Vaetchanan: The First Parshiyot of Kriyat Shema

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

The first two parshiot of 'kriyat shema' surround us each and every day of our lives.  In the following shiur, as we begin our study of the main speech of Sefer Devarim, we'll explain why these two 'parshiot' are so important,

[This shiur will also serve as a continuation to the introductory shiur on Sefer Devarim, as it discusses in greater detail the overall structure of the main speech.]


Our introductory shiur on Sefer Devarim discussed how the first 26 chapters of Sefer Devarim divide into two speeches:

  • The introductory speech (chapters 1-4); - explaining why forty years have passed, followed by a short 'pep-talk' to prepare the nation for their conquest of the land, and the laws that they'll need to keep.
  • The main speech (chapters 5-26); - in which Moshe reviews the actual set of laws (originally given at Har Sinai) that Bnei Yisrael must keep as they establish their nation after they conquer the Land, adding some 'rebuke' as he reviews them.

The following shiur will focus more directly on the internal structure of this main speech, showing how and why its commandments neatly divide into two distinct sections:

Setting the Framework

Recall how Moshe Rabbeinu began his main speech with the story of how and when these mitzvot (which he is about to teach) were first given (see 5:1-28).  In that story, we find an important detail that will help us understand why this speech divides into two sections.

As you review that story, pay careful attention to God's response to the people's request that Moshe should teach them laws, instead of hearing them directly from God:

"Go say to them: 'Return to your tents', but you [Moshe] remain here with Me and I will transmit to you: - the mitzva & the chukim u-mishpatim - which you shall teach them..."  (see 5:27-28).

Note the key phrases "ha-mitzva" & "chukim u'mishpatim" in this pasuk.  As we continue our study of Sefer Devarim we will show how often these two phrases are repeated, and how they will introduce the two key sections of main speech:

A) ha-mitzva [chapters 6 to 11] B) chukim & mishpatim [chapters 12-26]

To see how this develops, we must carefully follow the continuation of Moshe's speech (from this point).

Now that Moshe has told the story of how he received these laws, he is now ready to teach them, but first - he interjects a few words of encouragement concerning their importance:

" You shall keep [these laws] to do them as God has commanded all the way which God has commanded you, in order that you may live and be well, and prolong your days in the land which you shall possess" (5:29-30).

At this point, Moshe is finally ready to 'tell over' those laws which he received on Har Sinai, as he explained in 5:28.  Note Moshe's next remark:

"ve-zot ha-mitzva, ha-chukim ve-hamishpatim..."

"And this is the mitzva and the chukim u-mishpatim that God had commanded me to teach you to observe on the land which you are about to inherit"  (6:1).

Compare this pasuk with 5:28, noting how Moshe refers once again to this very same phrase- 'ha-mitzva, chukim & mishpatim'.  Clearly, 6:1 serves as the introduction [note the word 'zot'] to the mitzvot that he will now teach.

Even though the mitzvot should begin in the next pasuk, Moshe once again grabs this opportunity to explain their importance:

"[Keep these laws] so that you will fear the Lord your God, to keep all His statutes and commandments, which I command you... so that your days may be prolonged.  Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them - so that you will prosper... as God has promised you - in the land flowing with milk and honey"  (see 6:2-3).


With these introductory comments finally complete, Moshe is now ready to begin the mitzvot themselves - which begin with the famous pasuk of:

"Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad" (6:4).

Now we can appreciate why this pasuk is so important, for it serves as the opening statement that begins that entire set of laws that continues through chapter 26.

Even though we all know this pasuk by heart, it's not so simple to translate - for it is not clear whether it is making two points, i.e.

  1. Hashem is OUR God  [and nobody else's]
  2. Hashem is ONE  - i.e. He is the ONLY God

Or, if it is making only one point, that:

  1. Hashem WHO is our God - He is the ONLY God

The difference between these two translations is immense.  The first implies that 'our God' is the best; sort of like - we have the true God, and every other religion is wrong.  The second implies that the God who we have a special covenant with - He is the only God - hence it becomes incumbent upon us to represent him properly.

In the context of Sefer Devarim, the second understanding makes much more sense - for this opening statement of the law section is thematically linked to Moshe Rabbeinu's introductory statement - at the beginning of this speech:

"Hashem Elokeinu karet imanu brit b'Chorev"   [Hashem, our God make a covenant with us at Mount Chorev = Mount Sinai]   (see 5:2)

Therefore, it makes sense that "Hashem Elokeinu" (in 6:4) relates to that same theme.  If so, then Moshe is prefacing the laws that will follow with an important statement explaining why it is so important for the nation to keep these laws.  The God with whom Am Yisrael has joined in covenant [to represent Him as a nation] - He is the only God - and hence, these laws must be kept meticulously.

