The Talmud discusses when a person can say Shema in the evening. It's connected to the words in Deuteronomy to remember the commandments when you're lying down and getting up. I can see the connection. I can also see how this helps both individuals and the community to remember and fulfil the commandment. I also understand why it's good to follow the community in such matters.

What I don't get is the stretch from simply saying it whenever you go to bed, to this whole concern of deciding what time is appropriate to do so every day. The Gemara asks why the question 'from what time' was brought, but the answer isn't given on the level that I'm wondering about.

Is this interest in times a 'fence' measure, to make sure an original (oral) Torah law to say Shema is kept? (Similarly to the statement in the mishnah about why the sages said 'until midnight'.) Or perhaps the practice of saying Shema itself emerged not from a Torah law per se. Perhaps the Sages wanted to create a tradition that would help us remember the things Deuteronomy discusses; and then times were also given. Or do you think that Shema was said at particular times from the days of Moses, and that the Mishnah here was recording something original to the oral Torah?

I'd value hearing more about how rabbinic tradition handles such things, to come to the decisions you have before you today, with reference to this particular question. In this case, what is the connection between what is written in the verses and what is passed down through the generations? Is it even possible for us to know why it matters to specify times for saying it?


I'm not challenging the validity of the Talmud or the binding nature of practice about this point, within the context of Judaism. I'm just wondering if there's anything else in rabbinic writings about how the Shema came to be said in this way. Or, if it did happen to be a case of rabbinic tradition and fences: How might it hypothetically have happened within the processes of Jewish law?

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    Thank you for bringing this question here. I think you've brought several relevant factors -- received tradition about when we've always said it, protection against forgetting to do it, and enacting the words in D'varim (Deuteronomy). Another factor that affects several mitzvot is doing things with the community; for example, as you'll learn later in B'rachot, if one can't pray with the minyan he should at least try to pray at the same time as the minyan. I hope to expand and source all this later, unless someone else gets to it first, but meanwhile wanted to give you something. Commented Dec 25, 2012 at 15:17

3 Answers 3


What I'm confused about is the stretch from simply saying it whenever you go to bed to this whole concern of deciding what time is appropriate to do so every day. ... Do you think this interest with times is a 'fence' measure to make sure an original (oral) Torah law to say Shema is kept, similarly to the statement in the mishnah about why the sages said 'until midnight'?

As is explained in the mentioned mishnah, the time of midnight is a fence. However, the concept of having times at all is from the Torah, which specifies (Deuteronomy 6:7) "When you lie down and when you get up." We learn from this that there are specified times; according to Rabbi Eli'ezer the time of lying down is until the end of the first watch, and according to the rabbis is the whole night; after this time it can no longer be described as a time of lying down according to the respective opinions. So to answer this part of the question, no, the times were not a fence, other than the midnight time.

Despite this, I have previously written that according to Rabbi Eli'ezer, the time for saying Shema is entirely subjective: When each individual goes to sleep and wakes up.

The concept of fences is learned from the verse (Leviticus 18:30) which literally means "And you should guard my guardings" — make a fence around the commandments (Bartenura, Avos 1:1).

What is the connection between what is written in the verses and what is passed down through the generations, here?

This is explained at the end of the first chapter of Mevo HaTalmud of the Maharatz Chayus. The written part was given independently of the oral part. The written part contains hints to the oral part that can be used as memory devices. Before the time of the writing of the Mishnah, it was forbidden to write down the oral Torah. To start, there are about 3,000 two-sided pages in the Talmud; barring that, the author of the Chafetz Chayim (footnote in Shem Olam 1:12) quotes sources that say that the original mishnah contained 600 sdarim (compared to the current 6) tractate Avodah Zarah was 400 chapters long (the current one is 5 chapters) — assuming consistency in chapter abbreviation for all tractates and same seder length, that's 240,000 times as long, what would be if written (again assuming consistency) 720 million double-sided pages. So having a short, written source to find memorization devices would have been extremely important. But reading the written section alone obviously won't teach you all the laws (I have heard it compared to notes written in shorthand, comprehensible only to one who has previously heard the lecture on which the notes were based).

