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Over the course of the week we have been following the order of the day in the Beit HaMikdash. After the blood of the tamid was offered and the parts placed on the ramp of the mizbeach, the Mishnah teaches that they briefly recited some prayers. One bracha (ahava raba) was said; they then read the aseret ha’dibrot, three chapters of shema, emet ve’yatziv, avodah and birkat kohanim.
The Rosh asks why they recited shema at that point in the day. The Gemara (Yoma 37b) teaches that if anyone else recited the shema at the same time as the serving kohanim they will not have fulfilled their obligation. Presumably it was too early, yet the avodah required of the kohanim, necessitated the early recital.
The Ritva explains that it was not really too early, rather the above cited Gemara means it was not the ideal time. Dawn had already broken some time earlier. The Tifferet Yisrael explains that due to the activities thus far, the earliest time le’chatchila (i.e. being able to recognize one’s friend a distance away of four amot) certainly arrived by that point. However, to fulfill the mitzvah of shema optimally, it should be said close to sunrise so that amidah can be said at sunrise. Yet due to the avodah required of them they recited the shema at this earlier, less preferred time.
The Tifferet Yisrael however adds that in truth, the kohanim were exempt from reciting Shema at that time. They were involved in the avodah which is a mitzvah and we have a principle that one that is involved in one mitzvah is exempt from performing another, including shema and tefillin. Even though this exemption is not absolute, it applies when both mitzvot cannot be performed simply. Further, much like the exemption of a chatan on his wedding night, the kohanim would be mentally preoccupied with the job at hand and unable to have the requisite concentration.
That being the case, why then was Shema recited by the kohanim? The Tifferet Yisrael explains that at that point the kohanim wanted to recite the tefilla of avodah. They were soon to offer the limbs on the mizbeach and the tefilla was for the avodah to be accepted. Likewise the tefillah of sim shalom was necessary so that no quarrels arose in the course of their duty. However, as the Gemara (Brachot 31a) instructs, it is best to transition from Torah study to prayer. Consequently they began with the bracha of ahava raba, which qualifies as birkat ha’torah. They then recited Shema as part of Torah study. After that they transitioned to Emet Ve’yatziv, so that the beracha of ge’ula (redemption) preceded their prayers. Then they recited the necessary tefillot immediately pertinent to their avodah.
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