Intent to Hear
Over the years I have heard different requirements for the intention one needs in order to fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Shema. Quite frankly, at this point I’m a bit confused. Could you clarify this for me please? Since this is something we’re required to do twice daily, I imagine a lot of readers would benefit from gaining clarity on this. Thanks in advance.
This is a good question, and one that we would all benefit gaining clarity on, or being reminded of.
First, you’re right. The mitzvah of Shema is one of the greatest mitzvot insofar as it is a testimony of our belief in G-d and our commitment to fulfill His will. Obviously, the intention one has for this declaration is very important.
The Mishna (Berachot 13a) discusses a case where one is reading to himself from a Torah scroll. We are told that as he reaches the various paragraphs of the Shema interspersed throughout the Torah, if he has intention while reading them, he fulfills the mitzvah of Shema. The Gemara infers from this teaching that if he does not have such intention, he does not fulfill the mitzvah. And since the Mishna seems to be discussing reading the entire Shema, it would follow that one would need such intention for its entirety.
However, in the Gemara’s further discussion of this topic, various opinions are raised regarding how much of the Shema requires intention. While all agree that the entire Shema must be verbally enunciated, regarding intention one opinion holds that the minimum requirement is the first paragraph, another holds the first three verses and the opinion that is accepted as Halacha requires intention for only the first verse.
The seeming contradiction that needs to be resolved is how can the Gemara initially infer that one needs intention for the entire Shema, while the Gemara later seems to greatly minimize that?
The answer provided in the commentaries is that there are two types of intention needed to fulfill the Shema. The former is one that applies to all mitzvot, namely the need to have explicitly in mind that one is about to perform a commandment of G-d. This applies for the full duration of the Shema. The second is a requirement that is particular to mitzvot like the Shema, namely to contemplate the meaning of the words that one is reciting. This, although ideal for the entire Shema, is only fully required for the initial declaration of faith expressed in the first verse.
Unfortunately, and paradoxically, as one becomes more of a “pro” in prayer, it becomes more challenging to maintain both of these requirements: intention for the mitzvah and attention on the words. Most of us must admit that if these are prerequisites for fulfilling the mitzvah, we’ve probably missed out on a lot of Shema’s.
Luckily, the Halachic authorities discuss (Mishna Berura Ch. 60 note 10) that even without explicit intention to fulfill the mitzvah, if one reads the Shema in the normal context of prayer (as opposed to reading the paragraphs in the context of learning or proofreading, for example), at least in a most minimal way, this is tantamount to having the required intention. However, thinking of the meaning of the words in at least the first verse is indispensable and therefore needs regular vigilance. If one realized that he didn’t have such intention, he must repeat the Shema again from the beginning.
Other more elevated intentions related to the first verse are that when pronouncing G-d’s name spelled yud/hey/vav/hey, he should have in mind haya/hove/yihiyeh - G-d is, was and will be. When saying “Eloheinu” where “el” connotes power, one should have in mind that G-d is Master over all forces. When reciting “Echad”, spelled alef/chet/daled, he should meditate upon G-d’s Unity (alef=1) permeating the seven heavens and the earth (chet=8) in all four directions north, south, east and west (daled=4).