Chapter six of Deuteronomy (verses 4-9) contains the first paragraph of the Shema. In verse 7 we read: "And you shall teach them to your sons and speak of them—when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up."
Our Sages explained that the words "when you lie down and when you rise up" is a charge to recite the Shema every morning and evening.
The Shema includes three paragraphs (click here for the Hebrew and English texts). The theme of the first (Deuteronomy 6:4-10) is the acceptance of the “yoke of Heaven,” the second (ibid. 11:13-21) of the acceptance of the yoke of His commandments, and the third (Numbers 15:37-41) of remembering the Exodus from Egypt.
Our Sages tell us that the creation of the entire world is considered a worthwhile endeavor just for the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven that we enact during the daily recital of Shema. It is said that one who prepares himself for prayer in the proper way, puts on tefillin, recites the Shema, and then prays, has fully accepted the yoke of Heaven.
The Sefer HaChinuch writes that when a person reciting Shema remembers the unity and kingship of the Almighty, who supervises everything, he will take to heart that G‑d's eyes observe all of a person's ways. He will appreciate that G‑d counts our steps and that none of our thoughts are hidden from Him. Thinking this and saying this will guard a person throughout the day. Repeating it at night will guard him at night as well.
The reward for reciting the Shema at the right time is greater than the reward for studying Torah during the rest of the day, and Torah study is considered greater than all the other mitzvot.
Who is Obligated to Read the Shema?
As the recitation of the Shema is a "time-bound" positive mitzvah, women are not obligated to read the Shema at a particular time. Nevertheless, it is proper that they recite at least the first verse in order to accept upon themselves the yoke of Heaven. In addition, they should recite the blessing after the Shema in order to remember the Exodus from Egypt.
Children who have reached the "age of chinuch (education)," i.e., capable of reciting the Shema, should be trained to read the Shema on time.
Blessings of the Shema
Our sages instituted blessings that should be recited before and after the morning and evening Shema. These are called the Birchot Kriat Shema ("blessings of the Shema").
- These blessings should be recited as part of the daily morning and evening prayer services so that they are followed immediately by the Amidah.
- If one is praying these prayers within the proper time slot for reciting the Shema (see below), he will automatically fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Shema when he recites it within the prayers.
- If one is praying either of these prayers before or after the proper time for reciting Shema, he should make sure to also recite the Shema within the proper time slot. Nevertheless, he should still say the Shema as part of the prayer.
When to Recite the Morning Shema
- The best time to recite the morning Shema is after it begins to get light ("misheyakir") but before sunrise. For this reason, many people (people who do so are called "vatikin") begin praying shortly before sunrise, so that they conclude the Shema and start the Amidah as the sun rises (which is the earliest time to recite the Amidah).
- One should try to recite Shema as early as possible. It is best to recite the Shema while wearing tzitzit and tefillin and as part of the morning prayers. One should therefore try to pray with the earliest minyan that one is able to attend.
- If one will not pray until later, it is good to say the three paragraphs of Shema as soon as one awakens, after saying the morning blessings. This is especially true for someone who wishes to drink a tea or a coffee.
- One may perform the mitzvah of reciting the Shema until the end of the third halachic hour of the day. This means until one quarter of the sunlight hours – counting from sunrise till sunset – have passed. (Some opine that the day's halachic hours start at dawn and end with nightfall).
- If one missed that time, he is no longer able to fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Shema. He should still recite the Shema as part of his morning prayers, but he only receives reward as one who reads verses from the Torah.
Click here for local Shema start and end times for any date.
The Time for Reciting the Evening Shema
The time for reciting the evening Shema begins when three stars become visible in the night sky (this is called tzait hakochavim. Click here for more information and for local times).
One must recite the Shema before midnight, and one who delays reading it past midnight is called an "over al divrei chachamim" (one who transgresses the words of the Sages). Our Sages instituted that one should recite the Shema before midnight in order to distance oneself from sinning (i.e., forgetting to recite the Shema entirely). Nevertheless, if one reads it afterwards, up until dawn, he has fulfilled his obligation.
If, for reasons beyond one's control (such as illness), one did not say the nighttime Shema before dawn, he may still say it until sunrise.
The Bed-Time Shema
One other time that we say the Shema each day is before going to bed. It is recited as a protection and so that we go to sleep with words of Torah on our lips. Though it's not part of the mitzvah of reciting the Shema, if one did not yet recite the evening Shema, one can fulfill the mitzvah when reading the bedtime Shema, if that is his intention.
Click here for Part II of this article.