Shema – The Mitzvoth


The Shema is the cornerstone of the faith of the Israelites and an essential component of the morning and evening prayers. The author will develop these two themes, faith and practice, through 2 articles on this web site “Shema – The Mitzvoth” and “Shema –Aggadah”. This article will focus on the mitzvoth of the Shema from the point of view of Halacha quoting from scripture, Talmud, Maimonides, Sefer HaChinukh, Shulchan Aruch, and associated commentaries. The companion article will focus on the mitzvoth of the Shema from the lens of Aggadah.

The Shema consists of 3 paragraphs from the Torah with the following table showing the verse numbers and theme of each paragraph.

Verse NumbersTheme
Deuteronomy 6:4-9Acceptance of Hashem
Deuteronomy 11:13-21Acceptance of Mitzvoth
Numbers 15:37-41Tzitzit (Fringes) and not follow after desires


The three paragraphs of the Shema contain 10 mitzvoth as listed by the Sefer HaChinukh which is a compendium and explanation of the 613 commandments. The following table lists the number of the mitzvah from this reference, the actual mitzvah, and associated verse in the Torah. For ease of reference the mitzvoth are listed in the order of the Shema.

First Paragraph of Shema

417Believe in unity of HashemDeuteronomy 6:4
418Love HashemDeuteronomy 6:5
419Study the TorahDeuteronomy 6:7
420Recite the ShemaDeuteronomy 6:7
421Don Tefillin of the handDeuteronomy 6:8
422Don Tefillin of the headDeuteronomy 6:8
423Affix mezuzah to doorpostDeuteronomy 6:9

Second Paragraph of Shema

433Pray to HashemDeuteronomy 11:13

Third Paragraph of Shema

386Wear tzitzitNumbers 15:38
387Do not follow after desiresNumbers 15:39

The following paragraphs will explain each mitzvah and its relation to the Shema as a declaration of faith and practice. 

Believe in unity of Hashem

The Torah commands the Israelites to believe in the unity of Hashem as master of the world.  Hence Judaism does not accept any partnership with Hashem in a divine sense (e.g. trinity) as the verse states Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel (ישראל שמע): Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is one (אחד)”. Maimonides (Laws of Fundamentals of Torah 1:7) writes, “Hashem is one and not two or more. Hashem is unified in a manner which surpasses any unity that is found in the world … and not like a body that is divided into different portions and dimensions.”

The Hebrew word (אחד) meaning one or unity is composed of individual letters each with their own numerical value (gematria) and interpretation as shown in the following table. (The technique of gematria applies both to the word in total and individual letters.)

LetterNumerical ValueMeaning
א1Hashem is one
ח8Hashem rules over the 7 heavens and earth (7+1=8)
ד4Hashem rules over the 4 directions of the earth

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 61:6) rules that one should prolong the pronunciation of the letters ד and ח when saying אחד and concentrate on the meaning of the letters as shown in the above table.  The Talmud (Chagigah 12b) defines the roles of each of the seven spiritual heavens.

Love Hashem

The verse states (ibid. 6:5), “You shall love Hashem … with all your heart, soul, and means”, thus commanding the Israelites to perform commandments with love and not by rote. The Talmud (Berachot 54b) precisely defines the terms “heart, soul, and resources” of this verse as follows:

Term – EnglishTerm – HebrewInterpretation
HeartלבבךSubdue the evil inclination
ResourcesמאדךSacrifice of Money

Subdue the Evil Inclination

Hashem created man with dual inclinations, labeled by the Talmud (ibid.) as good and evil. The Hebrew word לבבך (your heart in English) alludes to this duality by the additional letter (ב). The good inclination also called the divine soul naturally seeks spirituality by serving the creator with love and enthusiasm. The evil inclination also called the animal soul seeks physicality by pursuing earthly desires (e.g. marital relations, food, and entertainment.) In effect animal desires are not inherently evil because Hashem created man with this inclination. Rather one serves Hashem with this inclination by first controlling it, then sublimation, and finally transformation to good. Failure to control this inclination leads to evil, hence the term evil inclination. 


The Torah commands an Israelite to love Hashem with all his heart, soul (נפשך), and resources. The Talmud (Berachot 54a and Sanhedrin 74a) defines loving Hashem with the soul, as avoiding idolatry even if it involves martyrdom. In addition to idolatry the Torah commands Israelites to offer their lives in the face of some forbidden marital relations and murder. There are many details in the laws of martyrdom which are explained in the article “Sanctification of Hashem” on this web site:

Sacrifice of Money

The Talmud (Berachot 54a) interprets the word resources (מאדך) as referring to money or wealth.  Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonatan ben Uziel understand this word “resources” as referring to property or money, respectively. The Talmud (ibid. 61b) asks, “Why does the Torah mention money with respect to the love of Hashem? If the Torah commands martyrdom to avoid transgressing a major commandment then certainly one must give his money to avoid transgressing this commandment.” The Talmud answers that some people value their money over their lives. The Rema on Yoreh Deah 157:1 rules that one must sacrifice his wealth rather than transgressing any negative commandment, not just idolatry. 


The Torah translates this love of Hashem into practical mitzvoth which are cited in this paragraph of the Shema (viz. studying Torah, reciting the Shema, donning tefillin, and affixing a mezuzah to the doorpost) and the other 2 paragraphs of the Shema (viz. prayer, wearing tzitzit, and not following after desires). Maimonides in his magnum opus Mishneh Torah of 14 volumes includes most of these mitzvoth in his second volume entitled “Book of Love (of Hashem)” connecting these mitzvoth with love of Hashem. The other mitzvoth of the Shema (viz. belief in unity of Hashem, love of Hashem, study of the Torah, and to not follow after our desires) Maimonides placed in his first volume entitled “Book of Fundamentals of the Torah”.  Hence from the viewpoint of Maimonides, the mitzvoth of the fundamentals of the Torah form the foundation of one’s belief and outlook. Maimonides advises (Laws of Fundamentals of Torah 2:2), “What is the path to attain love of Hashem? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds … and appreciates His infinite wisdom … he will immediately love, praise, and glorify Hashem … as David stated (Psalms 42:3): My soul thirsts for G-d.”

The Sefer HaChinukh citing Sifrei (Deuteronomy Paragraph 32) highlights the following points about the mitzvah of loving Hashem:

  • Serve Hashem with love and not by rote. 
  • Study the Torah to know about Hashem.
  • Make Hashem beloved to others through your actions like Abraham.

Serve Hashem with love

This means that one should perform the mitzvoth with passion as Maimonides writes (Laws of Returning to Hashem – Teshuvah 10:2), “One who serves Hashem out of love occupies himself with Torah and mitzvoth and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive. Rather, he does what is true because it is true, and ultimately, the good will follow.”

Maimonides then defines this love of Hashem (ibid 10:3), “A person should love G-d with a great and exceeding love until his soul is bound up in the love of Hashem. Thus, he will always be obsessed with this love as if he is lovesick. By way of metaphor, a lovesick person’s thoughts are never diverted from the love of a woman. He is obsessed with her; when he sits down, when he gets up, and when he eats and drinks. This concept was implied by Solomon in the Song of Songs 2:5 when he stated, as a metaphor: I am lovesick. Indeed, the totality of the Song of Songs is a parable describing this love of Hashem.”

(Certainly any metaphor concerning Hashem should not be taken literally. In addition the metaphor of infatuation should not be understood in all aspects of a relationship between a man and a woman. For example the love may be unrequited or the woman may not be suitable for the man due to differences in character, outlook, religious observance, etc. Using the analogy of vectors from the field of physics we can say that the metaphor of love applies to the magnitude (i.e. intensity) of love but not necessarily to its direction.) 

Study the Torah

The Sifrei (Deuteronomy Paragraph 33) asks, “How does one love Hashem?” The Sifrei (ibid.) answers that that through the study of the Torah one recognizes Hashem and attaches to His (divine) ways (thereby leading to the love of Hashem).” The Sifrei (ibid.) also notes that the Torah itself alludes to this study because the next verse after the commandment to love Hashem (Deuteronomy 6:6) states, “These words, which I (Hashem) command you this day, shall be upon your heart (through study).”In fact the following verse (ibid. 6:7) clearly indicates the teaching and study of the Torah as explained in the following mitzvah.

Maimonides similarly stresses the need to study Torah to love Hashem (Laws of Repentance – Teshuva 10:6), “One can only love Hashem based upon the knowledge of Him. Hence the nature of one’s love depends on the nature of one’s knowledge. A small amount of knowledge arouses a lesser love. A greater amount of knowledge arouses a greater love.”

Make Hashem Beloved

In addition to loving Hashem, the Sifrei (ibid.) advises that one should follow the example of Abraham who made Hashem beloved to the people of his generation through his personality, kindness, and religious convictions. Abraham was able to influence people to abandon idolatry and embrace monotheism. The Torah alludes to this influence in (Genesis 12:5), “The souls they (Abraham and Sarah) had acquired (literally made) in Haran.  Targum Onkelos on this verse translates the word “made” as converted to monotheism.

