The Blessings of the Shema: (Part 3)
"The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched
– they must be felt with the heart."
The second blessing begins: “With an abundant love have You loved us, Hashem, our
The Avudraham points out that the theme which wends its way throughout the second blessing before the Shema is a message of Hashem’s love for us. The Talmud (Berachot 11b) discusses the correct phrase to use when beginning the second blessing. The Sephardic and Chassidic custom is to open the blessing with the words Ahavat Olam — eternal love — for both the Morning Service and the Nighttime Service. The phrase Ahavat Olam comes from Jeremiah, 31:2. However, the Ashkenazic custom is to begin the blessing in the morning with the words Ahavah Rabbah — abundant love — and to use the phrase Ahavat Olam for the recitation of the Shema at night. Interestingly, the phrase Ahavah Rabbah does not appear anywhere in Tanach, and was incorporated into the blessing only during the Gaonic period. (The Gaonic period lasted for just over four hundred years, until a little after the year 1,000 CE. The Gaonim were the undisputed leaders of the Jewish community in Babylon and served as the heads of the two largest and most prestigious Yeshivahs at the time — Sura and Pumbedita.)
What is the intrinsic difference between these two phrases, such that the Gaonim felt a need to compose a new description for Hashem’s love for us? The Rabbis explain that the phrase “abundant love” implies that the love exists due to the strength of the merits of the one who is loved. Eternal love, on the other hand, denotes a love that is not dependent on the here-and-now. Eternal love is unconditional. Or, in the timeless words of Ethics of the Fathers, it is “love that is not dependent on anything.” Even if the “loved one” is currently lacking in virtues, the love transcends everything. Perhaps this explains why according to all opinions we begin the blessing with Ahavat Olam at night. In Jewish tradition, the night is the beginning of the next day. In effect, we are commencing each new day with the declaration that Hashem’s love for us is unconditional and eternal.
The Vilna Gaon explains that the Nighttime Service focuses on the exile and our spiritual darkness, while the Morning Service concentrates on the Redemption and the glorious light that awaits us. Accordingly, the blessing for the morning prayer is Ahavah Rabbah because, when the time comes, we as the Jewish nation will be redeemed on our own merits. However, this is not applicable to the nighttime prayer, which symbolizes the darkness and the exile. As of right now, it seems that we have not yet reached the point where we warrant the Redemption. If so, we must use the phrase Ahavat Olam, since Hashem loves us despite the fact that we are lacking in merits. We are loved simply because we are the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.
But there is another interpretation of the phrase Ahavah Rabbah which adds a whole new, beautiful dimension of meaning. The root of the word “rabbah” is “rav” — many or much. The word rabbah carries with it the connotation of something which continues not just to manifest itself, but also that its intensity continues to increase commensurately. If so, the opening words of our blessing convey to us the most stirring and heartening message of all: Hashem’s love for us will continue to develop and increase until the very last moment before we are redeemed.
To be continued…