in a while you might get into a train car that's pretty filthy. It's gross. It maybe smells. A few people partied a little too much before they took the train home last night, that sort of thing. So in that situation we wouldn't say that even thinking about Torah is forbidden. It's not a bathroom, but on the other hand it's not an appropriate place to be davening. So this is a situation where the Rama says basically, "Clean it up." That's the halacha. L'chatchila go somewhere else and say your Shema. If you can't do that, clean it up and say it there. If you can't do that think about Shema. And if you can't even do that? Says the Mishna Brura: if you're in a place that's so disgusting you can't even think about the recitation of Shema, then don't even think through the Shema; don't even think through the blessings; rather think to yourself how disappointed you are, how sad you are that you're stuck in this place where you cannot say the Shema. Have sorrow; Hashem will hear your thoughts. We have a general understanding in halacha that if you want to fulfill a mitzvah and you're prevented from fulfilling it against your will, it's as if you fulfill it, and therefore Hashem will give you appropriate reward for that. Needless to say, once you get out of that disgusting location you should, of course, recite the Shema.

We have said that there is a halacha that you have to say Shema out loud and that there is no limit in how loud you can say it. Unlike the amidah where you're not allowed to raise your voice above a whisper, with shema there is no such restriction. In fact, says the Mechaber, the shaliah tzibbur who is leading the service should call out the Shema. Why? Because that way the whole community will hear and everyone will accept upon themselves the sovereignty of heaven together as a community. Remember, we talked about how the Shema is a declaration. It's not a prayer but rather a declaration of our acceptance of Hashem's dominion over us. That is something that is best done in a community. It's not just an obligation I have as an individual to do, it's an obligation we each have as individuals and we all have together collectively as a community. And therefore we should say that first verse aloud together. I have to comment that this is something that we do here nicely, though of course we could improve our kavana and do it even more nicely.

As an aside, and perhaps we'll go into it another time, it's because of this aspect of accepting the yoke of Heaven upon ourselves that if you're not davengin with the community, you say the first verse of Shema with the community when they get there.

We have talked about saying the Shema out loud, we've talked about saying the amidah out loud, and this also comes to play in brachot. I will bring one halacha from there to finish today.

When you make a bracha on food you cannot have any interruption between the bracha and the food you're going to eat. The Rama defines an interruption as a short time, not more than it takes to say just a few words. I'm not going into that halacha, but I just bring it for completion of this Simon. Says the Mechaber, one must say the bracha loud enough to hear it in his ears -- the exact some halacha we use with regard to the Shema. But if you didn't say it loud enough to hear yourself say it, you still fulfilled your obligation so long as the words came out of your mouth. Exactly like the Shema -- l'chatchila, loud enough for your ears to hear; b'dieved, if you spoke the words that is enough. If we are just thinking the words that is insufficient. And again like the Shema, the bracha can be said in any language that you understand.