In a similar vein, the Talmud (Yoma 86a) states, “You shall make the name of Heaven beloved by influencing others. How should one do so? One should read the Torah, learn the Mishna, and serve Torah scholars (i.e. Talmud). In addition he should be pleasant with people in his business transactions. What do people say about such a person? Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah, fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah (including Mishna), woe to the people who have not studied Torah. This person who studied Torah, see how pleasant are his ways and proper are his deeds. The verse (Isaiah 49:3) states about him and others like him: You are My (divine) servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

The mitzvah of loving Hashem is a broad topic and is dealt in depth on this website:

Study the Torah

The Torah cites the mitzvah of studying the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:7), “You shall teach them to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house” in terms of teaching one’s sons. Of course one cannot teach unless one has studied the subject.   

The Sefer Chinuch, based upon the Sifrei (Deuteronomy Paragraph 33) highlights the following points about the mitzvah of studying Torah:

  • To know how to perform the mitzvoth.
  • To know about Hashem.
  • To teach your children or disciples.

Perform the Mitzvoth

The basic reason for studying the Torah is to know how to perform the mitzvoth. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 246:4) rules, based upon the Talmud Kiddushin 30a, that one must study the written and oral Torah. The written Torah means the 24 books of scripture divided as Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings or in Hebrew תורה, נביאים and כתובים. The oral Torah includes the Mishna and Talmud. The Rema (ibid.) adds that one should study the codes of law, written more than 700 years after the completion of the Talmud, to know practical Halacha based upon the discussions of the Talmud.

Know About Hashem

The study of the Torah leads one to know about Hashem as discussed above in the mitzvah of Love of Hashem. Therefore in addition to the core curriculum of the written and oral Torah, as specified in the Shulchan Aruch, one may enhance their connection to Hashem through the study of classical ethical works (ספרי מוסר ), Chassidism, or Jewish mysticism (e.g. זהר). However the main emphasis should be the core curriculum with study under a recognized rabbinical figure as the sages say (Avot 1:6), “Accept a rabbi as your teacher.”   

Teach Your Children or Disciples

The Torah states (Deuteronomy 6:7), “You shall teach them to your sons” which defines the obligation to teach Torah in addition to its study. The Sifrei (ibid. Paragraph 34) states that sons may also mean students based upon the verse (Deuteronomy 14:1), “You (i.e. Israelites) are children of Hashem (i.e. students or disciples).

The Talmud (Kiddushin 30a) notes that the Torah uses the word ושננתם instead of the usual word for teaching ולמדתם to emphasize that the teaching must lead to a thorough knowledge of the subject as the Talmud relates “If someone asks you a question answer him immediately.”

Importance of Torah Study

The importance of Torah study cannot be overemphasized as the Mishna (Peah 1:1) states,” There are mitzvoth that a person performs and enjoys their profits in this world with the principal intact in the World-to-Come. They are: Honouring one’s father and mother, acts of kindness, and bringing peace between people. However Torah study is equal to all of them.”

The Shulchan Aruch (Yorah Deah 246:4) emphasizes the importance of Torah study by stating that ideally one should study or teach Torah 9 hours per day, to master the intricacies of the  Talmud, and work for 3. However Rabbi Shabbatai ben Meir HaKohen, a noted 17th century commentator on the Shulchan Aruch, writes (ibid. 246:5) that lay people who study 3-4 hours per day should include a detailed study of Halacha in their daily schedule. Realistically a working person who must budget his time between work, family, and prayer obligations should study at least 1 hour per day, on average, with more Torah study on the Sabbath and days when not working (e.g. Sunday). Today it is a widely accepted practice to support Torah scholars for some years after marriage (i.e. kollel system) to prepare for a career in the rabbinate.

(Although the author will not generally quote from popular culture in a Torah discussion, the following example stresses the importance of Torah study in a compelling fashion. In the song “If I were a Rich Man” from the play and movie “Fiddler on the Roof” Tevye, the poor milkman, contemplates his life as a rich man and love of Torah study.

“If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray … and I’d discuss the holy book with the learned men, several hours every day and that would be the sweetest thing of all.”)

Recite the Shema

The Torah states (Deuteronomy 6:7), “You shall teach them to your sons and speak of them … when you lie down (i.e. in the evening) and when you rise up (i.e. in the morning).” At a literal level, the verse means that one should speak words of Torah every day (i.e. evening and morning). Since Torah study also applies in the afternoon the Talmud (Berachot 21a) interprets this verse as referring to the mitzvah of reciting the Shema.

However the Torah does not specify which section of the Torah should be recited every evening and morning. In fact the Talmud (Berachot 21a) presents different opinions about the biblical obligation to recite the Shema. One view holds that one must recite a section of the Torah which affirms Hashem’s unity and sovereignty with the selection of verses up to the individual. The other view, which corresponds to the Halacha, maintains that the recitation of the Shema is biblical but the actual number of paragraphs is a matter of dispute. However at a rabbinic level all 3 of the following paragraphs are recited.  Appendix 1 provides a detailed discussion of these different views.


The following table shows the order of the Shema, verse numbers, theme of each paragraph, and order in the Torah.

Order in ShemaVerse NumbersThemeOrder in Torah
1Deuteronomy 6:4-9Acceptance of Hashem2
2Deuteronomy 11:13-21Acceptance of Mitzvoth3
3Numbers 15:37-41Tzitzit (Fringes)1

The Talmud notes that the order of the Shema is different than the order in the Torah and offers the following answers based upon:

  1. Theme (Berachot 13a).
  2. Observance (Berachot 14b).


The Talmud (ibid.) explains that the sages chose this particular order to emphasize the nature of belief and practice as follows:

  1. Acceptance of Hashem (1st paragraph) – The Talmud defines “Acceptance of Hashem” as  acceptance of the responsibility (literally yoke) of the kingdom of heaven or in Hebrew עול מלכות שמים . The Maharsha (Berachot 13a) explains that this acceptance is the foundation of Judaism, namely belief in Hashem as master of the world. This is expressed in the 1st verse of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), “Hear (שמע), O Israel: Hashem is our G-d; Hashem is one.” It is interesting to note that the first letters of each of the 3 words in the expression עול מלכות שמים namely ש,מ,ע when rearranged spell שמע the first word of the Shema.  
  2. Acceptance of Mitzvoth (2nd paragraph) – The second paragraph of the Shema emphasizes the acceptance of mitzvoth or in Hebrew עול מצות which implies that acceptance of Hashem must lead to fulfilling the mitzvoth. The 1st verse in this paragraph states (Deuteronomy 11:13), “if you hearken to My (divine) commandments (מצותי) that I command you this day.”   
  3. Mitzvah of tzitzit (3rd paragraph) – The mitzvah of tzitzit applies in the day time but not at night based upon the verse (Numbers 15:39), “You shall have tzitzit and see them.” The Talmud derives from this verse that the time for tzitzit is when one can see the threads by natural light (i.e. day time). This paragraph also mentions the exodus from Egypt.    


The Talmud (ibid. 14b) explains the order of the Shema in terms of observance, namely studying Torah, teaching Torah, and observing the mitzvoth as shown in the following table.

ParagraphStudying TorahTeaching TorahObserving Mitzvoth

The verses follow:

Paragraph 1

  • Study Torah (Deuteronomy 6:7) “You shall speak of them (words of Torah)”.
  • Teach Torah (ibid.) “You shall teach them to your children (or students).”
  • Observe mitzvoth (ibid. 6:8-9) “You shall bind them as a sign on your arm and an ornament between your eyes. You shall write (and affix) them (i.e. mezuzah) on the doorposts of your house.”

Paragraph 2

  • Teach Torah (ibid. 11:19) “You shall teach them to your children (or students).”
  • Observe mitzvoth (ibid. 11:18 and 20) “You shall bind them as a sign on your arm and an ornament between your eyes. You shall write (and affix) them (i.e. mezuzah) on the doorposts of your house.”

Paragraph 3

  • Observe mitzvoth (Numbers 15:39), “This shall be fringes for you that you may see it and remember all of the commandments of Hashem to perform them.”

Time of Shema

Based on Deuteronomy 6:7,”When you lie down” the Talmud (Berachot 10b) establishes the time for the recitation of the Shema at night beginning with the visibility of 3 stars and continuing into the night when people go to sleep. However one should not delay reciting the evening Shema (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 235:3) lest he fall asleep and miss the Shema (Berachot 4b).

By contrast the time for the morning Shema is when people rise before they begin their daily activities up to the first three normalized hours of the morning. (The Halacha defines a normalized hour as 1/12 of a day, where the day according to one view runs from sunrise to sunset or according to another view from dawn to nightfall when 3 stars are visible in the sky. Hence the duration of a normalized hour varies with the time of the year and latitude where the person resides.)

Laws of the Shema

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim Chapters 60-88) describes many laws about the recital of the Shema (e.g. proper concentration, method of reciting, cleanliness when reciting, etc.) For sake of brevity the author will provide a brief summary of these laws, in order of the Shulchan Aruch,   especially as they relate to other mitzvoth mentioned in the Shema.

