I want to use this post to explain my thinking between a ritual change that we have experimented with this year at Beth David – sitting during the Sh’ma. While sitting during the Sh’ma is customary in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, for many years, Reform synagogues almost universally had the custom of standing for the Sh’ma. Today, Reform practice is much more varied on this issue. At my previous congregation in New York City, we sat during the Sh’ma; many Reform synagogues, of course, still stand for the Sh’ma, and in some congregations, a majority of the congregation follows one custom, while others feel free to do the opposite. The important thing, I think, when we make changes to our prayer service or any other aspect of our practice, we do so based on an understanding of the meaning and history of the prayers, and with an openness to continually evolving Reform practice.
In the Torah, the prayers that we call the Sh’ma and V’ahavta are actually one passage without interruption – and in fact, the “Baruch Shem” second line of the Sh’ma is a separate insertion, a response of praise inspired by language in the Biblical books of Psalms and Nehemia. But in the Book of Deuteronomy, the Sh’ma and most of our V’ahavta appear together: Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one! You shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might…” (Deut. 6:4-9).
So why do we refer to them as separate prayers today? First, the centuries-old tradition of adding the “Baruch Shem” response line after the first line (the Sh’ma) has the result of separating that first line from the rest of the passage, making them feel more like two separate prayers. Second, the early Reform Jews, in the intellectual context of 19th Century rationalism, put special emphasis of Judaism’s legacy of ethical monotheism, and so they wanted to highlight the first line of the passage, which emphasizes monotheism. Some Reform synagogues have a custom of standing for only the first line, the Sh’ma (plus the Baruch Shem response), in order to highlight its importance, while others remain standing through the V’ahavta, in order to retain the connection between the two parts of the passage in the Torah.
I, too, grew up standing for the Sh’ma. So why did I decide to have Beth David experiment with sitting for the Sh’ma this year? I had two main reasons.
First, in general, I want to eliminate some of the frequent standing up and sitting down that can make newcomers to synagogue feel uncomfortable because they don’t know the choreography, and can be a little distracting to any of us when we are trying to focus on prayer. The long series of prayers that begins with the Avot v’Imahot known as the Amidah is given that name – which literally means “standing”! – because it is meant to be the part of the service when you stand before God and talk most directly to God. Too much standing, I think, diminishes the emotional impact of rising to stand before God for the Amidah. And because the one-line Sh’ma is so short, my own experience is that I sometimes don’t have time to really focus my heart on the prayer when I am busy remembering to stand in the second before the prayer begins. When I sit, I can take that second to focus on the Shema’s meaning instead.
Second, in the Talmud and other rabbinic texts, the Sh’ma is described in opposite terms. While we must always stand for the Amidah, we are taught to say the Sh’ma in whatever position we are already in, since the words of the V’ahavta (which is the same passage of Torah as the Sh’ma) instruct us to say these words “when you sit in your house, and when you walk along your way.” In order to emphasize this distinction, the Sh’ma was traditionally said sitting down. On a metaphorical level, it seems to me to teach that sometimes the correct way to pray is to stop everything, and stand before God, but other times what we actually need to do is to learn to incorporate prayer and Torah into our everyday lives – and learn how to say the Sh’ma with a whole heart even when we happen to be sitting down.
What have your experience been standing and sitting for the Sh’ma, at Beth David and elsewhere? I would be happy for your comments here or after services any week.