When is a Jew required to say the words “Shema Yisrael“?
This question brings to mind the classic image of putting a hand over one’s eyes and uttering the most famous verse in the Torah (Deut. 6:4): “Hear O Israel, Lord our God, Lord is one.” However, those specific words are not mandatory. As the Shulhan Arukh rules (OH 42:2), “One may recite it in any language, as long as one is as precise in pronunciation and grammar as one would be in the Holy Tongue.”
In fact, the phrase “Shema Yisrael” appears a half-dozen times in the Book of Deuteronomy, but the only time that one is required to read those precise words is on the battlefield, as detailed in the Torah portion we read yesterday, Shofetim. Maimonides writes this in Mishneh Torah (Laws of Kings and Their Wars 7:3):
When the armies assume battle positions and will shortly join in war, the war-annointed priest stands in an elevated place before the array of the entire army. He addresses them in the Holy Tongue: “Hear O Israel, today you are about to wage war against your enemies. Do not be faint-hearted. Do not be afraid. Do not panic and do not be broken before them. God, you Lord, is the One accompanying you to do battle for you against your enemies to deliver you.” (Deut. 20:3-4).
What is so special about this script that it must be recited in its original Hebrew? What would have been lost in translation?
At first glance, it might seem that the Torah is merely using synonyms for being scared in this exhortation. However, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, the 12th-century sage known as the Rokeach, explains in his Siddur (p. 117) that there are actually four types of fear in biblical parlance, the third of which is listed first in our verse (rakh levav), and for good reason:
Hared is faint-hearted, hared of sin. “And who is hared for My word” (Isaiah 66:2) — fearful of war.
Indeed, throughout Scripture, we find the terms rakh-levav and hared used interchangeably. In fact, haredim is used in the final chapters of Isaiah (66:5) and Ezra (10:3) to refer to penitents, what we now call baalei teshuva. Similarly, the penitence of the righteous King Josiah (II Kings 22, II Chron. 34) is referred to as his being “rakh-levav” (literally, “soft-hearted”), while Pharoah’s intransigence in Exodus is referred to as strong-, heavy- or hardheartedness.
Thus, being hared or rakh-levav when confronting one’s own sins is appropriate (and timely for the month of Elul). However, when facing enemies, being hared or rakh-levav is inappropriate. One must be steadfast; one must not lose heart. One must have the courage of his or her convictions; one must stand and fight these external enemies. One is forbidden to be hared or rakh-levav when fighting to save the nation.
We can now understand the view of Rabbi Jose the Galilean in the Mishnaic tractate of Sota (8:5): “‘He who is afraid and rakh-levav‘–this refers to one who is fearful about the sins he has committed.” R. Jose is trying to use the same definition for rakh-levav here as we do for Josiah, but we rule that this is qualitatively different. The haredim, the penitent, should be the first in the ranks. Ultimately, the Torah allows military exemptions only for wars of choice, and this is the ruling in both the Mishna (ibid. 7) and the Mishneh Torah (ibid. 4):
In which instances are the above-mentioned individuals sent away from the battlefront? In a war of choice. By contrast, in a war of necessity, the entire nation must go out to war, even a groom from his chamber and a bride from her canopy.
We look forward to the day when Israel’s heavy military burden will be a choice; but as long as it is exigent, we do not have the hared/ rakh-levav option. We cannot let ourselves be faint-hearted.