The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 61:1) rules that one should recite the Shema with full concentration and reverence showing one’s love of Hashem. In the next law (ibid. 61:2) the Shulchan Aruch quotes the Sifrei (Paragraph 33) on Deuteronomy 6:6. The verse reads, “These words (e.g. the Shema), which I (Hashem) command you this day, shall be upon your heart.”  The Sifrei comments on the expression “this day” to mean that every day the Torah (which includes the Shema) should be new to you and not like an ancient document.

248 words

The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 61:3) notes that there are 245 words in the Shema and 248 parts of the male body. In addition the Talmud states (Makkot 23b) that there are 248 positive commandments (i.e. mitzvoth to perform) of the 613 commandments of the Torah. To reach the mystical number of 248 words the cantor repeats 3 words י-ה-ו-ה א-להיכם אמת (Hashem, your G-d, is the truth) to bring the number of words in the recited Shema to 248. The Mishna Berurah (ibid. 61:6) explains that each word of the recited Shema provides spiritual nourishment to the corresponding part of the body thereby uniting body and soul. This union is hinted in the verse (Deuteronomy 6:5), “You shall love Hashem … with all your heart, soul, and means.” This is an example where the Halacha follows a mystical teaching which is not mentioned in the Talmud.

If one prays without a minyan (quorum of 10 men) then he is missing the 3 additional words recited by the cantor. The Shulchan Aruch records a difference of opinion (ibid. 61:3) on the method to make up these 3 missing words. Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, suggests making up these words through a gematria. The person should concentrate on the 15 times the letter vav (ו) of the prayer immediately following the Shema “And certain and established”. The gematria of the letter vav is 6 and one obtains 90 by counting these 15 times (15*6= 90). On the other hand the gematria of the Tetragrammaton (י-ה-ו-ה) is 26 and including its 4 letters one obtains 30 (i.e. 26+4). Hence 3 units of 30 makes 90 (30*3) represents the missing 3 words. For the evening prayer, that does not have these 15 letters of vav, the individual should concentrate on the 3 letters of the word אמת (truth) appended to the end of the Shema (Mishna Berurah 61:12).   

Rabbi Moshe Isselres (Rema), commentator on the Shulchan Aruch, offers a simpler solution which applies to both morning and evening prayers. The individual should say these 3 words א-ל מלך נאמן (G-d the faithful king) before reciting the Shema to make up the 3 missing words. The Chabad custom when praying without a minyan is to repeats 3 words י-ה-ו-ה א-להיכם אמת which applies to both the morning and evening prayer (Shulchan Aruch Harav 61 footnote 21).   

Additional Customs

The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 61:5) records the custom to cover the eyes when reciting the first verse of the Shema. The Mishna Berurah (ibid. 61:17) specifies the right hand which applies whether the person is right or left handed. It is not necessary to remove glasses when covering the eyes (Dirshu edition of Mishna Berurah note 61:5).

The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 61:13) records the custom of reciting the phrase, “Blessed be the name of His (Divine) glorious kingdom forever” after the 1st verse of the Shema. This phrase does not occur in scripture and therefore is recited said in a low voice (ibid.). It was first said by Jacob when he wished to reveal the secrets of the end of days but the Divine Presence abandoned him. He though that perhaps one of his descendants was unfit. His sons said to him, “Hear Israel, (our father Jacob who is also called Israel) Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is one.” They said, “Just as there is only one G-d in your heart, so too, there is only one in our hearts. At that moment Jacob said in praise,”Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever.” Although this phrase does not occur in scripture it is significant because it recalls an affirmation of the unity of Hashem. In addition the 6 words of this phrase are part of the 245 words in the Shema.

Appendix 2 discusses the origin of this phrase.

Don Tefillin of the Hand   

The Torah states (Deuteronomy 6:8),” You shall bind them for a sign upon your hand.” The Talmud (Menachot 34b) interprets this sign as the hand tefillin (phylactery).  Although the Torah did not describe the nature of the “sign upon your hand” the oral Torah defines this sign as a black leather casing containing 4 paragraphs from the Torah with leather straps to attach to the arm. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim Chapters 25-45) elaborates on the many laws of tefillin.


The casing holds one piece of parchment which contains the 4 paragraphs that mention tefillin in the Torah. The following table shows the order of these paragraphs as they occur in the Torah, the verse numbers, and the theme of the paragraphs.

1Exodus 13:1-10Exodus from Egypt – Laws of Passover
2Exodus 13:11-16Exodus from Egypt – Laws of Firstborn
3Deuteronomy 6:4-9Acceptance of Hashem
4Deuteronomy 11:13-21Acceptance of Mitzvoth

Although the first 2 paragraphs speak of the exodus and accompanying miracles the focus of the paragraphs are different. In addition to the mitzvah of tefillin, the first paragraph mentions the mitzvah of eating matzos and conducting a seder on Passover. By contrast the second paragraph focuses on the different mitzvoth of the firstborn as shown in the following table which lists the different male firstborns, nature of the mitzvah, and verse number in chapter 13 of Exodus. In each case the Torah awards the priest with a different gift (i.e. 5 shekels, meat of the offering, or a live sheep respectively).

Type of firstbornMitzvahVerse
ChildRedemption –  5 shekels13
Cattle – bull, sheep, or goatTemple Offering – meat12
DonkeyRedemption – sheep13

The 3rd and 4th paragraphs are included in the Shema and were discussed in the above section, “Recite the Shema”. 

Order of Paragraphs

The Talmud (Menachot 28a) states that all 4 passages are essential for the mitzvah of tefillin and therefore if any one of the paragraphs is missing the tefillin is not valid. Even if one letter of these paragraphs is missing the tefillin is not valid. Although the tefillin, both hand and head, are written in the order of the Torah the placement of the paragraphs is a matter of dispute between Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam, the grandson of Rashi, as follows:

RashiRabbeinu Tam

Hence when writing hand tefillin according to Rabbeinu Tam, the ritual scribe writes the first 2 paragraphs in order, leaves a blank space for paragraph 4, writes paragraph 3 after the blank space, and then writes paragraph 4 in the blank space (Mishna Berurah 34:3). In this manner the writing of the paragraphs follows the order of the Torah (i.e. 1, 2, 3, and 4) with the placement following the view of Rabbeinu Tam (i.e. 1, 2, 4, and 3).

 Although this dispute originated at the time of the Mishna, almost 1,000 years before Rabbeinu Tam, it is popularly referred to these two sages. The reason for this dispute will be explained in the next section “Don Tefillin of the Head”.

Which Arm (Hand)

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 27:1) rules that the hand tefillin are bound on the left arm. A left handed person places the tefillin on his right arm (ibid. 27:6). Although the Torah did not specify on which arm to don tefillin the Talmud (Menachot 37a) provides the following proofs:

  1. Textual – The Torah states (Exodus 13:16), “It shall be for a sign upon your hand … for with a mighty hand did Hashem take us out from Egypt. “ The Torah uses the word ידכה for your hand which the Talmud interprets as the weaker hand or in Hebrew as יד כהה . Since for most people, the right arm is stronger the weaker arm must be the left. By this reasoning, a left-handed person places the tefillin on his weaker arm or the right one. (It is interesting to note that the word ידכה appears only once in scripture allowing for this derivation.) 
  2. Inference – The Torah states (Deuteronomy 6:8), “You shall bind them for a sign upon your hand.” In the next verse the Torah says, “And you shall write them (mezuzah) (and attach them) upon the doorposts of your house and gates.” Actually the commandment of the mezuzah is to attach the scroll to the doorpost with the writing of the scroll as only a preliminary act to the mitzvah. Therefore the Talmud (ibid.) infers that the hand for writing (normally the right one) should be the same as the one for binding or wrapping the tefillin which means that the tefillin should be placed on the left arm. By this reasoning, a left-handed person binds the tefillin with his writing hand on his right arm.   

Placement on Arm

In each of the 4 paragraphs that mention the hand tefillin, the Torah refers to the hand and not the arm. Therefore the Talmud (Menachot 37b) asks, “How do we know that the tefillin should be placed on the bicep and not literally on the hand?” The Talmud (ibid.) provides the following answers:

  1. Comparison – The Talmud compares the tefillin of the hand to the tefillin of the head. Just as the tefillin of the head are placed on the top of the head, as will be explained in the next section “Don Tefillin of the Head”, so the tefillin of the hand must be placed on top of the arm (i.e. bicep).
  2. Verse – The Torah (Exodus 13:9) writes about the hand tefillin, “It shall be for you a sign upon your hand.”The Talmud explains that the words “for you” indicate that the hand tefillin should be placed on the part of the arm that is normally covered (i.e. bicep).  
  3. Location – The Torah (Deuteronomy 11:18) writes about the tefillin, “You shall set these words of Mine upon your heart and soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand.” Hence the tefillin shall be placed at the level of the heart.

Rationale of Mitzvah

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 25:5) explains, “When a person dons tefillin he should realize that Hashem commands Israelites to wear these four paragraphs of the Torah that refer to the unity of Hashem (3rd paragraph) and the exodus from Egypt (1st and 2nd paragraphs). This teaches that Hashem rules over the upper and lower worlds. Specifically one dons the tefillin on the bicep facing the heart to control one’s heart desires and remember the creator.”     