Recall as well that Moshe had made a similar statement - relating to this same theme - earlier in his first speech (in chapter four), when he explained their underlying purpose:

"See [comprehend] that I am teaching you [in the speech that will follow] chukim u-mishpatim that God had commanded me to teach you to observe on the land which you are about to inherit [compare with 6:1]

Observe them & keep them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of other nations, so that when they hear all these laws, shall say: 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.'  For what great nation is there, that had God so close to them, as Hashem our God when ever we call upon Him... (see 4:5-8)

The First Law

This most basic principle of faith and purpose - of "Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad" - is followed by one of the most important mitzvot - for it is a law that relates to one's overall attitude toward serving God and keeping His laws:

"And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your heart, and all your soul... And these words [i.e. the laws of the main speech] which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart.  And you shall teach them repeatedly to your children, and speak about them..."  (see 6:5-7).

[Review 6:4-6, noting how they introduced by 6:1-3.]

From this point on, we find a complete set of laws, interspersed with many words of rebuke, which continue all the way until the end of chapter 26.

[This overall structure was discussed in last week's shiur, but it is recommended that you take a few minutes to scan through chapters 6 thru 26 to verify this point.]

The Two Sections

These laws cover a wide range of topics; however, we will now show how they divide into two distinct sections.  To explain why, let's return to the key phrase, which was repeated in 5:28 and 6:1, that sets the stage for this division.

"ve-zot ha-mitzva, ha-chukim ve-ha-mishpatim..." "And this is the mitzva and the chukim u-mishpatim that God had commanded me to teach you..."  (6:1).

We posit that this entire speech divides into two sections, corresponding to these two headers:

  1. The Ha-mitzva section - chapters 6-11 [Parshiot Va-etchanan thru Ekev]
  2. The Chukim & Mishpatim section - chapters 12-26 [Parshiyot Re'eh, Shoftim, Ki Teitzei, & Ki Tavo]

To explain how this division works, let's start with the unit that is easy to identify.

'Headers' & 'Footers'

Towards the beginning of Parshat Re'eh, we find a short introduction to a specific set of laws that is clearly referred to as 'chukim u-mishpatim'.  To verify this, review these pesukim:

"For you are about to pass over the Jordan to go in to inherit the land which God is giving you... [There] you shall observe to keep all these chukim & mishpatim that I set before you this day"  (see 11:31-32).

"These are the chukim & mishpatim that you are to keep in the land which God gave to your forefathers..." (see 12:1).

As you review chapter 12, note how this opening pasuk (12:1) introduces a lengthy list of laws that Bnei Yisrael must keep upon entering the land - which continues on all the way until the end of chapter 26!

To 'balance' this 'header', towards the end of the speech we find another special pasuk that forms a very appropriate summary (what we refer to as a 'footer') for this entire unit:

"On this day, God is commanding you to keep these chukim & mishpatim, keep them with all your heart... " (see 26:16).

[Again, if you have time, scan chapters 12 thru 26, noting how there are no 'new headers' in the interim.  Note also how many parshiot begin with the word 'ki' [when/if] and  'lo' [do not...], typical for a set of laws (just as we found in the set of laws in Parshat Mishpatim)!]

It was rather easy to identify this matching 'header' and 'footer' for the "chukim u-mishpatim" section.  Now, we must work 'backwards' to identify the less obvious 'header' & 'footer' for the 'ha-mitzva' section.

Let's start by taking a closer look at the pasuk that opens the mitzvot of the main speech (as we explained above, i.e. 6:4):

"Hear o Israel, the Lord is our God... and you shall love God with all your heart and all your soul... and these instructions which I 'metzaveh' [command] you today, teach them to your children..." (see 6:4-6).

This paragraph certainly sounds like an introduction to a set of mitzvot.  But to understand what makes this unit special, we consider its opening commandment - to love God ['ahavat Hashem' / see 6:5].

Recall that the Torah refers to this unit as "ha-mitzva" - which implies the mitzva - or possibly the most important mitzva!  [In Hebrew grammar, this type of 'heh' is known as 'heh ha-yedi'a' - which stresses the word that follows.]

We posit that the Torah refers to the commandment of 'ahavat Hashem' as - ha-mitzva  - for it is the [most important] mitzvah.

