Ask the Rabbi

Ask the Rabbi February 2023

Rabbi Carla Freedman

February 2023 Question

Why do you and others close your eyes when reciting the Shema? When is it done?

February 2023 Answer

Traditionally, people do this to close off distractions while saying the Shema, which might be described as Israel’s unique contribution to religion: the singularity of God.

Traditionally, one takes the fringes of his/her tallit*** in hand for the recitation of the Shema and v’ahavta. Then one closes and covers the eyes for the Shema itself. One opens her/his eyes for “Baruch shem…”, because that line is not from the Torah and does not require reverence. And then one continues, eyes open, fringes in hand, to chant/read the V’ahavta (quotations from Torah).

During the time of the Spanish Inquisition, when inquisitors attended Jewish services to catch Jews declaring the unity of God (instead of acknowledging the Christian trinity), our sages moved the Shema from early in the service to the Torah service which comes much later. There it is followed by the text Echad Eloheinu…Our God is one, Adonai is great. Holy is God’s name.

Today, the Shema is recited in its proper and original place near the beginning of the service and again during the Torah service. But the practice of closing the eyes for the Shema really only applies to the original placement. So during the Torah service, many Jews keep their eyes
open, while others, having learned to close their eyes for the Shema, do that whenever the Shema is said.

And some don’t ever close their eyes.

Two Jews, three opinions…or, in this case, three practices.

*** traditionally, the tallit is not worn during evening services (except by the prayer leader). And traditionally, the Torah is not read in the evening. So traditionally, one wears a tallit for the Torah service…and when that occurs in the evening, in Reform congregations, some people wear their tallit in the evening just for the Torah service. Your call: all options are open.

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