Connection to the Shema

The Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 25:4 rules that one must don tefillin when reciting the morning Shema and Amidah (central prayer). The Mishna Berurah (ibid. 25:14), based on Bercahot 14b, explains that one who does not don tefillin when reciting the Shema is in effect incriminating himself. The Torah mentions the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:7 and in the next verse tefillin, implying that these mitzvoth should come together or in the vernacular, “Walk the talk.”       

Daily Obligation

The Torah does not explicitly mention how often the Israelites should don tefillin. Although the Torah (Exodus 13:10) after the mitzvah of tefillin states, “You shall observe this statute at its designated time from year to year (literally from day to day)” this verse may refer to the paschal offering (Menachot 36b). The Talmud (ibid.) derives that tefillin are not worn every day except on the Sabbath and holidays from Exodus 13:16,”It (tefillin) shall be a sign upon your hand (i.e. hand tefillin) and an ornament between your eyes (i.e. head tefillin).” The Torah calls the Sabbath a sign (Exodus 31:13), “Keep My Sabbaths! For it is a sign between Me (Hashem) and you for generations.” Hence the sign of the Sabbath is sufficient to remember Hashem and tefillin are not worn on this day implying that on regular days tefillin are worn. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 31:1) adds that wearing tefillin on the Sabbath would actually degrade the sign of Sabbath. The reader may ask, “Where in the Torah are the holidays called a sign leading to an exemption of tefillin on these days?” The Talmud does not directly address this question leading to a number of answers:

  • Sign – based upon Exodus 12:13 when the Israelites slaughtered the paschal lamb and placed the blood on the lintel and doorposts, “The blood shall be a sign upon the houses where you will live.” (Mishna Berurah 31:3).
  • Sabbath like – The Torah in a number of places calls the holidays a Sabbath like day (e.g. Leviticus 23:39). 

Don Tefillin of the Head

The Torah states (Deuteronomy 6:8),” They shall be an ornament between your eyes.” The Talmud (Menachot 35a) interprets this ornament as the head tefillin (phylactery).  The oral Torah defines this ornament as a black leather casing with straps to fasten to the head containing the same 4 paragraphs of the hand tefillin. The casing consists of 4 separate compartments with each compartment holding a different parchment.

Order of Paragraphs

Although the Talmud does not mention the dispute about the order of the paragraphs, the wording of the Talmud (Menachot 34b) may be interpreted in different ways. The Talmud asks,” How does one arrange the four passages inside the head tefillin?” The Talmud answers that paragraphs 1 and 2 are on the right and paragraphs 3 and 4 on the left. Rashi interprets this statement as the paragraphs are in order. However Rabbeinu Tam interprets this statement as paragraph 3 is on the extreme left meaning that the order of the paragraphs is 1, 2, 4, and 3.  In addition to dispute of Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam there is a dispute about the terms left and right.  Are these terms in reference to the wearer of the tefillin or in reference to an observer facing the wearer? Although our version of the Talmud explains that these terms in reference to the observer, the disputants did not have this text. The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 34:1) rules that the order follows Rashi’s view (i.e. paragraphs 1 to 4 in sequential order) and with paragraph 1 on the extreme right of the observer which means the extreme left of the wearer. In this manner the observer could read the paragraphs as they appear in the Torah. The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 34:2) rules that a G-d fearing person may don both pairs of to fulfill both views. 


In each of the 4 paragraphs that mention the head tefillin, the Torah specifies “between your eyes” but does not indicate the exact location on the head. Therefore the Talmud (Menachot 37b) asks, “How do we know that the tefillin should be placed above the hairline and not literally on the forehead between the eyes?” The Talmud (ibid.) provides the following answers:

  1. Hermeneutical principle – The Talmud uses the second of the 13 principles of Rabbi Ishmael, similar words or in Hebrew שוה גזרה. The Torah (Deuteronomy 14:1) states,” You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.” Just as the expression between your eyes in reference to mourning applies to the area of hair growth (i.e. creating baldness) so too the tefillin must be placed above the hairline.  
  2. Comparison – The location of the hand and head tefillin are similar in that they are in areas either primarily in exposed skin with minimal hair (i.e. arm) or hair with minimal exposed skin (i.e. head). The Talmud makes this comparison based upon the laws of tzaraat (skin affliction described in Leviticus 13:1-46) which vary depending upon location whether primarily exposed skin or exposed hair. The location of the tefillin must be in a place where one of the laws of tzaraat applies either skin (i.e. hand tefillin) or hair (i.e. head tefillin).          

The expression “between your eyes” serves to locate the case of head tefillin in a horizontal plane, meaning the tefillin should be located above the hairline until the fontanel (Shulchan Aruch ibid. 27:9) and midway on the head, thus between the eyes (Shulchan Aruch ibid. 27:10).

The following table shows the similarities and differences between the hand and head tefillin.

FeatureHand tefillinHead tefillin
Leather Casing

Order of Donning

The Torah (Deuteronomy 6:8) states, “You shall bind them as a sign on your arm (hand tefillin) and they shall be (והיו) an ornament between your eyes (head tefillin).” The order of the verse indicates that one should don the hand tefillin and then the head tefillin. The Talmud (Menachot 36a) notes the plural form of “they shall be” indicates that when wearing the head tefillin, the hand tefillin should also be worn. In addition the plural form indicates the order of removing the tefillin (i.e. head tefillin before the hand tefillin). The Shulchan Aruch rules similarly for the donning and removal of tefillin (Orach Chaim 25:5 and 28:2 respectively).


The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 25:5) explains that one dons the head tefillin to direct the divine soul located in the brain to serve Hashem. The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 28:1) adds that one should touch the tefillin when reciting the verses about tefillin in the Shema (i.e. Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18). Specifically one should touch the hand tefillin when reciting, “You shall bind them as a sign upon your arm” and the head tefillin when reciting, “They shall be an ornament between your eyes.”      

Affix mezuzah to doorpost

The Torah states (Deuteronomy 6:9), “You shall write them (the following two paragraphs) upon the doorposts of your house and gates.” The Talmud (Menachot 34a) explains that an Israelite should affix a mezuzah to doorposts and gates. Once fastened a person is not required to refasten the mezuzah unless it falls off accidentally or removed to be checked. In contrast to tefillin, the mezuzah scroll contains two paragraphs because the Torah only mentions the mezuzah in these paragraphs as follows:     

1Deuteronomy 6:4-9Acceptance of Hashem
2Deuteronomy 11:13-21Acceptance of Mitzvoth


The Talmud (ibid.) questions the need for a scroll to fulfill the mitzvah of mezuzah. Perhaps the verse (Deuteronomy 6:9) is literal, meaning that one should write these 2 paragraphs directly on the doorpost. To determine the method of writing (i.e. doorpost or scroll) the Talmud (ibid.) compares other cases of writing mentioned in the Torah. On one hand the Torah (Deuteronomy 27:3 and 8) commands the Israelites to write words of Torah on stone upon entry in to the land of Israel. On the other hand the Torah mentions writing a scroll (ספר) for a bill of divorce (ibid. 24:1), king writing a Torah (ibid. 17:18), and a scroll for a suspected unfaithful wife (Numbers 5:23). The Talmud concludes that it is reasonable to compare the mezuzah to these 3 mitzvoth that apply throughout the generations, rather than comparing writing of the mezuzah to writing on stone that occurred only once.

Despite this comparison the Talmud (ibid.) argues that the verse, in a literal sense, implies writing on a doorpost. Hence the Talmud interprets the phrase “You shall write them” or in Hebrew וכתבתם as two words כתיבה תמה meaning a complete or durable writing which indicates a preference for a scroll and not writing on a doorpost. However the Talmud considers the possibility of chiseling the two paragraphs on stone and then inserting the stone into the doorpost. Therefore the Talmud uses the above comparison (e.g. bill of divorce) to determine that the verse is not literal and requires a scroll which is then affixed to a doorpost. Thus the Talmud interprets the verse as, “You shall write them (on a scroll) and (affix the scroll) upon the doorposts of your house and gates.”


The Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah Chapters 285-291 discusses the laws of mezuzah. For the sake of brevity the author provides a sampling of these laws in order as they appear in the Shulchan Aruch. The author will highlight those laws that relate directly to the verses in the Shema.

Chapter 285 – Reward of Fastening the Mezuzah 

Subsection 1 – The Shulchan Aruch (ibid.) mentions the reward for observing the mitzvah of mezuzah is a long life, based upon Deuteronomy 11:20-21, “You shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and gates which will prolong your days and the days of your children on the land which the Hashem promised to your forefathers.” The reward of a long physical life may not be literal because the Talmud (Moed Katan 28a) states, “Length of life, number of children, and livelihood do not depend on one’s merit, but rather depend upon one’s destiny (which is determined by Hashem).”  Ritva, 14th century Talmudic commentator, explains that this statement from the Talmud should be understood as “Length of life does not depend upon one’s merit alone but also upon one’s destiny”. Hence it is possible to change one’s destiny through great merit. However the Tosafot (Shabbat 156a) point out that in some cases even great merit may not change one’s destiny fully (e.g. from poverty to wealth) as many Torah scholars were not wealthy.  

