by R. Daniel Mann
Question: When I make Shabbat early, I make a break in the meal to recite Kri’at Shema when its time comes. Recently, a guest told me that this is not only unnecessary but one is called a hedyot (a moderately derogatory term) for doing so. Should I change my practice?
Answer: The mishna (Shabbat 9b) lists activities in which one must not partake before Mincha; one is eating. (see details in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 232:2.) However, if he did, he does not stop in the middle for Mincha. There are different versions in the mishna regarding stopping for Kri’at Shema, and the gemara (Shabbat 11a) discusses elements relating to it.
The Shulchan Aruch (OC 235:2) rules that one may not eat a meal within a half hour of the beginning time of the night’s Kri’at Shema, and that if he did, he must stop to recite Kri’at Shema, without its berachot or davening Ma’ariv. The Ran (Rif’s pages, Shabbat 4a) derives this from Sukka 38a, regarding stopping a meal to take a lulav, which distinguishes between Torah-level and Rabbinic mitzvot.
The Ran (ibid.), and Mordechai (Shabbat 224) say that one must stop a meal for Torah mitzvot e.g., Kri’at Shema, only if he started eating improperly (for Rabbinic laws, e.g., tefilla, one may continue even if he started improperly – see Tosafot, Shabbat 9b). This is how the Mishna Berura (325:23) paskens. (These poskim may disagree regarding one who improperly started eating within a half hour of z’man Kri’at Shema, but before its proper actual time.) Your practice of reciting Kri’at Shema during the meal is therefore not required, if you start the meal early enough. (Actually, not everyone who davens at an “early minyan” starts the meal early enough, especially when he davens at a minyan that keeps the same time all summer.)
But is your practice a positive, negative, or “pareve” chumra? There is a concept that one who does something from which he is exempt is called a hedyot. The source is a Yerushalmi on our general topic (Shabbat 1:2), which is probably the logic behind what your guest told you. The Yerushalmi told of rabbanim who were eating together; one stopped to daven Mincha and was criticized by a colleague as above. It is very hard to determine when to apply this rule, as many respected sources have written “one who is machmir shall receive beracha.” Understanding the reason behind the rule, about which there are various opinions, helps. These include: the stringency looks like he is adding on to the Torah; yohara (haughtiness/ holier-than-thou); casting aspersions on those who are not machmir (see more in the entry on this topic in Encyclopedia Talmudit, vol. XXVIII).
It seems to be a small jump from the Yerushalmi to your question. However, some (Sh’vut Yaakov II:30) understand that the Bavli disagrees (see Shabbat 9b). Furthermore, Kri’at Shema, being a Torah-level mitzva is stricter (see above). Indeed, the Rambam (Kri’at Shema 2:6; see also Shulchan Aruch Harav, OC 70:5) says that even when one started eating at a permitted time and is not required to stop for Kri’at Shema, doing so is praiseworthy. The Rambam actually hints at a reason for this ruling, which may help us apply the matter to our case, as he describes one who is concerned that he might not recite Kri’at Shema within its time limit. Therefore, if one recites Kri’at Shema during the meal because he has reason (e.g., based on past experience) for concern that he will not remember after the meal to recite it again, it does not make sense to consider him a hedyot. Many participants in early Shabbat meals forget to recite Kri’at Shema after the meal, so machmir based on such grounds is not inappropriate, even if one is allowed to be optimistic.
Since it appears that you thought it was necessary to say Kri’at Shema at the first opportunity, you may discontinue your practice (a minhag b’ta’ut) without hatarat nedarim (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 232:10). If you want to continue, we suggest to state first that you do not want it to become binding.