The blessings before the Sh’ma:
To respond or not to respond
Elements of the service:
Why we do what we do
The Sh’ma The Sh’ma is not a prayer; it is required reading, based on Deuteronomy 6.7—“and you shall speak of them when you...lie down, and when you rise up.” The preferred method of reading the Sh’ma, according to halachah, is to chant it with its trop, which is what we do for all three paragraphs. Speed reading is not appropriate at this time. (See “The blessings before the Sh'ma” for more on this.)
The Amidah The Sages of Blessed Memory referred to the Amidah as “The T’fillah,” the prayer. Nothing equals it. Standing silently, feet together, facing east, we get to “speak” to God one on one; this is our chance to speak to Him our minds and our hearts. That is why we allow everyone to recite “the prayer” in his or her own time. We wait until most everyone is done.
Torah Study The reading of the Torah is meant as a vehicle for the study of what is being read. That is why we interrupt the reading for discussions, using the Study Questions above as our entry point. (To see this week's questions—and next week's, as well—navigate to the THIS SHABBAT page.)
The 2nd Bar’chu The Bar’chu is meant as the call to prayer, and thus belongs at the start of the actual service. Yet we recite it again before Aleinu, near the end of services. This continues a tradition that goes back to talmudic times, affording latecomers the opportunity to praise God in this unique formulaic way. The custom is found, with variations, in S’fardic and chasidic liturgies. For how to bow, see below.
Whenever a blessing is recited, we offer two responses. After “Baruch Ata Adonai” (Blessed are You, Adonai), we say “Baruch Hu, u’varuch Sh’mo” (blessed is He and blessed be His Name). At the end of the b’rachah, we say “Amen.”
If the Sh'ma is required reading, as tradition dictates, there should be a blessing that would read something like this: "Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Master of all existence, who sanctified us by His mitzvot and commanded us to recite the Sh'ma."
There is no such blessing because, in truth, the Sh'ma is merely the substitute for the actual required text: The Torah, or at least the Ten Declarations, which precede it in Deuteronomy. Two other blessings, therefore, introduce the Sh'ma.
But should any response be given to the blessings between Bar’chu and the Sh’ma? These are blessings preparatory to reciting the Sh’ma, putting them in the same category as, say, the Motzi. We may not speak after the Motzi until we have eaten bread; may we “speak” until after the Sh’ma, considering these blessings are substitutes and even the Sh'ma is a substitute?
Rabbi Joseph Karo, in his Shulchan Aruch, Judaism’s definitive law code, says no. we may not. Rabbi Moses Isserles, in his gloss to Karo's ruling, declares that Ashkenazim must respond. Chasidic rulings follow Rabbi Karo. Either way is acceptable here, although our rabbi’s tradition is to offer no response.