Based upon the above discussion of destiny vs. merit, the author would like to explain the expression “long life” of Deuteronomy 11:21 as quality of life for the householder and his family as the verse (ibid.) says, “Prolong your days and the days of your children.”   

Chapter 287 – Structure of Opening

Subsection 1 – An opening requires a mezuzah only if the opening has two posts and a lintel.

The requirement for two doorposts is based upon a literal reading of Deuteronomy 6:9 where the word “doorposts” is in plural. However the Talmud (Menachot 34a) records an opinion that a doorframe with one post requires a mezuzah based upon the 3rd rule of Torah interpretation by Rabbi Yishmael (viz. a general rule from a verse). The Torah states (Exodus 12:22-23), in reference to the application of the blood of paschal offering,” You shall take a bunch of hyssop and immerse it in the blood of a basin and apply the blood to the lintel and two doorposts …When Hashem will see the blood on the lintel and two doorposts, He (divine) will pass over the entrance.” The Talmud reasons that since the word doorposts (המזוזת) is written in plural the reference to the word “two” is apparently superfluous and comes to teach that unless otherwise specified only one doorpost is implied. Hence to satisfy both opinions one may place a mezuzah on a door frame with one doorpost without reciting a blessing on the mezuzah.      

Chapter 289 Fastening the Mezuzah to the Doorpost

Subsection 1 – The case for the mezuzah may be of any durable material (e.g. plastic, metal, or reed), in contrast to tefillin where the case must be leather.

Subsection 2 – The mezuzah must be placed on the top third of the doorpost facing the entrance on the right side of entry (Notes 1 and 2).  

Note 1: The mezuzah should be placed on the top third of the doorpost corresponding to shoulder level which is similar to the hand tefillin which is placed at the top third of a person. However if the doorpost is very high then the mezuzah shall be placed at shoulder level (Aruch Hashulchan Yoreh Deah 289:10).     

Note 2:  In contrast to hand tefillin, the mezuzah is affixed to the right doorpost whether the person is left or right handed. The Talmud (Menachot 34a) derives this requirement from the verse (Deuteronomy 6:9), “You shall write them upon the doorposts of your house ביתך and upon your gates. The Talmud finds an allusion to the right doorpost by expanding upon the word ביתך as ביאתך meaning the way you enter the house through the right foot since most people walk with the right foot first . The Aruch Hashulchan (Yoreh Deah 289:5) explains that the Torah did not mention hand in reference to the mitzvah of mezuzah implying that we follow the way that most people walk. In addition the mezuzah is a reminder for all people that enter or leave the house which implies the right side (ibid. 289:5). By contrast donning tefillin is a personal mitzvah and therefore follows the use of the weaker hand.      

Subsection 4 – The mezuzah shall be fastened to the doorpost securely (e.g. nails, screws, or durable glue).    

Subsection 6 – Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, rules that the mezuzah should be fastened vertically. However Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Rema) notes that there is a dispute whether the mezuzah should be fastened vertically or horizontally. Therefore he rules that the mezuzah should be placed diagonally thereby satisfying both views. The Rema adds that the mezuzah should be rolled so that the first word of the mezuzah faces inward and the last line faces outward.    

Comparison of Tefillin to Mezuzah

The following table compares and contrasts the characteristics of tefillin and mezuzah.

Casing LeatherAny durable material
FasteningLeather StrapsAny fastening material
LocationArm and headDoorpost
TimeDailyFastened once

Pray to Hashem

The mitzvah of prayer encompasses many details as codified in the Shulchan Aruch Chapters 89-127). For the sake of brevity the author will focus on the following perspectives:

  • Verses from the Torah
  • Biblical Obligation of Prayer
  • Origin and Laws of Formalized Prayer

Verses from the Torah

The Sefer HaChinukh (Mitzvah 433) notes that there are several verses in the Torah which command serving Hashem, each with a different lesson. The author lists the verses in the order as they appear in the Torah.

Exodus 23:25 – “You shall worship (literally serve) Hashem and He will bless your food and drink. (In addition) Hashem will remove illness from your midst.”   

From this verse we see that one may pray to Hashem for good health and sustenance.

Deuteronomy 10:20 – “You shall revere Hashem; worship Him (divine); and cleave to Him (divine).”

From this verse we see that one shall revere and cleave to Hashem before praying. In fact the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 98:1) states that one should pray with reverence and consider that the Shechinah is in front of him and therefore remove all distracting thoughts. The Shulchan Aruch (ibid.) continues by citing the practice of the pious of Israel who would cleave to Hashem thereby emulating the ways of the prophets.

Deuteronomy 11:13 – “Serve (worship) Him (Hashem) with all your heart and soul.”

Since this verse mentions the heart, the Talmud interprets this service as prayer (Taanit 2a). By contrast the other verses did not include the heart when mentioning service to Hashem.

Deuteronomy 13:5 – “You shall follow Hashem, fear Him, keep His commandments, heed His voice, serve (worship) Him, and cleave to Him.”

The Torah places this verse in a passage about a false prophet who may lead the Israelites astray. Hence the Torah exhorts the Israelites to follow Hashem and remain steadfast in their faith in the face of challenges.

The Sefer HaChinukh (Mitzvah 433) explains the mitzvah of prayer as follows, “The blessings from Hashem are dependent upon proper acts and thoughts of people. Therefore a person should pray to Hashem, the source of blessings, to receive divine grace and realize that all comes from Hashem.”

Biblical Obligation

In contrast to the recitation of the Shema which uses a biblical text, the mitzvah of prayer as commanded from the Torah, does not require a fixed text. Rather each person may pray according to the devotion of his heart, hence the expression “service of the heart”.

The codifiers of Halacha debate the nature of this mitzvah as follows:

  • Maimonides – daily mitzvah.
  • Nachmanides – only in time of need.
Maimonides (Laws of Prayer Chapter 1)

Maimonides (ibid.) writes:

 Law 1:1 – “It is a positive Torah commandment to pray every day, as the verse states (Exodus 23:25): You shall serve Hashem. Tradition teaches us that this service is prayer, as the verse states (Deuteronomy 11:13): Serve Him with all your heart. To which the sages of the Talmud ask: What is the service of the heart? This is prayer. The number of prayers is not prescribed in the Torah nor does it prescribe a specific formula for prayer. Also, according to Torah law, there are no fixed times for prayers.”

Law 1:2 – “Rather, this commandment obligates each Israelite to pray every day (in the following format) praise of Hashem, petition for his needs, and give thanks to Hashem for the goodness that He has bestowed upon him; each one according to his own ability.”

Law 1:3 – “A person who was eloquent would offer many prayers and requests. Conversely, a person who was inarticulate would speak as well as he could and whenever he desired. Similarly, the number of prayers was dependent on each person’s ability.”

Nachmanides – Book of Mitzvoth

Nachmanides argues that the above verses which mention serving Hashem (e.g. Deuteronomy 11:13 and 13:5) do not necessarily refer to prayer. Rather these verses may command the Israelites to serve Hashem with devotion when performing the mitzvoth, similar to the mitzvah of loving Hashem which is included in the Shema declaration. Hence Nachmanides comments, in the Book of Mitzvoth of Maimonides Positive Commandment Number 5, that prayer is a biblical commandment in a time of duress (e.g. war, famine, or disease). At other times prayer is praiseworthy and is certainly a rabbinic commandment.

Resolution of Views

The Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 89:4-6) resolves this dispute by reasoning that even if prayer is not a unique commandment of the Torah, as Nachmanides holds, it is certainly part of the commandment to love Hashem (ibid. 89:5). Furthermore prayer may be considered as a fundamental of the faith (ibid. 89:6) based upon Avot 1:2 (where prayer is one of the pillars of Judaism, the other 2 are Torah study and acts of kindness). For example, the Aruch Hashulchan (ibid 89:7) cites the story of Daniel who prayed to Hashem even though King Darius the Mede passed a law prohibiting anyone from praying to his deity instead of the king (Daniel 6:8). This decree applied for 30 days with the punishment of being cast into a den of lions. Despite the decree, Daniel prayed to Hashem 3 times a day facing Jerusalem as the verse states (ibid. 6:11),“ Facing Jerusalem …three times a day he kneeled on his knees, prayed, and offered thanks before G-d just as he had done prior to this.”

Origin and Laws of Formalized Prayer (Laws of Prayer Chapter 1)

Maimonides explains the origin of formalized prayer as follows:

Law 1:4 – “When Israel was exiled in the time of the Babylonians they became interspersed in Persia, Greece, and other nations. Children were born to them in these foreign countries and their language was a mixture of many tongues. … Consequently, when some would pray, they would be limited in their ability to request their needs or to praise Hashem in Hebrew, unless other languages were mixed with it. When Ezra and his court saw this, they established eighteen blessings in sequence which constitutes the Amidah prayer. The first three blessings are praise of Hashem and the last three are thanksgiving. The intermediate 12 blessings contain requests for the desires of every person and the needs of the community (e.g. health, sustenance, and good government). Thus, the prayers could be set in the mouths of everyone … and would be as complete as the prayers of the most eloquent.”

