“Shema — Listen Israel! The Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one.” (Deut. 6:4)
When we recite the Shema, Judaism’s central affirmation of faith, we accept upon ourselves ohl malchut shamayim, God’s kingship and authority. The Torah instructs us to recite the Shema twice a day — “when you lie down and when you rise up“ (6:7).
Yet one might wonder: why isn’t once a day sufficient?
When we contemplate and reflect on a concept, we deepen its impact on the soul.
The day can be divided into two distinct parts: the daytime hours, when we engage with the outside world, and the evening hours, when we retire to the quiet sanctuary of our homes. By reciting the Shema both in the morning and evening, we affirm our acceptance of God’s rein and dominion throughout both parts of the day. In other words, our affirmation of the Shema serves as a guiding force in our public activities during the daytime as well as in our private lives at night.
Reciting the Shema before the day begins helps prepare us for the daytime hours, so that our social interactions and public activities will meet the Torah’s ethical standards. And the Shema of the evening is meant to infuse our private lives with holiness and purity.
Both affirmations are vital. Ethical living should not be restricted to one’s private life, just as it should not be limited to the sphere of one’s public affairs.
This dual recital of Shema provides an additional insight. The ethical directives for society as a whole differ from those for the individual. Public life is too varied and complex to be governed by the same guidelines that guide private individuals. Hence, the Shema of the morning is inherently different than the Shema of the evening.
This insight enables us to understand a peculiar statement of the Sages. The Mishnah teaches that the evening Shema is to be recited “after the hour when the kohanim return [from the mikveh] to eat their terumah offerings” (Berachot 1:1). In the case of a kohen who becomes ritually impure, he must immerse himself in a mikveh and await nightfall before partaking of terumah. When in fact did the kohanim become pure and could once again eat terumah? When the first stars appear in the night sky.
Why doesn’t the Mishnah mention this time explicitly? Why the digression about kohanim returning home to eat their terumah?
In fact, this serves as a beautiful metaphor for the evening Shema. The primary service of the kohanim unfolds takes place the day; however, their evening meal of terumah also constitutes a form of Divine service (see Pesachim 73a). The inspiring image of a kohen entering his home to partake of terumah corresponds to our own recitation of the evening Shema, wherein we affirm God’s dominion in our private lives. Through the recital of the evening Shema, we demonstrate that we belong to a “kingdom of priests” also in the privacy of our own homes.
The distinction between the evening and morning Shema, delineating our private and public service of God, has a parallel on the national level. There are times and situations in which the Jewish people must be a “people who dwells alone” (Num. 23:9) — a people separated from the other nations to safeguard their unique heritage. On the other hand, the nation of Israel is also charged to influence and uplift the rest of humanity, to serve as “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).
The evening Shema corresponds to the distinctive spiritual life of Israel, a nation living its own existence in pure faith. The blessing recited after the evening Shema is Emet va'Emunah — “Truth and Faith.” This is a time when the unique character of the Jewish people must be protected from foreign influences, much like the kohen who returns to his home in the evening, after publicly representing the community in the Temple during the day. In the privacy of his home, the kohen separates from non-kohanim as he partakes of the holy terumah offerings.
The morning Shema, on the other hand, corresponds to our national mission of proclaiming God’s Name throughout the world. Consequently, the blessing recited after the morning Shema is Emet VaYatziv, where word yatziv is simply emet (truth) translated into Aramaic. We translate the Torah’s message to other languages, as this is a time when its truth should be grasped by all nations of the world, inspired by Israel’s acceptance of God’s reign.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 173)