I grew up on the Birnbaum siddur, I admit it. I read the little explanations at the bottom of the page over and over. Later, I bought a set of Artscroll machzorim and used those on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I never tried to compare notes, but this morning, something struck me.

In musaf on Shabbos, we say a kedusha which is different from that of Shacharis. The Birnbaum says that the insertion of the shema is the result of a 5th century practice by government forces intent on eliminating the statement of hashem's unity of putting "spies" in the shul to ensure than no one said Shema. At the end of davening, when the spies were gone, the Shema was said by being placed in the kedusha. This means that it was a decision made by religious authority to innovate a new text. (that's a recap and extrapolation from the write up on page 394 of the Siddur Hashalem.) While I haven't researched this, I'm assuming that the Birnbaum people didn't make this up from no where.

We say this same form of the kedushah on Yom Kippur in shacharis. The Artscroll machzor explains (page 406-7) that the kedushah in this form reflects a higher level of holiness which we attain usually only at musaf but which we are at in shacharis on Y"K. It also says that the text comes from Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer (chapter 4, at the end, page 8, here http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/vl/pirkeyeliezer/pirkeyeliezer02.pdf). Though it doesn't give a start date for this practice, the text was written (according to wikipedia) any time from the first to 8th century CE. The inclusion of Shema was then NOT related to spies, but to a totally separate claim to holiness.

The easiest reconciliation of these 2 versions is simply to say that one is wrong so if anyone has a good piece of scholarship which clarifies, then pass it along. Otherwise, I am wondering why there are two diametrically opposed explanations for a text's source.

  • +1 I would say the easiest reconciliation is that PdRE is giving drash on the mussaf kedusha, not describing its source.
    – Double AA
    Commented Apr 22, 2012 at 2:51
  • wouldn't that mean that the kedusha including the shema would predate the Pirkei and not be a 5th century innovation? it would also mean that the decision to add shema was not an isolated 2 lines put in due to the government, but as part of a full text imported wholesale.
    – rosends
    Commented Apr 22, 2012 at 3:07
  • As you say, parts of Pirkei were potentially added through the 8th century. Also, even if the phrase was added due to government concerns, it's likely that the rest of the prayer was adjusted so the phrase would fit in (ie they didn't just put it randomly in the middle; they gave it context).
    – Double AA
    Commented Apr 22, 2012 at 3:19
  • meaning that the explanation of extra holiness is invalid - if the rabbis of the 5th century added a preset prayer from Pirkei in order to accommodate the spy concern then the underlying artscroll explanation why it is used in musaf and on YK shacharis isn't relevant. on the flip side, if the birnbaum spy story is valid then adding it to shacharis on Y"K wouldn't make sense - spies would, not doubt, be around during shacharis on Y"K unless it ran REALLY late.
    – rosends
    Commented Apr 22, 2012 at 3:56
  • Ahh I understand. Your question is specifically about Y'K shacharit. It could be that it had been said at mussaf since the 5th century and only added to YK shacharit later. But we would need to look at some history to conclude anything.
    – Double AA
    Commented Apr 22, 2012 at 4:00

1 Answer 1


The source for Birnbaum's account is Shibbolei Haleket, citing a Geonic teshuvah (and quoted from there in Otzar Hageonim to Megillah 23b). The king is named there as יוזגרד - i.e., Yezdegerd (II) of Persia (ruled 438-457), although there's no mention of spies being there for part of davening and then leaving - on the contrary, the Gaon writes that the original enactment was to add Shema to kedushah of every tefillah, both on Shabbos and on weekdays. Only after Yezdegerd was (miraculously) killed and the decree abolished was it limited to Musaf and Ne'ilah, so that the miracle not be altogether forgotten.

(Otzar Hageonim also quotes an account by Pirkoi ben Bavoi, a disciple of R. Yehudai Gaon (mid-8th century), who says that the decree in question was in Eretz Yisrael under Roman or Byzantine rule, rather than in Babylonia; he argues that indeed the recitation of Shema in kedushah should be abolished altogether, now that the Byzantine domination over Eretz Yisrael has ceased.)

That it is said in all tefillos of Yom Kippur is indeed a widespread Ashkenazic custom, but I don't know a source for Artscroll's notion that it is because of our higher level of holiness on that day. Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 582:8) cites Hagahos Minhagim that it is related to the fact that Hashem sits in judgment over us throughout Yom Kippur, making it appropriate to say ממקומו הוא יפן - which leads into Shema - in each prayer that day.

  • Alex, do you have a timeline of when Shema' was added into the various texts? If a little detective work were to point out, say, that the custom to recite it on Y"K predates the Yezdegerd decree, it could mean that a precedent was created in which Shema' was inserted into Kedushah (for whatever reason) for Y"K, and then seen as a viable option for a temporary solution to a serious problem. Or not.
    – Seth J
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 20:11
  • 1
    @SethJ: AFAIK there's no documentation of this minhag at all - or indeed, of the text of Kedushah in general - prior to the era of the Geonim (except for a brief reference to the phrase נעריצך ונקדישך in Maseches Soferim). So I doubt we know.
    – Alex
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 20:45

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