Law 2:1 – “In the days of Rabban Gamliel, after the destruction of the second temple, the numbers of heretics among Israelites increased. They would oppress the Israelites and entice them to turn away from Hashem. … Therefore he and his court added one blessing that contains a request for Hashem to destroy these heretics. …  Consequently, there are nineteen blessings in the Amidah.”

Maimonides then explains how the sages related the Amidah to the offerings in the temple with 2 obligatory (Law 1:5) and 1 optional prayer (Law 1:6) per day.

Law 1:5 – “The sages also initially decreed that the number of prayers correspond to the number of communal offerings per day. Hence on a weekday there are 2 prayers corresponding to the two daily sacrifices (Numbers 28:1-8). On any day where an additional communal sacrifice was offered they instituted a third prayer, corresponding to this offering.”

“The prayer that corresponds to the daily morning sacrifice is called the Shacharit (שחרית) Prayer. The prayer that corresponds to the daily sacrifice offered in the afternoon is called the Minchah (מנחה) Prayer and the prayer corresponding to the additional offerings is called the Musaf (מוסף) Prayer.” These Hebrew names when translated into English correspond to morning, afternoon, and additional respectively. The word Minchah literally means resting which indicates that the sun is beginning “to rest” as it passes from its midday height.

Law 1:6 – “The sages also instituted an Amidah to be recited at night called the Maariv (מעריב) Prayer, since the limbs of the daily afternoon offering could be burnt the whole night. The verse states (Leviticus 6:2): The burnt offering shall remain on the altar all night until morning. In this vein King David (Psalms 55:18) says: In the evening, morning and afternoon I will pray (literally speak) and Hashem will hear my voice.”

“Although the evening prayer was not initially obligatory, the Israelites have accepted it upon themselves as an obligatory prayer.” For this reason the cantor repeats the Amidah with a quorum of 10 men for the two obligatory prayers but not for the evening prayer (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 237:1).

Maimonides then summarizes the number of prayers per day throughout the Jewish calendar as follows:

Law 1:8 – “Thus 3 prayers are recited daily: the evening, morning, and afternoon prayers. There are 4 prayers on Sabbaths, festivals and New Moons (viz. 3 daily prayers and the Musaf Prayer). On Yom Kippur, there are five: these four and the Neilah Prayer.”

Maimonides explains the purpose of Neilah prayer:

Law 1:7 – “The sages instituted the Neilah prayer to be recited after the Minchah Prayer, close to sunset, to increase supplication and pleading on the fast. It is called the Neilah (literally closing) prayer, as if to say that the gates of Heaven are closed towards the end of the day.”

The author would like to add that the closing may also refer to the closing of the gates of the temple at the end of the day (Rashi on Taanit 26a).  

Service of the Heart

As mentioned above, prayer is considered as service of the heart. The Torah (Deuteronomy 11:13) states, “Serve Hashem (ולעבדו) with all of your heart”. The word ולעבדו is based on the root verb עבד which also means servant in noun form. In this vein, the Talmud (Berachot 34a) says that a person praying to Hashem should consider himself as a servant making requests from his master and is therefore not entitled to receive benefits. Rather one should rely on the kindness of Hashem as the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 123:1) writes, “After completing the Amidah one should bow as a servant leaving his master”.   

Wear Tzizit

The Torah (Numbers 15:38) commands the Israelites to wear fringes on a four cornered garment, “Speak to the children of Israel … to make fringes on the corners of their garments.” In addition the Torah (ibid.) adds a requirement to affix a blue thread on each corner. Although the written Torah does not specify many details about this mitzvah, the Talmud and subsequent codes of law (e.g. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim Chapters 8-23) explain the particulars. Since there are many details about this mitzvah the author, for sake of brevity, will limit the discussion to the following points:

  • Materials – garment and fringes (Appendix 3)
  • Fringes – form and number (Appendix 3).
  • Corners – number and type.
  • Blue thread – source of dye.

Nature of Obligation

Following the Talmud in Menachot 41a, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 24:1) rules that one is not obligated from the Torah to wear a 4 cornered garment and therefore would be exempt from the mitzvah of tzitzit. However the Shulchan Aruch (ibid.) states that it is proper to wear a small tallit all day to remember this mitzvah which will lead to performance of other commandments as the verse states (Numbers 15:39), “When you see it (tzitzit) you will remember all the commandments of Hashem to perform them.” The Shulchan Aruch (ibid.) concludes that one should be scrupulous to wear a tallit during the prayers. The Mishna Berurah (9:3) adds that the prayers include the recital of the Shema and quotes the Zohar that states that one who recites the Shema without wearing a tallit is in fact incriminating himself.

With a difference in opinion involving a biblical command, the stricter view should be followed meaning that the garment must be made from wool or linen. Therefore the Mishna Berurah (ibid. 9:5) states that it is proper that both the large tallit (i.e. prayer shawl) and the smaller tallit (i.e. worn in the day) be of wool. However the Dirshu edition of the Mishna Berurah (ibid. 9:5) mentions that some leading authorities wore the small tallit of non-wool materials because as explained above one is not commanded to wear a 4 cornered garment but is proper to do so.


The Torah (Deuteronomy 22:12) states, “You shall make braids on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself”. This verse implies that only a 4 cornered garment is obligated in tzitzit. The Talmud (Menachot 43b) raises the question, “What is the law concerning a 3 or 5 cornered garment?” The Talmud (ibid.) answers that four is the minimum number of corners which means that a garment of 5 or more corners is also obligated in tzitzit. The Talmud proves this point from the expression “which you cover yourself” (Deuteronomy 22:12) which implies any garment that covers a person is obligated in tzitzit. This means that 4 is not a specific number. The Talmud (ibid.) then asks, “Since 4 is not specific why a 3 cornered garment is exempt from tzitzit?” The Talmud (ibid.) answers that 4 is the minimum number because in 5 you also have 4.” The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 10:1) rules that although a  garment of 4 or more corners is obligated in tzitzit, one is required to only affix 4 sets of fringes and spaced apart to the maximum. The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 10:9) adds that the 4 or more corners must be at right angles and not rounded.            

Blue Thread – תכלת

The Torah (Numbers 15:38) specifies that the some of the fringes shall be dyed blue (תכלת), “They shall affix a thread of sky blue wool on the fringe of each corner.” The Talmud explains that this dye is derived from a mollusk which lives in the Mediterranean Sea near the northern coast of Israel. For centuries the identity of this mollusk and method of dyeing the wool was forgotten. In recent times there has been considerable interest and scientific investigation into the mollusk and dyeing procedure. A companion article on this web site discusses the details and conclusions of this investigation. 

The Talmud (Menachot 38a) clearly states that the absence of the blue thread does not invalidate the mitzvah of tzitzit meaning that all the threads may be undyed.

Comparison to Tefillin

The following table compares the wearable mitzvoth of tefillin to tzitzit.

TefillinObligatedWeek daysHoly2
TzitzitRecommendedAll daysMitzvah1


The Torah (Deuteronomy 6:8) commands the Israelites to wear tefillin. By contrast the mitzvah of tzitzit is discretionary because the Torah does not command the Israelites to wear a 4 cornered garment. If they wear this garment then they are obligated in the mitzvah of tzitzit.


Tefillin are worn every day except the Sabbath and holidays because these days are a sign in themselves. By contrast tzitzit are worn ever day to encounter the Shechinah.


Tefillin are intrinsically holy and must be buried when unusable (Shulchan Aruch ibid. 154:3). By contrast the tallit and tzitzit are holy only when used for the mitzvah. Therefore if no longer usable they may be used for another purpose (e.g. book mark) or discarded respectfully (Shulchan Aruch ibid. 21:1).

Mitzvoth – Number

The head and arm tefillin are separate mitzvoth (Maimonides Laws of Tefillin 4:4) and may be worn independently (Shulchan Aruch ibid. 26:1). By contrast the 4 sets of fringes are one mitzvah (Maimonides Laws of Tzitzit 1:5) and essential to the mitzvah. Therefore if any of the sets of fringes are missing the mitzvah is not fulfilled (Shulchan Aruch ibid. 13:1).

Do not follow after desires


The Torah (Numbers 15:39) states, “Do not wander after your hearts and eyes which (may) lead you astray.” The Talmud (Berachot 12b) links wandering after the heart and eyes to heresy and immorality respectively. The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 387) writes that following after heretical thoughts or physical desires may become addictive based upon one of the sayings of Ben Azzai (Avot 4:2), “One sin leads to another”.

Avoid Heretical Thoughts

Maimonides (Laws of Idolatry 2:3) writes,” The Israelites are forbidden to consider any thought which will cause them to uproot one of the fundamentals of the Torah. Therefore the Israelites should not turn their minds to these matters, think about them, or be drawn after the thoughts of their hearts. Since people have limited powers of understanding … were a person to follow after his thoughts, it is possible that he would destroy the world.”

