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Shabbat Parashat Shelach 5771

Ask the Rabbi: The preferable way to recite Shema

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: What is the preferable way to recite Shema: in the regular davening sing-song or with trop (Torah-reading cantillation)?


Answer: Let us start our discussion from the main sources before moving on to practical considerations.

The gemara (Pesachim 56a) mentions a number of practices of the people of Yericho. One which was criticized is that they would not pause properly during the recitation of Shema. Rabbeinu Yona (Berachot, 8b of the Rif’s pages) explains that they did not read it calmly “with its te’amim,” which the Tur (Orach Chayim 61) understood as its trop, thus indicating that it is proper to do Kri’at Shema with trop. The Beit Yosef (ad loc.) questions whether the Tur understood Rabbeinu Yona correctly, considering also that few people in his time read Kri’at Shema with trop, and suggests that it just means to be careful to pause at the right places so that the text is properly comprehensible. Nevertheless, in his Shulchan Aruch (OC 61:24), he accepts the Tur/ Rabbeinu Yona’s idea of using the Torah trop as a requirement. It is clear that b’dieved one fulfills the mitzva without it. (It is interesting to note that it is a matter of machloket whether trop is of Torah origin or whether it was added at some later time (Nedarim 37b)).

On the Ashkenazi side, the Rama also discusses the matter with slight differences between his two major works. In the Darkei Moshe (OC 61:8) he says that reciting Kri’at Shema with trop is liable, for many people who try to do so, to take away from their concentration. He also reports that the minhag anyway is not to use trop. He is supportive of the practice only for those who are confident that they are able to concentrate at the same time on the content and the trop. In his glosses on the Shulchan Aruch, he is a little bit less selective, saying: “In our countries this is not the minhag. However, those who are exacting are stringent on the matter.”

Is there anything other than concentration that one may lose by using the trop? The Ishei Yisrael (21:(2)) implies that if one makes a mistake in trop then it is liable to change the meaning of the pasuk, which requires one to go back and do it correctly, just like regarding Kri’at Hatorah (see Shulchan Aruch, OC 142:1 and Bi’ur Halacha, ad loc.). Whether this concern applies equally without trop seems to depend on the person. If one reads Shema at a totally uniform pace, then while not stressing the correct meaning, one is also not reinforcing the wrong meaning, unless one does not pause at all at major stopping places (classically, where there is a sof pasuk or an atnachta). Reasonably accurate leining is likely to improve much of the comprehensibility, but mistakes could sometimes make things worse than a uniform pace.

Other issues emerge when one is audible when reading with the trop. One issue is yohara, i.e., that one’s community will view it as haughty if an individual reads in a manner that he considers a “better way” than the local minhag. The other is that leining has a tendency of disturbing the concentration of people around the leiner. While the major application of this issue of disturbing others is during Shemoneh Esrei (see Shulchan Aruch, OC 101:2), when people are silent and need total concentration, the issue could apply here (as Michtam L’David, OC 10 says regarding those who sing Kri’at Shema on Shabbat).

Some have a reasonable practice of using trop for some of Kri’at Shema but not for all. There is some logic to be more careful for the first parasha, which according to some is the only part whose obligation is from the Torah (see Beit Yosef, OC 63). On the other hand, the first pasuk, which in some ways may be most important (see ibid.; Shulchan Aruch, OC 60:5), may not be the place to use trop, as its pace is meant to be uneven (Shulchan Aruch, OC 61:6) and it is sometimes done at a slow speed or great intensity (ibid. 4) that do not fit naturally with trop.


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