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I'm sorry if the question is too general, but I was just wondering about Berachot Kriat Shema. What exactly are they? What kind of relationship do they have with the Shema? We need to make a Beracha to make a prayer? What are we saying in the Berchot Kriat Shema? And finally, who composed them?

I don't mind being pointed in the direction of a book. But I don't believe I'll ever find the time to read it. Maybe if somebody can give some quick simpler answers I'd really appreciate it.

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Hmm, I don't know that this is necessarily too general, but it is more than one distinct question. –  Seth J Jan 15 '13 at 19:23
    
@SethJ, I read this as an "intro to kriat sh'ma" question; it could be broken up but that might not serve the poster's needs. But if there's a consensus to break it up I'm fine with that too. –  Monica Cellio Jan 15 '13 at 19:37
    
@MonicaCellio, it seems Double AA views it the same way you do. I have no particularly strong feelings about it, and if the OP just wants beginner information, I won't press for it to be split up. I just didn't think it fit the usual format well. –  Seth J Jan 15 '13 at 19:44
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@SethJ I didn't see all this discussion while I was typing my answer. I would not disagree with removing the authorship question. The others I think fit together close enough. –  Double AA Jan 15 '13 at 19:52
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2 Answers

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These are important questions which often don't get asked because the novelty of Birkot Keriat Shema (let's acronymize that because it will come up alot: BKSh) wears off somewhat after saying them twice daily.

What exactly are they?

There are two blessings which precede the morning and evening Shema, one blessing which follows the morning Shema, and 2 (in some customs, 3) blessings which follow the evening Shema.

What exactly are they? What kind of relationship do they have with the Shema? We need to make a Beracha to make a prayer? What are we saying in the Berchot Kriat Shema?

At first glance, BKSh seem like standard Birkot HaMitzvot, blessings on the performance of Mitzvot, just like we say blessings before picking up a Lulav or hearing the Shofar blasts. However, the Mishna in Brachot (9b) rules that one can even say BKSh after the time for saying Shema has elapsed. This (and some other Gemaras) leads the Rashba (Responsa 1:47, 319) to rule that BKSh are not Birkot HaMitzvot but other Brachot which were established to be said every night and morning.

The Ramban, however, writes (Chiddushim to Brachot 11b) that everyone knows that the blessing Ahavat Olam/Ahava Rabbah (ie the second of the two initial BKSh) is a Birkat HaMitzva. He does concede that the first blessing of BKSh at night and in the morning is not a Birkat HaMitzva. For those still worried about the question of the Rashba, the Mishkenot Yaakov (80) suggests that the only permission to say BKSh after the time for Shema has elapsed is because of Tashlumin (a compensatory prayer) and if one were to say Shema on purpose without BKSh at the right time, he could not make-up the lost BKSh later. The Mishna then is only talking about where one missed saying BKSh accidentally.

As for why the Rabbis would establish BKSh to be next to Shema, it seems it is because they are thematically related. The first of BKSh relates to the time of day, the second to learning Torah (which is what Shema in a sense is), and the final one to Redemption (which is how Shema ends off).

Who composed them?

As with most fixed prayers, Rambam writes (Brachot 1:5) that Ezra and his court established the proper words to be used. The Rashba (Brachot 11a) challenges this, because if that were so, we would expect the Talmud to provide us with the exact wording, or at least mnemonics to ensure it stayed accurate, such as the number of words in each blessing. He writes that the original enactments included what the content or theme of the blessing should be and its structure (should it open with "Baruch Attah", should it have an ending blessing etc.), and the fact that our Siddurim are fixed is more a matter of very longstanding custom than authorial intent. (See also this article)

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Very interesting. Thank you for your detailed answer. I really appreciate it. Can you please elaborate on the connection and how the Beracha is similar to Keiat Shema? Thank you for your answer. –  henryaaron Jan 15 '13 at 20:30
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In the morning there are two b'rachot before the sh'ma and one after; in the evening it's two and two. These b'rachot are laid out in the talmud, in the first chapter of tractate B'rachot, and summarized here. As for who wrote them, beyond "the rabbis of the mishna" we don't exactly know.

The sh'ma isn't technically a prayer; it's a passage from torah that we read. It's not that we need to say a b'racha in order to pray; rather, our liturgy is made up of a number of b'rachot in thematic groups, and the sh'ma forms the central passage in one of them, the part of the service known as kriat sh'ma.

You can learn more about the structure of the Jewish liturgy at Judaism 101.

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