Note as well how the phrase that follows the mitzva of ahavat Hashem is: "ve-hayu ha-devarim ha-eileh asher anochi metzaveh etchem..."]

Thus, we conclude that the 'header' for the ha-mitzva section is 'shema Yisrael... ve-ahavta...'; now we must locate its 'footer'.

As we would expect to find the 'footer' before the next section begins, let's take a look towards the end of chapter 11.

At the conclusion of Parshat Ekev we find a very 'worthy candidate' for a closing pasuk for this section:

"If, then, you faithfully keep – ha-mitzva ha-zot - that I command you, to love God... to follow His laws and to attach yourselves to Him.  Then I will help you conquer the Land..."  (see 11:22-25, noting its context!).

Here, not only do we find our key word – ha-mitzva, but the same context as well in regard to ahavat Hashem - loving God.  Furthermore, this section serves as an appropriate summary, for here the Torah promises should Bnei Yisrael keep the proper attitude of ahavat Hashem, then God will surely assist them with the conquest of the Land.

[As you review 11:26-30, notice how these pesukim form a small 'buffer' between these two sections, as the chukim u-mishpatim clearly begin with 11:31-32 which lead right into 12:1. / Note as well how the chapter division seems to have missed this rather obvious point.] 

Up until now, we have found textual support for dividing the mitzvot of the main speech into two distinct sections.  Now, we must find the primary theme of each section by examining their contents.

Section #1 - HaMitzvah: 'Ahavat Hashem'

The theme of the ha-mitzva section is quite easy to identify, for its opening pasuk - as the famous pasuk of 'Shma Yisrael' says it all:

"Shma Yisrael... and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul... and these laws which I "metzaveh" - command you this day..." (see 6:4-6).

Note how this general theme of 'to love God in every walk of life' continues in each subsequent parshia which follows.

For example:

  • Upon conquering the land, you may inherit an entire city with houses already built and vineyards already planted, etc. Don't let this affluence cause you to forget God... (6:10-15).
  • When your children (who did not go through the desert experience) will ask you why we have to keep all these mitzvot, remind them and teach them about all the events of Yetziat Mitzrayim... (6:20-25).
  • When you conquer your enemy, don't intermarry! etc. (7:1-5).
  • If you become fearful of your enemy, don't worry, remember what God did to Mitzrayim, He can help you as well. (7:17-25).
  • Don't act in a rebellious manner as your forefathers did in the desert (see chapters 8-10).
  • As Eretz Canaan does not have a constant water source (like the Nile in Egypt), you will be dependent on the rainfall in this new land. Therefore, recognize that it is God who gives you rain (and not any other god / see 11:10-15).

In fact, when we examine this unit more carefully, we find that these mitzvot simply apply this theme of "ahavat Hashem" [the love of God] to the various situations which will arise as Bnei Yisrael will enter the land.  To verify this, see 6:10,18; 7:1,13,16,22; 8:1,7; 9:1,4-6; 11:10-12,13-17, & 22-25!

Furthermore, note how the concluding parshia of this section promises Bnei Yisrael with a reward, should they indeed follow God with the proper attitude:

"If, then, you faithfully keep – ha-mitzva ha-zot - that I command you, to love God.... to follow His laws... then God will help you conquer these nations... every foot step that you take will become your land [to its widest borders].  No man shall stand up against you..."  (see 11:22-25).

This promise forms an appropriate conclusion to this ha-mitzva section, as God promises Bnei Yisrael His assistance in their conquest of the land, should they indeed keep the proper attitude towards Him.

And for a finale, the final pesukim of chapter 11 (see 11:26-30) conclude this section by promising a blessing or a curse on the land, depending if Bnei Yisrael will continue to keep this "haMitzvah", once they settle the land.

[Note how the topic of this buffer section in 11:26-30 continues in chapter 27 (after the main speech is over); iy"h, we'll deal with this structure in the shiur on Parshat Ki Tavo.]

Kriyat Shema

With this background, we can better appreciate Chazal's choice of the first two parshiot of kriyat shma.

Recall that the opening parshia of the Ha-mitzva section was none other than the first parshia of kriyat shema (6:4-9).  Recall also that this section ended with the 'concluding pesukim' in 11:22-25.

With this in mind, note now how the 'parshia' which precedes these finale pesukim is none other than the second parsha of kriyat shma - 'vehaya im shamoa...'.  [To verify this, review 11:10-22.]

