parsha of the week

Say both what needs to be said … and heard


The opening instruction in Parsha Emor — And G-d said to Moshe, “Say to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and say to them, they should not become ‘tameh’ to people of the nation” — is for the kohanim to learn that they must follow a strict behavior, in which under ordinary circumstances they can only become “tameh” to a dead body if the deceased is one of seven close relatives.

But the language utilized to relay this rule is strange. Instead of informing us that “G-d spoke (vay’daber) to Moshe to say” the Torah records, “G-d said (vayomer) to Moshe, “Say” (emor) — and then it repeats the root word meaning “say” with the instruction of “v’amarta,” you will say to them. 

Ramban says there is nothing special to be learned from this language. Emor is the same as “daber,” it’s a call to gather, listen and pay attention.

Yet one wonders, since there is a difference between the word “daber” (speak!) and “emor” (say). “Speak” means you will address them saying the following idea, perhaps in your own words. “Say” means, “Here is a script you must follow.”

The out-of-the-ordinary repetition of the root “emor” is brought to our attention by Rashi, who, quoting a gemara (end of Yevamot 114a), says that emor v’amarta “comes to tell the big people (adults) to teach the little people (children) about the laws of tumah.”

The midrashic book compiled in the Geonic period, Pitron Torah, explains that the first “say” teaches kohanim not to become tameh. The second “say” teaches kohanim the exception: if a kohen happens to come across a “met mitzvah” — a corpse on the road — he is to bury the body.

When Maimonides discusses the teaching of the Gemara (Hilchot Eivel 3:12), he says that a kohen-minor is to be taught not to become tameh. And while if he chooses to become tameh himself, the court is not commanded to have him desist from being in a tameh arena, his father must educate him in the ways of “kedushah,” the holiness and sanctity that he must maintain as a kohen.

The Ta”z makes a similar point in Y”D 373, when he pinpoints the word “chinukh” as being the primary mode of operation determining the adult’s responsibility to each child. The Pischei Teshuvah defines “chinukh” in his own comment on the Shulchan Arukh there as teaching so that “he can be punctilious in his fulfillment of the mitzvah when he reaches majority (she’yizaher l’kayem hamitzvah k’she’yagdil).”

The kohen must educate his son in all of a kohen’s responsibilities — in addition to the laws of tumah. But “chinukh” is not confined to kohanim and their children. It is within the purview of all parents to properly educate their children, so that when their children reach majority, they will know how to fulfill their mitzvah responsibilities properly.

Let us take a look at one of the first mitzvot we train our children to fulfill. While there are no official statistics, in my own work with children, I have found approximately 85 percent are being trained incorrectly. The flaw may lie in teachers, schools, parents or children. Or, perhaps, a combination of all four.

Some people may follow the Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 62:1, which says that even though it is a mitzvah to be exact in the reading of the Shema, if one is not perfectly exact, one fulfills one’s obligation. But the Mishnah Brurah there says this is referring to all the subtleties that are raised in the entire Siman 61 about how to read the Shema punctiliously, precisely, and perfectly. However, if words or letters are outright misread, the Shema is being read improperly and the mitzvah is not fulfilled.

The problem is so pervasive that I even heard it on the “Shema @ Bed” app I used to help my daughter with the evening Shema.

In the first paragraph alone, most people make at least one mistake, and most children make at least two others. After the opening two sentences, the first word is “v’ahavTA,” with the accent on the last syllable. Reading it this way means, “You shall love Hashem your G-d.” When the accent is placed on the second to last syllable (“v’aHAVta”) the words means “and you loved Hashem your G-d” in the past tense. This is one of many accent errors people make in reading Shema.

The other two very common mistakes are on words that are learned through listening and repeating, sounding out what (kids think) they hear, and not reading the words they are saying.

The second to last word of the phrase “B’shiv’tkha B’veitekha uv’lekh’t’kha baderekh u’v’shokh’b’kha uv’kumekha” is so commonly read as “B’shov’t’kha” one can likely attribute it to confusion with the first word of the phrase as quoted as they now sound so similar. But there is a big difference between saying that you must review the words of the Shema “when you are laying down” (b’shokh’b’kha = the correct way) than “when you are returning” (B’shov’t’kha = the incorrect way).

The last very common mistake is made when the first word of the last sentence of the first paragraph (and again when it appears in the second paragraph) is read as if it’s the same as the first word of the previous sentence. We are told to tie the tefillin (u’k’shartam) and to write the mezuzah (u’kh’tavtam). Despite what many kids say when they read the Shema, we are not commanded to tie the mezuzah to the doorpost (u’k’shartam al mezuzot beitekha).

Perhaps all the emphasis on the root “emor” (to say) at the opening of the parsha stands as a reminder that proper chinukh takes place when we take the time to say what needs to be said and to be heard. And, perhaps, in the case where the mitzvah is fulfilled through saying something, and following a script exactly, making sure it is said correctly.

Test your children. Be shocked or pleasantly surprised. Complain to the school or do not. Fix the problem if you can. Do proper Chinukh, making sure they read the words from the siddur so that when they reach the age of mitzvot, they can fulfill the mitzvah of reading the Shema properly.

A version of this column was published in 2013.