The Mishnah (2:4) taught that a labourer that is working up in a tree or on the top of a high wall can recite keriyat shema there. This ruling is contrast to prayer for which the Mishnah rules that the worker must come down to ground level in order to pray. The Bartenura explains that in these raised location, the worker would be concerned that he would fall. Since keriyat shema only requires the proper intention for the first verse, this would be possible even in these locations. For prayer which requires the proper intention for a lengthy period of time, the worker must descend to ground level.
The Gemara (16a) cites Rav Sheshet who explains that a worker would stop his work to recite the Shema. This is consistent with our understanding thus far, since he requires the appropriate intention when doing so. The Gemara however then raises a question from another Beraita that cites Beit Hillel who rule that the worker would continue working whilst reciting the Shema. The Gemara resolves this difficulty by explaining that there is a difference between the first and second paragraph, with Beit Hillel referring to the second paragraph of Shema.
The Tosfot reasons that the Gemara is not to be taken literally since this Gemara is working with the opinion of Rava and Rava ruled (13b) that kevana is only required for the first verse. Consequently, according to the Tosfot the worker would only cease from work for the first verse.
The Rif (9b) however explains the Gemara literally and it therefore appears to be following the opinion of R’ Yochanan that requires kavana for the first paragraph. Nevertheless, he explains that even according to Rava, the worker would stop work for the full first paragraph in order that the recital not be consider haphazard (arai). The Rif connects this to another Gemara (Yoma 19b) which rules that one may not motion with his eyes or hand during the recital of the first chapter of Shema.1 The reason there is so that the words of shema should not be arai. Indeed, the Gemara continues explaining that in the Shema it is written “ve’dibarta bam”, and you shall speak them. R’ Acha explains that this means that the words shall be keva (fixed) and not aria (fleeting). We therefore find that according to the Rif there are two basic requirements when reciting shema. The first is the proper intention, which is required for the first pasuk. The second is that the recital of the first paragraph should be done in a fixed and appropriate manner.
With the introduction of this new requirement, why does it end after the first paragraph? Why does the requirement of keva not exist for the entire three paragraphs of Shema? R’ Yona therefore concludes that only the first paragraph of Shema is required on a biblical level, otherwise the workers would be required to stop for all three paragraphs.
The Baal HaMeor understands that the Rif’s logic is based on the Gemara’s continuation cited above, which expounds the words “ve’dibarta bam” mentioned in the first paragraph of Shema. The Baal HaMeor’s difficulty however is that in the second paragraph it also mentions “le’daber bam”. The Raavad however explains “ve’dibarta bam” in the first paragraph refers to the recitation of Shema. “Le’daber bam” however mentioned in the second paragraph is referring to the study of Torah and teaching it to one’s children. Consequently, since the context is different there is no difficulty.
The Ritva provides a different reason for the difference between the first and second paragraph. He explains that in the first paragraph it states “that which I have commanded you today upon your heart”. From here the Ritva understands that while kavana is not required beyond the first verse, the Torah requires for this first paragraph, that the heart be “resting”, and the person not be doing other things.
The Beit Yosef however explains that even though kavana is only required for the first pasuk, the main focus of the first paragraph is kabalat ol malchut shamayim – accepting the yolk of heaven (see 2:2). The Chachamim were therefore stringent requiring the cessation of all activity during its recitation.2
1 The Baal Ha’Meor however argues that the language of “first paragraph” in that Gemara was used in order to teach the law in accordance with all opinions, since no one requires kavana past the first chapter. Furthermore, he understands that the exposition that follows in the Gemara is focused on the study of Torah in general rather than the recitation of Shema.
See also the Biur HaGra that who also raises potential question on deriving a proof from the Gemara in Yoma. Nevertheless, the Gra cites the Yerushalmi that makes the connection between that Gemara and our Mishnah explicitly demonstrating that the logic is shared.
2 On reflection we find two more important points. The first, as an employee, the Chachamim allowed one even to recite the reminder of Shema while working. As a paid worker, any moment of inactivity for the employer needs to be justified. That said, despite one’s time being dominated by mundane activities, the Chachamim did demand one to stop with a manner of keviyut, for one to remember what is truly keva and what is aria. Aseh toratcha keva, u’melachto aria.
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