In other words, the first two parshiot of kriyat shma form the bookends of the ha-mitzva section, for it begins with 'Shema Yisrael... ve-ahavta' (6:4-8) and ends with 'vehaya im shamoa..' (11:13-21).

This could explain why Chazal chose that we read both these parshiot to fulfill our daily obligation of Torah study [which is based on 6:6 - 've-hayu ha-devarim ha-eileh asher anochi metzaveh...'].

Based on this pasuk alone, one could conclude that we are required to read the entire ha-mitzva section on a daily basis.  However, since this section is too lengthy, it is sufficient if we recite only its opening and closing parshiot.  However, by reading these two parshiot, it is as though we have read (and hopefully internalized) all of the mitzvot included in this entire section.

[The Mishna at the end of the seventh perek of Masechet Sotah arrives at a similar conclusion in regard to reading Sefer Devarim at the Hakhel ceremony (see Sotah 41a).  There, instead of reading the entire speech, the custom was to read the first parsha of Shema (6:4-8) and then skip to the last parsha of Shema (11:13-21).]

Section #2: The Chukim and Mishpatim Unit

Review once again the concluding psukim of chapter 11, noting the smooth transition from the mitzva section - to the chukim u-mishpatim section, noting the key phrases and theme:

"... Now that you are crossing the Jordan to inherit the Land... keep these chukim & mishpatim that I am teaching you today" (11:31-32).

With this transition, we flow right into the opening pasuk of section # 2, which details these laws (see 12:1):

"These are the chukim & mishpatim that you are to keep in the land which God gave to your forefathers..."

The many chapters which follow this opening pasuk contain numerous laws that Bnei Yisrael must keep upon entering the land.  However, in contrast to the laws relating to proper attitude in the ha-mitzva section, the laws in Section #2 are more specific in nature.  For example, here we find laws concerning when and where to build the permanent bet ha-mikdash (chapter 12), dietary laws (chapter 14), laws of 'aliya la-regel' on the Holidays (chapter 16), laws about appointing judges and political leaders (chapter 17), and a full assortment of civil laws (see chapters 19-25).   This list continues until the end of chapter 26.  [Recall, that chapter 27 begins a new speech.]

As we should expect, this unit also contains a very appropriate conclusion:

"God commands you today to keep these chukim & mishpatim, keep them with all your heart and soul.  You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God, that you will walk in His ways... The Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised, His am segula... and you shall be, as He promised [at Har Sinai] a holy nation to the Lord your God"  (see 26:16-19).

[The shiurim to follow will discuss the nature of this unit in greater detail.]

In summary, we have identified the two very distinct sections of the main speech of Sefer Devarim and explained the nature of their distinction:

  1. The Ha-mitzva section (chapters 6 thru 11) contains several mitzvot and various rebukes that encourage Bnei Yisrael to keep the proper attitude toward God as they conquer the land.
  2. The Chukim & Mishpatim section (chapters 12 thru 26) contains an assortment of more specific laws that Bnei Yisrael must follow once they inherit the land.

Now, we can suggest a reason for this manner of presentation.

The Proper Balance

So which section is more important?  The ha-mitzva section - which deals with proper attitude [sort of like a mussar sefer], or the chukim & mishpatim section - which details the specific mitzvot that one must keep [sort of like a Shulchan Aruch]?

[Any 'yeshiva bachur' faces this dilemma every time he sets up his daily schedule.  How much time to dedicate to musar and how much time to halacha.]

The summary pasuk of Section #2 (quoted above) alludes to the proper balance between them:

"This day, God commands you to keep these chukim & mishpatim, and you should keep them with all your heart and all your soul..." (26:16).

This 'finale' closes not only the chukim & mishpatim section, but also beautifully relates it back to the ha-mitzva section.  These chukim u-mishpatim must be kept with all your heart and soul - 'be-chol levavcha u-vechol nafshecha'.

[Note once again the textual parallel between this closing pasuk and the opening pasuk of the first section: "ve-ahavta et Hashem Elokecha - be-chol levavcha u-vechol nafshecha" - and you shall love God with all your heart and all your soul..." (see 6:5, compare with 26:16)].

This obvious parallel stresses how the specific laws of the chukim u-mishpatim section must be kept with the proper attitude of "ahavat Hashem", as explained in the first section!

Only with the solid base of "ahavat Hashem" is it possible to fulfill the more specific laws in the proper manner.  And only with a comprehensive set of specific laws is it possible to maintain "ahavat Hashem" as a daily way of life.