The most important utterance in Judaism is the Shema’: Shema’ yisrael adonai eloheinu adonai ehad. (Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.) This declaration of the absolute unity of God is the cornerstone of our faith. By Biblical mandate, a Jew recites the Shema’ twice daily, be-shokhbekha u-ve-kumekha (“when you lie down and when you rise up”). See Deuteronomy 6:7.
All of the above is quite famous. What remains today a little known fact is that once upon a time this recitation was accompanied by head movements to the four directions, and up and down. This practice is recorded both in the Ge’onim(post-Talmudic Babylonian sages) and the Rishonim (medieval European sages).[1] The basis for this observance is the following statement in the Talmud:

Symmachus says: “Whoever prolongs the word ehad (“one”), his days and years are prolonged.

Said Rav Aha bar Ya’akov: “And [specifically] the letter dalet [of ehad].”

Said Rav Ashi: “Provided he does not speed up the letter het [of ehad].”

R. Yirmiyah was sitting before R. [Hiyya bar Abba]. He saw that he was prolonging overly much. He said to him: “Once you have proclaimed Him King above and below, and to the four winds of heaven, you need not any further.”[2]

Rashi, the eleventh-century exegete of Troyes, France, comments: “Proclaimed Him King above, etc. – You have prolonged the amount [of time] necessary to think in your heart that the Lord is one in heaven and on earth and its four directions.”

This is a disembodied approach; no mention in Rashi of actual body movements. The visualization of heaven and earth and the four cardinal points is purely mental.

However, if one consults the commentary of Rabbi Menahem Ha-Me’iri of Perpignan, Provence (1249-1306) one finds an added dimension: “The amount of lengthening the letter dalet is that required to picture in the heart that He, blessed be He, rules over heaven and earth and the four winds of the world. And for this reason, it is customary to tilt the head and move it to these sides. Nevertheless, if one prefers not to tilt the head, one need not, because the thing depends not on the tilting of the head and its movements, but rather upon the feeling of the heart.”[3]

Me’iri revisits this theme in his commentary to Tractate Sukkah when discussing the na’anu’im or waving of the lulav (palm frond) during the Sukkot festival. There, he opines that both in regard to the movement of the lulav during the recitation ofHallel and the movement of the head during Shema’, only a to-and-fro and up-and-down movement is called for (as opposed to the four directions, and up and down). “Even that which they said. . .to prolong the word ehad (“one”) sufficiently to proclaim Him King above and below and in the four winds of the world, even this necessitates only a movement to the two directions, and below and above. Furthermore, some say that in ehad no movement is necessary, only picturing in the heart.”[4]

Neither is Me’iri the only Provencal commentator to bear witness to the practice of head movements. His contemporary Rabbi David ben Levi of Narbonne writes: “How long? Long enough to proclaim Him King, etc. – Some interpret that one proclaims Him King by moving one’s head. And so interpreted Rabbenu Hai, of blessed memory.”[5]

In Provence, where we find most evidence of the head movements, there were some who found the practice ludicrous (huka ve-itlula).[6] Perhaps, these authorities took exception not so much to the movements themselves, as to the fact that as often happens in the case of rituals, the simple folk focus on the externals rather than on the inner awareness which is the essence.[7]

The German codifier Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (d. Toledo, Spain before 1340) defended the practice of the head movements accompanying Shema’:

One must prolong the dalet of ehad the amount [of time] necessary to think in one’s heart that the Holy One, blessed be He, is unique in His world, above and below, and in the four winds of the world. There are some accustomed to tilt the head according to the thought, above and below, and to the four directions. Some object to the practice because of the statement of the Rabbis, “He who recites Shema’ should not gesticulate with his eyes or lips.”[8] My father, of blessed memory, used to say that one need not heed [their words], for there, the gesticulations are for an extraneous purpose, and interrupt the concentration, but here, the gesture is a requisite of the concentration and brings it about (tsorekh ha-kavvanah ve-goremet otah).”[9]

Rabbi Joshua Boaz Baruch (Italy, d. 1557) offers a very graphic description of the head movements of Shema’:

This is the amount [of time] to prolong the word ehad: one third in the letter het and two thirds in the letter dalet. How does one proclaim the Kingship? Up and down during the het, and in the four directions during the dalet.[10] And one concentrates while moving the head up and down, to the east and to the west, to the north and to the south . . .[11]

One can only speculate what happened to these head movements. Whereas the movements of the lulav or palm frond continue in full force to this day, wherever Jews are found, we are not aware of any community that has retained the custom of moving the head during Shema’, though as we have seen, it was once widespread in communities as diverse as Babel (today Iraq), Provence, Spain and Italy.

One of the most provocative statements found in Rav Kook’s Orot (Jerusalem, 1920) is this:

We dealt much in soulfulness; we forgot the holiness of the body.[12]

Perhaps these head movements of Shema’ are a “mitsvah yetomah” (orphan mitsvah) due for revival.[13]

[1] These head movements of the Shema’ are not to be confused with those employed in the so-called school of “Prophetic Kabbalah” founded by Abraham Abulafia (b. 1240), although it is possible that Abulafia was inspired in this respect by the earlier tradition surrounding the Shema’. Prof. Gershom Scholem was struck by the similarity between the Abulafian technique (especially the technique of breathing) and Indian Yogic practices. Perhaps Scholem was unaware of the Judaic practice surrounding Shema’. It is possible though, that Scholem would have regarded even this practice, stretching back at least as far as Rav Hai Gaon, as influenced by Yogic or Sufic tradition. See Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York, 1971), pp. 139, 144; Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and Kabbalah (York Beach, ME, 1985), pp. 55-114.

