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I have read a few times about people reciting the shema before dying.

what is the reason for this and does it have any basis in halacha.

  • It's called "krias shma al hamisah" – Double AA May 15 '16 at 19:21
  • There's a great article about the history of this custom by Ivan G. Marcus. It's called "Performative Midrash in the Memory of Ashkenazi Martyrs", and is in Midrash Unbound (edited by Michael Fishbane and Joanna Weinberg; Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2013). – Shimon bM Dec 5 '16 at 22:20
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Wikipedia cites:

Rabbi Akiva patiently endured while his flesh was being torn with iron combs, and died reciting the Shema. He pronounced the last word of the sentence, Eḥad ("one") with his last breath (Talmud Berachot 61b). Since then, it has been traditional for Jews to say the Shema as their last words.

It doesn't state that this is the basis for the custom, but, it certainly would lend support to the custom. If you read the story in Brachot, Rabbi Akivah cites the words בכל נפשך - "With all your soul" and the Gemarah, there, explains "even if your soul is about to be taken", you should love G-d.

IMO, this seems to lend strong support for the reason of reciting Shema just prior to death. I don't know if it is customary to recite the paragraph "Ve'ahavta". But, from the story with Rav Akiva, it says that he was killed at the time of reciting Kri'at Shema, so, had it not been for the fact that he died "too soon", for all we know, he may have reached that verse.

  • That claim of Wikipedia's has no citation attached to it and was, fwiw, added in this revision. – msh210 Nov 16 '15 at 22:58
  • @msh210 Little argument from me on what you said. As I stated, while it does not indicate that this is the basis, it is possible that the minhag came from there. R Akiva, of course, was prob. not the first one who followed this practice, either. Perhaps, he was one of the better-known expressed incidents of this idea. – DanF Nov 17 '15 at 14:31
  • This is the rationale I have always heard. – Noach MiFrankfurt Feb 15 '16 at 1:57
  • maybe it was a way of reinforcing his faith in such a difficult time – ray Dec 6 '16 at 6:14
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Basis is the death of Yaakov described in Pesachim 56a although over there his kids said Shema and he said Baruch Shem.

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    How do you know this is the basis? It doesn't even discuss the same thing. – Double AA Nov 16 '15 at 18:50
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    Gershon, there is no ikar to believe all of our aggadic traditions and we try to avoid paskening from midrash, per a friend of mine who happens to be a great chaver. – Noach MiFrankfurt Dec 16 '15 at 23:56

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