Avoid Sinful Thoughts (Immorality)

Maimonides (Laws of Forbidden Relations 21:11) writes, “Our Sages do not derive satisfaction from a person who engages in marital relations excessively … This is the way underdeveloped people conduct themselves. Instead, everyone who minimizes his intimacy is praiseworthy, provided he does not neglect his conjugal duties as explained in Laws of Marriage 14:1 (which depends upon man’s strength and occupation).”

In addition Maimonides writes (ibid. 21:19-21), “Since a person desires forbidden carnal relations, it is proper for a person to subjugate his natural inclination with regard to this matter and train himself in extra holiness, pure thought, and proper character traits. Similarly, a person should distance himself from levity, intoxication, and flirtation, for they are great precipitators to forbidden relations. However a man should not live without a wife, for marriage leads to great purity.”

Practical Advice

Likutei Amarim Tanya written by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Lubavitch Chasidism, (Chapters 27 and 28) offers practical advice to deal with improper thoughts whether heresy or carnal desires as follows:

  • Realism.
  • Gradual approach.
  • Divert thoughts and study Torah.
  • Serve Hashem with joy.


One should not be disappointed if confronted with improper thoughts because only completely righteousness individuals are spared from this challenge. On the contrary, one must realize that that it is a lifetime quest to control one’s desires. The Talmud (Succah 52b) states that the evil impulse renews itself every date to challenge man.

Gradual Approach

Since the evil impulse is so powerful one should attempt to control it gradually rather than trying to defeat it in one battle. This is analogous to military training which requires gradual improvement in physical stamina and knowledge of military procedures.

Divert Thoughts

As soon as an improper thought arises, one should divert his mind to something else or in the vernacular, “Nip it in the bud”. The Talmud (ibid.) advises when confronted with these thoughts one should enter the study hall of Torah or if not possible study Torah at his location.     

Serve Hashem with Joy

Throughout these challenges one should not become depressed. Rather one should focus on the goal of becoming a better person and serve Hashem with joy (Psalms 100:2) while realizing that Hashem will help him in this struggle. The Torah (Leviticus 11:44) commands the Israelites to pursue holiness, “You shall sanctify yourselves and become holy because I (Hashem) am holy (and will help you).” The Talmud (Yoma 39a) elaborates on divine assistance implied in this verse, “When a person sanctifies himself a little they (in heaven) sanctify him and assist him greatly. If a person sanctifies himself in this world they (in heaven) sanctify him above.”


This article discussed the 10 mitzvoth mentioned in the Shema from the point of view of Halacha to fulfill the will of Hashem. The Shema is composed of 3 paragraphs relating to acceptance of Hashem, acceptance of mitzvoth, and not following after desires symbolized with tzitzit with the goal of serving Hashem with faith and love.

Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, which consists of 14 volumes, places 4 of these mitzvoth (viz. Unity of Hashem, Love of Hashem, Study Torah, and not Follow After Desires) in his first Volume “Book of Knowledge” and the remaining 6 in the second volume “Love of Hashem”. In this manner Maimonides stresses that love of Hashem when expressed in ritual (viz. wearing tzitzit, donning tefillin – 2 mitzvoth, reciting the Shema, prayer, and affixing a mezuzah) should lead to both knowledge and love of Hashem through practice. The Talmud Berachot 8a emphasizes the importance of Halacha as follows, “Previously the Divine Presence rested in the Temple in Jerusalem. However after the destruction of the temple this Presence rests in the area where Halacha is studied seriously.”

Appendix 1 – Shema Biblical or Rabbinic Obligation


The codifiers of Halacha debate the extant of the biblical obligation of reciting the Shema. The following table presents the different views, verses in the Torah, and source from the commentaries of the Talmud or Shulchan Aruch.

First VerseDeuteronomy 6:4Beir Haitaiv 67:1
First ParagraphDeuteronomy 6:4-9Mishna Berurah 67:2
First and Second ParagraphsDeuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21Pri Hadash 67
All 3 ParagraphsDeuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:12-21 Numbers 15:37-41Tosafot 2a Maimonides 1:2

Neither the Torah nor the Talmud clearly indicates which part of the Shema is a biblical obligation of recitation. Hence many of the commentators of the Talmud and codifiers of Halacha bring different proofs based upon inferences from verses or the Talmud. These inferences may be debated as explained below kn the section of “Analysis”.

First Verse

Reciting the first verse of the Shema requires full understanding and concentration leading some authorities of Halacha to conclude that only the first verse is a biblical obligation. According to this view, the verse (i.e. Deuteronomy 6:7) which mentions reciting the Shema refers to the biblical obligation of reciting the 1st verse.

First Paragraph

However other authorities maintain that reciting the first paragraph of the Shema is a biblical obligation because the Torah cites the mitzvah of reciting the Shema in this paragraph. According to this view, the verse (i.e. Deuteronomy 11:19) which mentions reciting the Shema in the second paragraph refers to the mitzvah of teaching Torah.

First two Paragraphs

By extension some authorities include reciting the second paragraph of the Shema in the biblical obligation because the Torah (Deuteronomy 11:19) implies the Shema in this verse.

All 3 Paragraphs

Maimonides counts the recital of the Shema as a biblical commandment and then lists all 3 paragraphs of the Shema (Laws of the Shema 1:2) implying that all 3 are a biblical obligation. The other views would explain that although 3 paragraphs constitute the Shema not all of the 3 are necessarily a biblical obligation. However Maimonides is not explicit on this point.

The Aruch Hashulchan (ibid. 67:5) explains that all 3 paragraphs are biblically included in the mitzvah of reciting the Shema. However the minimum obligation may be the 1st verse or paragraph. If one recites more than the minimum he fulfills a biblical commandment similar to the daily mitzvah of studying Torah which may be fulfilled by studying one verse but certainly enhances the mitzvah by studying much more. 


This section will analyze the different opinions with respect to the following cases:

  • Practice of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi.
  • Awareness and Concentration.
  • Doubt.
  • Reciting early.

Practice of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi

The Talmud (Berachot 13b) states that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, leader of the Israelites towards the end of the 2nd century CE and redactor of the Mishna, was fully occupied in teaching Torah to his disciples. Therefore he only interrupted his teaching to recite the 1st verse of the Shema. The Talmud (ibid.) debates whether Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi recited the rest of the Shema after completing his lecture even if the time for reciting the Shema had passed. The Shulchan Aruch 106:2 rules that one whose Torah study is his life, meaning that he is supported by the community, should temporarily interrupt his study to recite the entire Shema. However if one is teaching Torah to a group of Torah students and this teaching is essential to the development of the oral law, he need only interrupt his teaching to recite the 1st verse of the Shema (Rema ibid.) following the practice of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. Today the common practice is to have set times for prayers with the main Torah lectures or classes after morning prayers. If a lecture or class is held before prayers either the teacher or one of the students ensures that the lecture ends before the set prayers.

According to this source only the 1st verse of the Shema is a biblical obligation. According to the other views either Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi was exempt from the mitzvah of reciting the Shema and recited the 1st verse as a stringent practice or he completed the Shema after his lecture. In addition some explain (e.g. Rabbeinu Yonah Berachot 9a on Rif) that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi read the 1st paragraph of the Shema in his lecture.

Awareness and Concentration

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 60:5) based upon Talmud Berachot 13b rules that one must recite the 1st verse of the Shema with full awareness of the words. One can recite the rest of the Shema even when reading from a Torah to check the accuracy of the text as long as one pronounces the words correctly. Similarly the Shulchan Aruch (ibid.) rules that one must recite the 1st verse of the Shema with full concentration to accept the sovereignty of Hashem and fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Shema (Mishna Berurah ibid. 60:11). Similarly if one recited the 1st verse of the Shema while fully awake and the rest while drowsy he has fulfilled his obligation (Shulchan Aruch ibid. 63:5). 

This awareness and concentration seems to imply that only reciting the 1st verse is a biblical obligation. The opposing views hold that although reciting other parts of the Shema are a biblical obligation there is a unique mitzvah to concentrate and understand the 1st verse of the Shema.   


The Talmud (Berachot 21a) discusses the case where someone is in doubt about his recital of the Shema. This situation may arise if someone recited the Shema when drowsy or when reciting the Shema by heart. (Before the printing press prayer books were not common). This doubt may mean that the person is not sure if he recited the Shema at all or if he left out a specific paragraph. For example he is currently reading the verse about the mezuzah but is not sure whether this verse is Deuteronomy 6:9 (1st paragraph) or 11:20 (2nd paragraph) since these verses are identical.   

In a situation of doubt the Halacha rules stringently for a biblical mitzvah therefore one must recite the parts of the Shema that are in doubt. If the mitzvah is of rabbinic origin then one may be lenient and not recite the Shema again.

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 67:1) rules that recitation of the Shema is a biblical obligation because when in doubt he must recite the Shema again. However the Mishna Berurah (ibid.) concludes that only the 1st paragraph and according to some opinions only the 1st verse are biblical. Hence if one recited these portions of the Shema he need not recite the rest of the Shema when in doubt. The Mishna Berurah (ibid.) points out that the Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 64:3) rules that if someone is sure that he read the verse about the mezuzah but is not sure whether he recited Deuteronomy 6:9 or 11:20 he should return to the beginning of the second paragraph. The Mishna Berurah (ibid.) questions, “If only reciting the 1st paragraph is biblical then why recite the 2nd paragraph?” He answers that since he is the midst of reciting the Shema he should continue and recite the 2nd paragraph even if the obligation is rabbinic. However if he has completed the prayers and is in doubt about reciting the Shema he may rely on the lenient opinions and only recite the 1st paragraph.        

