A congregant recently remarked, “I noticed that many people are wearing a tallit [prayer shawl] at services, perhaps we can add the third paragraph of the Sh’ma that includes the mitzvah of tzitzit?”

The ORacle, December 2011 Issue

In non-Reform siddurim, prayerbooks, there are three paragraphs that follow the Sh’ma. The first comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and is the V’ahavta, which we recite and includes the commandment to affix mezzuzot to our doorposts. Reform siddurim since the mid-nineteenth century omitted the second paragraph, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, Moses’s teaching that the Eternal rewards the observance of mitzvot through rainfall in its proper season, and punishes violations through drought. This second paragraph was theologically problematic for early Reformers.    It repelled modern scientific thinking, both as an account of the weather and as an understanding of divine providence. The third paragraph of the Sh’ma, Numbers 15:37-41, includes our obligation to wear fringes on the corners of our garments as a reminder to keep mitzvot.    This third paragraph was initially excised because laws regulating dress were seen as archaic and likely to obstruct spiritual elevation.
In the gestation of Mishkan T’filah, the editors considered restoring the three-paragraph Sh’ma; and the first pilot edition offered the second paragraph as an option, explaining that “traditional Reform thinking challenges Deuteronomic theology, that bad events which occur are a result of communal sinful behavior. We do accept responsibility for social and natural ecology: how we treat one another and our environment has a powerful, direct impact on society and the planet.” Ultimately, the second paragraph was not restored, but because the wearing of tallitot has become widespread in the Reform movement, Mishkan T’filah includes Paragraph three, the tallit paragraph, as an option.
Do we recite words we do not believe such as our performance of mitzvot impacting the weather? There are certainly many other times when we utter prayers said as hyperbole. As Larry Kaufman writes in the Reform Judaism blog, “Early Reformers deprived generations of Reform Jews the opportunity to engage prayer and Torah text as metaphor, and especially in our own day with fears and threats of global warming, of engaging the notion of how we treat the earth with a sense of the sacred.” Yet on the other hand, as Reform Jews not obligated in ritual mitzvot, reciting the third paragraph is potentially hypocritical for those who are not observant of all mitzvot. Do we choose to recite prayers if we are not carrying out their commandments? Should we even wear tzitzit if we are not fully observing mitzvot?
Ultimately, it is up to each of us to decide. What is most important is that we know why we wear a tallit and from where the commandment comes. On December 17th for our Learner’s Shabbat service, we will learn more about tefillin (phylacteries) including a hands-on demonstration, teaching about their history, and discussion about our connection to tefillin as Reform Jews.
May each of our ritual practices emerge from a place of learning and thoughtful discussion. L’Shalom,
Rabbi Jessica Kessler Marshall