The Mishnah in Berachot (2:1) states:
If one was reading the Torah and the time for Sh’ma arrived: if he concentrated with his heart he has fulfilled his obligation
The Gemarah in Berachot interprets this Mishnah, stating:
This implies that Mitzvot require kavanah (intention). [No, rather] what is the meaning of ‘concentrating with his heart’? To read. But he is reading! Rather [the Mishnah] refers to a case where he is koreh le’haggiah.
What is the meaning of this answer koreh le’haggiah?
Rashi interprets koreh le’haggiah to mean an automatic reading where the reader is not aware of what he is reading. The reader is only examining the text, skimming through the Torah, and does not intend to say the Sh’ma. Here, a person is not yotzei because the act is being performed automatically.
Tosfot disagrees with Rashi. They state that a person is not yotzei in this case, not because he is not concentrating and reading automatically, but rather koreh le’haggiah is ineffective because it is an incorrect reading. Tosfot answers that the case of koreh le’haggiah is reading without taking into account the proper pronunciation and nekudot (punctuation). Therefore when the Mishnah is talking about having kavanah, it refers to a case where a person is reading the Sh’ma correctly.
However, both Rashi and Tosfot seem to agree, that the kavanah required for Sh’ma is the same as the kavanah required for any other mitzvah. Both Rashi and Tosfot try to explain the exception of koreh le'haggiah as an incomplete performance of the mitzvah of Sh’ma.
The Rashba however, seems to make a distinction between the Sh’ma and other mitzvot. The Rashba comments that the kavanah required in Kriyat Sh’ma is that of kabbalat ol malchut shamayim - the acceptance of the yoke of heaven. Rashba seems to emphasise that this kind of kavanah is different to that of all other mitzvot, because the mitzvah of kriyat Sh’ma is not only to concentrate on the words being said, but also to turn towards Hashem and accept Him as the melech malchei hamlachim. This is a required element in the recital of the Sh’ma going beyond just the simple kavanah of performing the mitzvah.
The Rambam also supports this view. In Hilchot Kriyat Sh’ma (2:1) the Rambam writes:
He who read Sh’ma and did not concentrate during the first verse (Sh’ma Yisrael) did not fulfil his obligation. As for the other verses, if he did not concentrate, he has fulfilled his obligation, even if he was reading the Torah routinely or checking sections of the text.
The implication of the Rambam is clear. If the reason why koreh le’haggiah was due to the element of automatic or incorrect reading, as Rashi and Tosfot hold, it should apply to all sections of the Sh’ma. The fact that the Rambam says that if one did not concentrate in the sections of Sh’ma (besides the pasuk of Sh’ma itself) he is still yotzei b’dieved, implies that there is something different about the first verse. It would be wrong to maintain that the kavanah the Rambam spoke of applying to the first verse was the same kavanah that applied to the rest of the verses because Rambam holds that the recital of all three sections of Sh’ma is a biblical obligation (De’orayta) - i.e. all have the same level of obligation. So what is different about the first verse according to the Rambam?
Rav Soloveitchik answers this question by saying that the kiyum of the mitzvah of Sh’ma is different for the first verse and the other verses. The Rav says like the Rashba, that there is an extra level of kavanah needed to fulfil one’s obligation with regards to the first verse. This level of kavanah is that of kabbalat ol malchut shamayim. The first verse - “Sh’ma Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad” – contains this theme of accepting the yoke of Heaven. It is during this verse that an extra level of kavanah is needed. However, the rest of the verses of Sh’ma only need be recited with the level of universal kavanah that applies to all other mitzvot. Therefore, when the Rambam states that one who does not have kavanah during these verses is yotzei, the concentration he is referring to is this second, additional level of kavanah of accepting the yoke of heaven, which does not apply to the later verses of the Sh’ma.
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