Reciting Early

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 235:1) rules that the evening Shema must be recited at nightfall (i.e. when 3 stars appear in the open sky). However at the time of the Talmud it was common practice to conduct evening prayers before sunset to avoid the danger of traveling home in the dark. Even today, in the summer, many conduct evening prayers on the eve of Shabbat before sunset to enjoy the Sabbath meal at a regular suppertime. Since the mitzvah of reciting the Shema is not fulfilled before nightfall the question arises, “How much of the Shema must be repeated to fulfill the mitzvah?”  

As above, there are several opinions on this subject ranging from the 1st paragraph (Rashi on Berachot 2a), paragraphs 1 and 2 (Mishna Berurah 235:11), and all 3 paragraphs (Tosafot 2a). Here the Mishna Berurah requires recitation of both paragraphs because one has not fulfilled the obligation with the earlier reading.

The daily mitzvah of mentioning the exodus from Egypt will be discussed in a separate article on this web site, “Mitzvah of Mentioning the Exodus of Egypt”.

Appendix 2 – Origin of Phrase

This phrase derives from the following events:
·         Jacob’s Parting Words
·         Giving of the Torah  

Jacob’s Parting Words

The Talmud (Pesachim 56a) relates that Jacob, before passing away, wished to reveal to his sons when the messianic redemption would occur. The Torah (Genesis 49:1) states, “Jacob called for his sons and said, “Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days.” The expression end of days refers to the messianic era as discussed in the book of Daniel 12:13, “You will rest and rise to your destiny (i.e. resurrection) at the end of days.” However the Divine Presence left Jacob rendering him unable to prophesy and therefore he changed the topic and blessed his children as the next two verses say:

Genesis 49:2 – “Gather and listen, sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel, your father (change of topic).”  

Genesis 49:3 – “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might (blessing of the children)”.

Jacob thought that perhaps the Divine Presence abandoned him because, Heaven forbid, one of his descendants was unfit, as was the case with his grandfather Abraham, from whom Ishmael emerged, or like his father Isaac, from whom Esau emerged. His sons said to him, “Hear Israel, (our father Jacob who is also called Israel) Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is one.” They said, “Just as there is only one G-d in your heart, so too, there is only one in our hearts. At that moment Jacob said in praise,”Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever.”

The Maharsha (on Pesachim 56a) notes that the sons of Jacob directly addressed their father when saying, “Hear Israel” because Hashem called Jacob by this name (Genesis 35:10). By declaring their belief in monotheism his sons put Jacob’s mind at ease. Although Jacob’s response is not recorded in scripture the Israelites used this expression in the temple when hearing Hashem’s name (Yoma 35b).

Receiving the Torah

The Midrash (Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:31) connects the Shema to receiving the Torah at Sinai with the following dialogue. Hashem said to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 5:1), “Hear O Israel (שמע ישראל)”, I am Hashem your G-d” and proceeded with the Ten Commandments. In response to Hashem’s opening words the Israelites said, “Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is one.” Then Moses in praise said, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever.”

The author would like to point out that is the first time that the Torah uses the expression “Hear O Israel” which sets a connotation for this expression in term of Torah study, observance, and revelation as the verse states, “Hear O Israel to these statutes and ordinances, …learn about them, and observe them.” Although the Israelites merited the mitzvah of the Shema from the time of Jacob the actual obligation occurred at Sinai.     

Appendix 3 – Garment and Threads of Tzitzit

Materials- Garment

This appendix discusses the materials of the garment and threads for the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit.

The following materials are discussed in relation to the obligation of tzitzit:

  • Wool or linen only.
  • Other natural materials.
  • Leather.
Wool or linen

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 9:1) holds that only garments made from wool or linen are biblically obligated in the mitzvah of tzitzit while garments made from other natural materials are obligated by rabbinic decree. This view understands that a garment mentioned in the Torah must be wool or linen by comparison to a garment afflicted by tzaraat. The verse reads (Leviticus 13:47), “A garment that has an affliction of tzaraat upon it, on a wool or linen garment (בבגד).” This view uses the 2nd principle of the 13 principles of Rabbi Yishmael – general rule (בנין אב) from a verse. Since the Torah uses the word garment in reference to tzitzit (בגדיהם) the garment must also be of wool or linen (Menachot 39b). Although the Torah mentions garments in other laws of impurity without mentioning materials, according to this view all garments must be from wool or linen unless otherwise specified.

Other Natural Materials

 Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Rema) (Orach Chaim 9:1) holds that garments made from any natural material, whether plant (e.g. cotton or hemp) or animal based (e.g. silk, goat or camel hair), are biblically obligated in the mitzvah of tzitzit. These materials must be spun into threads and woven into a garment. This view quotes the verse (Deuteronomy 22:12), ““You shall make braids (גדלים), on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself.” Hence any woven garment that is used as clothing is obligated in the mitzvah of tzitzit. In addition this view concludes that as long as the material of the garment and fringes are the same (e.g. cotton garment with cotton fringes) the mitzvah of tzitzit is biblically fulfilled by wearing this garment with reference to Numbers 15:38, “to make fringes on the corners of their garments”.


A leather garment is exempt from the mitzvah of tzitzit because leather is not woven from threads (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 10:4). If the garment is made from natural woven materials but the corners are from leather the garment is obligated in tzitzit (Ibid.) because the garment material is the determining factor as the verse states (Numbers 15:38), “Make fringes on the corners of their garments.” In addition the Torah defines a garment as that which covers a person and not the corners as the verse (Deuteronomy 22:12) says, “You shall make braids (גדלים), on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself.”

The reader may ask, “Since the Torah states (Leviticus 13:48-49) that the affliction of tzaraat also applies to leather garments why are these clothes exempt from the mitzvah of tzitzit?” The answer is that the Torah (Leviticus 13:49) does not call these clothes a garment (בגד) but a work of leather (עור מלאכת). In other places the Torah (e.g. ibid. 13:53 and 57) refers to leather clothes or utensils as עור כלי or simply leather (עור) (e.g. Leviticus 11:32 and 15:17). This distinction between garment and utensil relates to the formation of these clothes (viz. wool or linen) through threads and weaving as opposed to leather through cutting.

Synthetic Materials 

Contemporary decisors debate the validity of synthetic materials (e.g. nylon or polyester) for a garment to be obligated in tzitzit. According to one view, the materials must be natural because presumably the Torah refers to garments of materials that that were known at that time. The other view allows synthetic materials because the garment is woven and commonly worn (Mishna Berurah Dirshu Edition 9:3). However if the majority of the material is natural (e.g. 65% cotton and 35% polyester fibers) then both views would agree that the garment is obligated in tzitzit based upon Mishna Berurah 9:2.     

The following table records the material, level of obligation for the mitzvah, and source of the disputes.      

Wool or LinenBiblicalX
Natural – cotton, silkBiblical or RabbinicInterpretation of Scripture
Synthetic – nylon, polyesterValid or notNatural or synthetic 

Materials – Fringes

The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 9:2-3) specifies materials for fringes with respect to the type of garment as shown in the following table.

FringeWool GarmentLinen GarmentOther Garment
OtherXXSame material

Wool fringes are valid for all garments except for linen (ibid. 9:2) and linen fringes are valid for all garments except wool (ibid. 9:2) because the Torah (Deuteronomy 22:11) prohibits wearing a garment of wool and linen. The Rema (ibid.) prohibits, as stringency, linen fringes because people may confuse wool with silk and mistakenly attach linen fringes to a wool garment. Fringes of other materials must be of the same material of the garment, for example cotton fringes with a cotton garment (ibid 9:3).


The Talmud (Menachot 41b) notes that the word ציצית is related to the word יוצא which means to leave. This indicates that the fringes “leave the garment” (i.e. protrude from the base of the garment). In addition the Talmud (ibid. 42a) quotes Ezekiel 8:3, where he experiences a vision where an angel grabs a lock of his hair (בציצת) to bring him to Jerusalem. The Talmud then links the word בציצת to the mitzvah of ציצית implying that the fringes follow the hairstyle of that time, namely braded at the root and loose at the ends. The Talmud Menachot (39b and 42a) interprets the following verses to determine that the tzitzit consist of braids (גדיל) and fringes which are loose (פתיל):

Deuteronomy 22:12 – “You shall make braids (גדלים) on the four corners of your garment.”

Book of Numbers 15:38 – “They shall place fringes on the corners of their garments … and affix a thread of blue wool on the fringe (פתיל) of each corner.


In addition the Talmud (ibid.) understands that a braid must consist of at least 2 strings. Since the word braids (גדלים) is in plural there must be a total of 4 strings in these braids (2*2). In turn each thread is folded over to make a total of 8 visible threads per corner (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 11:14).    

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