[2] Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 13b. The words “Hiyya bar Abba” are bracketed in the standard Vilna edition. In the parallel discussion in Talmud Yerushalmi, Berakhot 2:1, rather than R. Hiyya bar Abba, it is Ze’ira who apprises R. Yirmiyah that he needn’t overly prolong the recitation. R. Aryeh Leib Yellin (Yefeh ‘Einayim) suggests that the text of the Bavli be emended to “R. Zeira” to conform to the Yerushalmi.

[3] R. Menahem ben Shelomo ha-Me’iri, Beit ha-Behirah, Berakhot, Dikman ed. (Jerusalem, 1965), p. 42.

[4] R. Menahem ben Shelomo ha-Me’ri, Beit ha-Behirah, Sukkah, Liss ed. (Jerusalem, 1966), p. 133.

[5] R. David ben Levi of Narbonne, Sefer ha-Mikhtam in: Hershler ed., Ginzei Rishonim / Berakhot (Jerusalem, 1967), p. 28. This comment of Rabbenu Hai ben Sherira Gaon (939-1038) to Berakhot 13b first crops up in the Sefer ha-Eshkol of Rabbi Abraham ben Isaac, Av-Beit-Din of Narbonne (d. 1158). See Albeck ed., Sefer ha-Eshkol, p. 14; included in B.M. Lewin ed., Otsar ha-Ge’onim, Vol. I – Berakhot (Haifa, 1928), Perushim, p. 13. Cf. Rabbi Nathan ben Yehiel of Rome,Arukh, s.v. bar pahatei.

[6] Sefer ha-Mikhtam ibid.; R. Asher of Lunel, Orhot Hayyim, chap. 18.

[7] For example, Rabbi Hayyim El’azar Spira of Munkatch (Munkacevo) explained the custom of reciting the verse Atah har’eita la-da’at [“Unto you it was shown, that you might know, that the Lord is the God; there is none else besides Him”] (Deuteronomy 4:35) on Simhat Torah at the opening of the Ark before commencing the hakafot or circumambulations with the Torah scroll in hand, as an antidote to any perverse notions that might creep into the common mind. By declaring the absolute unity of God, we stave off any misguided tendency to deify the Torah. See Rabbi Hayyim El’azar Spira, Sha’ar Yissachar, Simhat Torah. Cf. Rabbi Meir Simha Cohen of Dvinsk, Meshekh Hokhmah (Riga, 1927), Exodus 32:19 who explains that Moses smashed the Tablets of the Law to prevent their deification by the worshippers of the Golden Calf.

[8] Yoma 19b. There, included in the prohibition is gesticulating with the finger(s).

[9] Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, Tur, Orah Hayyim.

[10] The Hebrew letters also signify numbers. Thus, het has the numerical value of 8; dalet, the numerical value of 4. The head movements up and down allude to the seven heavens and earth, a total of eight. It is appropriate that they occur during recitation of the letter het. The movements in the four directions of the compass occur during the recitation of the letter dalet.

On the practical level, one may question how it is possible to prolong the sound of the letter dalet (twice as long as the letter het!) when the consonant dalet is a stop or plosive. The question is based on ignorance of the correct pronunciation of the Hebrew letters. In the Ashkenazic community, the differentiation between dalet degushah (hard dalet, indicated by the dot or dagesh mark) and dalet rafah (soft dalet, lacking the dagesh or dot) was lost. In the Oriental communities, this tradition was maintained. In truth, only the hard dalet has the “d” sound; the soft dalet is pronounced “th” as in the English word “the.” In phonetics, such a sound is referred to as a “continuant,” as opposed to a “stop” or “plosive.” As the dalet ofehad is soft, the word is properly pronounced “ehath.” Adhering to these basic rules of the Hebrew language, the dalet ofehad may certainly be drawn out. See Rabbi Nahum L. Rabinovitch, Yad Peshutah (Jerusalem, 1984), Hil. Keri’at Shema2:9 (p. 64). For the record, there were several Ashkenazic gedolim who were sensitive to the refinements of Hebrew pronunciation, as practiced by the Oriental communities. In the previous generation, Rabbis Joseph Elijah Henkin and Jacob Kamenecki expressed such concerns, to name but two.

[11] R. Joshua Boaz Baruch, Shiltei ha-Gibborim to Mordekhai, Berakhot (Vilna ed., 46a).

[12] See Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Orot (Jerusalem, 1950), Orot ha-Tehiyah, chap. 33 (p. 80); Naor trans.,Orot: The Original 1920 Version (Spring Valley, NY, 2004), p. 189.

[13] Rabbi Jacob Moses Harlap, the eminent disciple of Rav Kook, wrote that the revival of mitsvot that have fallen into desuetude is a cure for the malady of our generation of neshamot she-be-‘olam ha-tohu (souls of the World of Chaos), whose vessel is too narrow to contain the great light due to penetrate it. This thought is expressed in a letter Rabbi Harlap wrote in 1946 upon the occasion of the renewed “Hakhel” ceremony. Published as an appendix to Rabbi J.M. Harlap, Mei Marom, Vol. V (Nimmukei ha-Mikra’ot) (Jerusalem, 1981). Cf. the essay entitled “Ha-Neshamot shel ‘Olam ha-Tohu” (The Souls of the World of Chaos) in: Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Orot (Jerusalem, 1950), pp. 121-123.


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