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    Pashtus in the Rambam is that 3 hours in the morning is also a fence. Why can you read kriat shma shel arvit after olot? Because some people are still sleeping. Kemashma lan the zman is when people are sleeping not when they go to sleep. So too in the morning, so long as people are awake, ie all day. But Chachamim are oker the mitzva after the third hour.
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 4:27
  • @DoubleAA "שכיבה" is lying down, which can be used to describe the position the whole night. "קימה" is getting up, not standing up, an action that is done only once in the morning, not the whole day. (I think I read that in the Tif'eres Yisra'el, though I looked quickly through the first chapter and didn't find it. I will look a little more to see if I can find the author.)
    – b a
    Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 4:51
  • I don't think I agree with that linguistic analysis, but either way the position I presented is R Yosef Karo's understanding of the Rambam. BTW this also explains why the Rambam thinks you can say Birkot Keriat Shema all day, not just till Chatzot/SZTefila.
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 4:52
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    I see what I quoted is from Tosfos Chadashim to 1:2 in the name of Magen Avraham; see there.
    – b a
    Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 4:56
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    @DoubleAA Indeed Hakham 'Ovadiah Yosef A"H mentions the same: that, per Maran HaRav Yosef Qaro, the time limit on saying Qeri'at Shema' Shel Shahharit is a Rabbinic enactment and not Biblical in nature. And, that the Biblical time limit on saying Qeri'at Shema' Shel Shahharit is all day.
    – Lee
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 16:12

The answer to your questions lies in understanding what the Oral Torah is. It is not just fences and interpretations of the rabbis, but it was given together with the written Torah at Sinai as Rambam states in the Beginning of his Introduction to Mishne Torah:

All the commandments that were given to Moshe at Sinai were given together with their interpretation, as it is written "and I will give thee the Tables of Stone, and the Law, and the Commandment" (Exodus 24,12). "Law" is the Written Law; and "Commandment" is its interpretation: We were commanded to fulfill the Law, according to the Commandment. And this Commandment is what is called the Oral Law".http://www.mechon-mamre.org/e/e0000.htm)

So the fact that there does not seem to be a clear connection between the verse where the Mitzvah of Shema is derived and how the Mitvah is performed from does not matter. The Oral Torah contains all the details of how the mitzvah is performed and that comes directly from the Torah as is was given at Sinai.

As for the fences like saying Shema before before Chatzos (Rambam, Mishne Torah, Sefer Ahava, 1:10 http://www.mechon-mamre.org/i/2101.htm), that is an institution of the Rabbis after the giving of the Torah.

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    @Annelise Trying to decided what the level of prohibition/obligation a certain rule has (Biblical, rabbinic, fence, custom etc.) is not something you'll find an easy rule for.
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 25, 2012 at 15:32
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    ...so Binyomin Trager: can you source that aside from the midnight/3 hour rules, that everything else is a direct tradition from Sinai?
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 25, 2012 at 15:33
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    Binyomin, is it clear to you where the Oral Law leaves off and where Rabbinic fences pick up in this case? If so, can you edit in clarification and a source?
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Dec 25, 2012 at 15:34
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    Oh, BTW, a belated welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks very much for your contributions!
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Dec 25, 2012 at 15:35
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    @Annelise I didn't say you were challenging anything. Only that if you are looking for general rules to understand something's level of obligation I doubt you will find them. It's very case specific and people to this day study and debate some of the finer points of certain obligations.
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 25, 2012 at 15:47

this is a very good question. the way the Talmud today is set up was a reaction to preserving the laws and how the written Torah is to be understood. As such there were two aspects of the Torah that were given at mount sinai to the Jewish people which were the oral Torah and the written Torah. The discussions of the Rabbis in the Talmud are about the oral Torah that was given to Moses and the Jewish people. As such there are many aspects of the written Torah which can only be fully understood within the context of the whole Torah which includes the oral tradition as well.

Put another way, the Torah is like multi-faceted painting and cannot be fully grasped without stepping back and looking at the larger picture.

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