Thoughts on the liturgy: Shema U’Virchotecha

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 5 February 2016

When we sang together the Barchu just now, we entered into a new section of the liturgy – into what is known as Shema u’virchotecha

This structure is already found in the Mishnah. In the morning and in the evening service the Shema is surrounded by blessings – In the morning two before and one after; In the evening two before and two after.

So, between the Barchu and Shema we read – just like the sages did – two blessings: a blessing about God’s creation of the world followed by one about Divine Love for Israel; a universal blessing which anyone could read, and one about the distinctive role of Israel.

More than 1800 years later every service contains the same structure – and many of the same words.
So, for example, the Talmud specifies that in the morning we say “yotzer or u’voreih choshech” – describing God who forms light and creates darkness. And every evening we must say the words with which we began our service this evening – “golel or mipnei choshech, v’choshech mipnei” – “Who rolls away light from before darkness and darkness from before light”.

The Talmud explicitly says that we should mention day by night and night by day.
No-one really knows why. Some explain that it is to make clear the rejection of any Gnosticism – any dualistic idea that there are two Gods – one for darkness and evil, one for light and good.
More likely, the rabbis wanted to articulate something about the turning of time: That we do not experience a world ruled by God on a whim – where one day darkness might not come – the lights and days are part of the very nature of the world. Nowhere is this better expressed than in those words “golel or mipnei choshech, v’choshech mipnei or”
A sense of one rolling inexorably into the other.

It is an extraordinary thing to think that the words we are about to read have been read every evening by Jews around the world for nearly 2000 years. That is, what, 100,000 shabbatot…
For 2000 years each generation have sung the same words to their own tunes. As do we…