February 26, 2024
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The Origin of the Recital of Shema in the Musaf Kedusha

I grew up using the Birnbaum Siddur. For years I stared at a line in its commentary about a prohibition of the recital of the Shema in the fifth century and an explanation of how Shema ended up in the Musaf Kedusha: “In the fifth century…special governmental officials were posted in the synagogues to prevent the congregational proclamation of [Shema]. Towards the end of the service, when the spies had left, the Shema was [added] in an abridged form…” Something similar is repeated in the ArtScroll Siddur, pp. 28 and 465. I always wondered about the historicity of this fifth-century story. (Especially the detail of the spies leaving early. Wouldn’t they have wanted to stay for the kiddush?) Eventually, I decided to research this topic.

A story about the fifth-century Persian king Yazdegerd prohibiting the Shema is found in the Shibbolei Ha-Leket, writing in 13th-century Italy. But let us look at an earlier version of this story, that of R. Sar Shalom Gaon (ninth-century Babylonia, quoted in Seder Amram Gaon). Here we find that there is a statement that Shema ended up being added by rabbinic enactment to the Musaf Kedusha to commemorate an earlier period of prohibition of the recital of Shema in Shacharit, but there is no mention of who ordered this prohibition. (Nor is there any mention of spies leaving early!)

Eventually, I realized how the anonymous prohibition of the Shema referred to by R. Sar Shalom Gaon later got attributed to Yazdegerd. In the Letter of R. Sherira Gaon (987 CE), there is a reference to Yazdegerd issuing a decree prohibiting the observance of the Shabbat in the year 455. At some point later, either the Shibbolei Ha-Leket or some source prior to him decided to combine the two separate prohibition traditions and assign the anonymous Shema prohibition to Yazdegerd as well.

Once we realize that there is no ancient tradition that the fifth-century king Yazdegerd issued a prohibition against the Shema, we can look anew at the question of why we are reciting Shema in the Musaf Kedusha. Let us review. There is a concept of a Kedusha prayer. In its basic form, a verse from Isaiah chapter 6 (kadosh, kadosh…) and a verse from Yechezkel chapter 3 (baruch kevod…) are recited parallel to one another. The two verses have something fundamental in common. Both are phrases about God’s glory that are recited by celestial beings.

The Kedusha prayer that we recite in the daily and Sabbath repetitions of the Amidah, at both Shacharit and Mincha, adds a theme based on a third verse, yimloch Hashem le-olam. This verse comes from Psalm 146, and is not integrally related to the other two verses. The Shabbat Musaf Kedusha, the one that concerns us, has a Shema section added before the Psalm 146 section.

Now let us look at our earliest sources about the recital of Shema in Musaf Kedusha. R. Sar Shalom Gaon, in ninth-century Babylonia, explained that Shema was added to the Musaf Kedusha to remind us of an earlier period of prohibition of the Shema in Shacharit, but he did not identify who issued the prohibition. Another ninth-century Babylonian source, Pirkoi ben Baboi, took the position that the recital of Shema in Kedusha was an unjustifiable Palestinian custom that originated at a time of persecution by “malchut Edom” in Palestine. Pirkoi is vague about the time of this persecution. All he states is that it occurred during some period of “Edomite” [=Roman] rule in Palestine. This could be any time in the several hundred years prior to the Arab conquest of Palestine in the early seventh century C.E.

Most scholars today do not take these “persecution” explanations seriously, as neither of these sources is claiming to be an eyewitness to a persecution. Nor do these sources date the supposed persecution with any specificity. Moreover, with regard to Pirkoi, this is viewed as a polemical Babylonian Jewish source that is overly critical of Palestinian traditions.

How do scholars today explain the presence of Shema in Musaf Kedusha? The scholar Meir Bar-Ilan (Daat, vol. 25) views the Kedusha as having evolved over time, yielding different versions of Kedusha. The Musaf Kedusha with the Shema verse just reflects a version that added a verse with a theme of kabbalat ol malchut Shamayim. In a similar manner, the verse from Psalm 146, with its own separate theme, was added to the original two verses. In Bar-Ilan’s view, the Musaf Kedusha with multiple verses is just a collection of verses with disparate themes (something like “The Bible’s Greatest Hits”!).

Other scholars note that a Kedusha with Kadosh, Baruch Kevod and Shema looks like a repetition of the earlier part of the service: the kedushat yotzer and the Shema. The suggestion is then made that the Musaf Kedusha with its Shema section originated as a brief repetition of the earlier part of the service for the benefit of latecomers.

But the most likely explanation for the Shema passage in the Musaf Kedusha is an entirely different one. The author of the Musaf Kedusha was expressing a parallel between the role of Israel in this world and the role of the angels in heaven. Both are essentially engaged in the same activity, sanctifying and coronating God. But in the view of the author of the Musaf Kedusha, the angels fulfill their role daily by reciting kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, while Israel fulfills its role daily by reciting the Shema. Such an idea is expressed at Chullin 91b and elsewhere. (The shira of Israel referred to at Chullin 91b is most likely the Shema.) This is all discussed extensively by Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin in his “Kedushah, Shema, and the Difference Between Israel and the Angels,” Ḥakirah, vol. 16, citing earlier scholars such as Ezra Fleischer and Israel Ta-Shema. See, for example, “Ta-Shema, Ha-Tefillah Ha-Ashkenazit Ha-Kedumah,” pp. 112-114.

Our focusing for hundreds of years on an imaginary persecution caused us to lose sight of the idea that was being expressed! (The ArtScroll Siddur does briefly suggest this explanation as well: “Israel joins the angels by proclaiming Shema Yisrael, our own declaration of God’s greatness,” p. 464.)

Note also that the ArtScroll Siddur states that the Musaf Kedusha is derived from Pirkei De-R. Eliezer. But the truth is that the Musaf Kedusha likely preceded the material in Pirkei De-R. Eliezer by several centuries. Pirkei De-R. Eliezer is merely following the format of the Musaf Kedusha.

Finally, on the subject of interference by the government with our synagogue service, sometimes we do have reliable documentation of this occurring in ancient times. In a future article, I will discuss a law decreed by the Roman ruler Justinian in the year 553 that interfered with the synagogue service.

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy” (Kodesh Press, 2015). He can be reached at [email protected]. He would never leave shul early before Musaf Kedusha and miss the kiddush.


For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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