420. Down and Up: The obligation to recite the Shema twice daily
…you shall speak of them when you lie down and when you get up. (Deuteronomy 6:7)
In Mitzvah #417, we discussed the obligation to know that God is singular and unique. We call that verse the Shema. Here we have a mitzvah to recite the Shema twice daily, morning and night. The verse literally reads that we should do so “when you lie down and when you rise up,” though this is understood to mean in the morning (when people arise) and at night (when people turn in).
This mitzvah is the very first subject in the Talmud, starting in the first mishna in the first chapter of Brachos. This is appropriate seeing that reciting Shema is the first mitzvah in which a person is obligated each day. (The Jewish day starts at nightfall, at which time a person is obligated to recite the evening Shema.)
In addition to the verse of Shema, the rabbis enacted that we should recite three additional passages, two from Deuteronomy and one from Numbers, that now appear after Shema in our siddurim. These passages include such themes as to love God, to study Torah, to accept the mitzvos upon ourselves and to remember the Exodus from Egypt. Shema and its additional paragraphs should be recited with great concentration and audible enough for one to hear the words he is speaking.
The reason for this mitzvah is so that we should constantly re-accept God’s kingship over us. The world is so full of distractions that we need to have our attention regularly re-directed and focused on what’s truly important. Reciting Shema with concentration twice each day helps to keep us on the straight and narrow.
This mitzvah applies to men in all times and places. In the Talmud, it is the topic of the first three chapters of tractate Brachos. It is codified in the Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim 61. The obligation to recite Shema is #10 of the 248 positive mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos and #11 of the 77 positive mitzvos that can be fulfilled today as listed in the Chofetz Chaim’s Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar.