Shema – A Stolen Prayer — By Ben

Continuing with my series of posts about the Shema, previously I explored ideas surrounding the main sentence, Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad. If we were to look at the source for the Shema in the Torah (Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:4 – coincidentally this week’s Torah portion) we would see that the text of the Torah goes from Shema immediately into the v’ahavta.

However, when we recite the Shema, we don’t immediately move onto the v’ahvavta, but instead we quietly speak the phrase, Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuso L’olam V’ed. This is usually translated as Blessed is the Name of His Glorious Kingdom, forever and ever. But if you think about it, why would we be blessing the Name of God’s Kingdom? Wouldn’t we want to bless the whole of God’s Kingdom? We don’t say God bless the name of America. Also why are we saying it quietly? And given that the phrase isn’t found anywhere in the Torah itself, we could ask, why are we saying it at all?

The only answers to these questions I have found are of an esoteric nature. But if you’ll bear with me I think we can find a very practical reason that can help us understand the nature of Shema as well as the way God functions in our world. (Most of this blog comes from a lecture by Rabbi Daniel Glatstein)

Esoteric Origins

Though Baruch Shem Kevod (as I’ll refer to the phrase from here on out) isn’t found in the Torah, it is discussed in the Talmud (Pesachim 56a) and the Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 2:36). The first source comes from a story about Yaakov with his sons on the day of his death. Yaakov is about to tell his sons what will happen in the end of time (aka Judgment Day and Days of Moshiach) when suddenly his prophecy leaves him. He immediately worries it is because one of his sons might be wicked (a la Ishmael for Abraham or Esav for Yitzchok). But then all twelve sons recite Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad, Yaakov is reassured and replies Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuso L’olam V’ed.

The second source relates that when Moses was in Heaven getting the Torah, he heard the angels praising God saying, Baruch Shem Kevod… However, because it is such a holy praise, it wasn’t proper for Moses to publicly share it with earthly humans, so he didn’t write it in the Torah. The Midrash makes the comparison to “one who stole jewelry from the King’s palace and gave it to his wife and said to her, ‘Don’t adorn yourself with it in public, rather (wear it) in your house.'” So we are supposed to say it quietly.

If you looked at the Shema in an Artscroll prayer book, the above explanations are what you will find. But I don’t think either explanation helps us, so let’s look a little deeper. In the book of Isaiah (6:2) it says the following, “Seraphim stood above for Him, six wings, six wings to each one; with two he would cover his face, and with two he would cover his feet, and with two he would fly.” The prophet describes the angels in contrast to most Hallmark branded iconography, with six wings opposed to two.

Precious MomentsĀ® Hark! The Herald Angels Sing Angel Musical Figurine -  Figurines - Hallmark

However in the book of Ezekiel (1:6-7) that prophet describes the angels with four wings, not six. “And from its midst was the likeness of four living beings, and this is their appearance; they had the likeness of a man. And [each] one had four faces, and [each] one had four wings.” Why the discrepancy?

Let’s take a step back for a moment and check in with physical reality. Why does it matter what angels look like? When contemplating anything of a highly spiritual nature, we must always keep in mind that everything told to us from the Torah and the prophets can only be understood via metaphor. I’ve heard that we can consider that our world is like a clock. All we see is the face, the hands, and numbers. That’s the physical world. Meanwhile the spiritual world would concern the machinery behind the face; the gears, the springs, the screws, and the batteries.

So angels don’t have six wings or four wings or even wings at all. Wings just represent some way that the angels function. The Tikunei haZohar comments that these six wings of the angels are actually the six words of praise Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuso L’olam V’ed. So instead of thinking that angels zip and fly around on their wings, their words of praise keep creation functioning, particularly with Baruch Shem Kevod…

Then why does Ezekiel say angels only have four wings? According to a Gemara (Hagigah 13b) after the Temple was destroyed, the wings of the angels were diminished. Ezekiel was written after the destruction of the First Temple so they would have only four. So if the wings are actually praises, the Vilna Goan says that the wings that were destroyed were the words Kevod Malchuso. What does that mean?

Ezekiel's Vision of God and the Chariot -
Ezekiel’s Vision

Missing Kingdom

If we consider the clock metaphor, then missing wings means the angels aren’t able to function properly. The clock is missing a spring, or maybe the battery is low. So now let’s look back at our phrase. Baruch Shem. They are plenty of people who still have a reverence for God and His Holy Name. L’olam V’ed? I think that we also understand that God is Eternal. Even secular people who would rather refer to destiny as “the universe,” would acknowledge eternity in the universe. What’s missing today is the Glory of God’s Kingdom. Do we really believe God runs the world and that it is a good thing? When push comes to shove and you’re in a stressful, distressing, or difficult situation, which one are you more likely to forget or doubt?

The angels have lost the ability to implant the spiritual reality that God runs the world in a tangible way. So when we say Shema, part of the mitzvah is not only that accept that God is One, but that He is King. Immediately after that moment we say this special praise that even the angels aren’t allowed to speak fully anymore. So others say we speak the phrase quietly out of respect for their “handicap.”

A Broken Clock is Right Twice a Day… or Once a Year

Image by chenspec from Pixabay

Though we lack God’s Kingship today, during the High Holidays we do regard God’s Kingship as restored. For ten days, starting with Rosh Hashanah, many of the daily prayers change to emphasize HaMelech. During the Rosh Hashanah service, prayer concerning God’s name which normally is one line long (HaKel HaKadosh – The Holy God) becomes pages long detailing the state of the world when God’s presence is fully restored. The Aleinu prayer which ends every service is actually taken from the unique Rosh Hashanah prayer which is all about how the world will change at the end of days. And on Yom Kippur, the day when God’s Kingship is most felt, and the Jewish people are at their holiest, we speak Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuso L’olam V’ed at full voice.

When Yaakov replied with this after forgetting his prophesy, he wasn’t just blessing God for the reassurance that his sons were righteous. I believe he was actually revealing the prophecy after all. What will happen at the end of days? God’s Name will be fully blessed (blessing means fulfillment of potential) and the fulfillment of God’s Name in this world means that we will experience the full Glory of His Kingship forever.

The Shema is the mission statement of the Jewish people, personally accepting that God is our King. But Baruch Shem Kevod… is the goal of that mission, what Shema looks like when it is realized. The world isn’t finished yet, the clock is broken. But if we affix in our mind a desire to see a day where justice is executed, truth is revealed, and meaning and purpose are the aim of humanity opposed to frivolity and greed, then we may just merit to see the Kevod Malchos restored once and for all.

One response to “Shema – A Stolen Prayer — By Ben

  1. Professor Reuven Kimelman, scholar of Hebrew Liturgy, teaches that the reason the Baruch Shem is recited quietly on a daily basis is because it is in fact not part of the quoted text of the Torah, so we lower our voice to maintain that distinction between quoting psukim and then intoning a non-biblical verse that has been inserted into the Shema.

    As Kimelman points out in his article “The Shema and its Rhetoric” the three paragraphs of the Shema “are neither biblically contiguous or sequential” (p. 113). Rather, they have been assembled by the sages who ordered the siddur in order to establish a dual goal: Collectively proclaim G-d as King of the universe, and nationally/personally accepting, in other words coronating, G-d as King of Israel.

    Yashar koach on your piece. Highly recommend Kimelman’s recorded lectures on this subject and his articles as well.



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