Our tradition includes a number of rituals and customs that leave us wondering why we do something or why or how we say something. One of those practices is the silent reading (whispering to oneself) of the second line of the Shema both in the evening and morning recitations of the prayer. The line is “Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto L’Olam Va’Ed”.
There are a number of explanations for this practice, including one I learned from my teacher, Rabbi Wernick z”l. He suggested that the line is a response uttered by the angels in their affirmation of God’s being and influence when the first line of the Shema is recited. Therefore, we say this line either to ourselves or in a very soft whisper, to acknowledge its presence and importance, yet remind ourselves that we are not celestial beings. This also helps to explain why we say the line out loud on Yom Kippur when reciting the Shema, as we are compared to angels in a number of ways on such a holy day.
There is another explanation offered through this week’s parasha. As a commentary on chapter 49 of Genesis, Midrash Devarim Rabbah 2:35 explains that as Jacob was preparing himself for his final moments, he called out to his children, saying; “Maybe once I pass away, you will bow to another power?” He then reiterated; “The God of Israel is your father”. His children replied to him; “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad”.Jacob then said in a whisper; “Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto L’Olam Va’Ed”.
Addressing Jacob’s concern that they would worship other Gods, his children affirm what has become one of our core teachings; “Listen Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One” (Shema Yisrael …). They are assuring Jacob that Adonai is their God, and that they believe in the one God. Jacob’s response is one of comfort, his fears having been allayed, and he could proclaim (in the voice of a very old man on his deathbed); “Blessed is Adonai’s glorious majesty forever and ever” (Baruch Shem Kavod …).
In her article in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle about this Midrash, Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer writes; “According to the rabbis, this is the reason we say the first line of the Shema loudly (with the strength of 12 sons) and the second line softly (in the manner of the dying, but satisfied Jacob)”.
Jacob was asking his children to pledge to follow the commitment that he, his father and his grandfather had established with God, each in their own way. Jacob wanted them to establish their own links with God, to forge their own connections. His message to his children is the same message intended for us each of the two times daily we recite the Shema – proclaiming this core teaching of our tradition provides a unique bond with our ancestors and our tradition, and it allows us to live in that moment our rabbis taught with regards to Jacob’s satisfaction through his quiet, yet confident response to his children declaring; “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad”.
Rabbi Sam Zwarenstein