Throughout our Back Home Shabbaton, moving from tefillah to programming to meals and back again, I was struck not only by the diversity of stories that our members brought into our synagogue but also the accents with which they told these stories. I heard the southern drawl of Arkansas and the accented “O”s of Minnesota, the downward lilt of the Valley area in California, and the dropped “R”s of Boston. There were accents from Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Israel, Canada, and more.
We do not often think of our Biblical ancestors or our Talmudic sages as having accents, but they did. In the Talmud in Tractate Berakhot 13b, there is a discussion about the Shema and kavannah, the intention with which we pray. We read:
תַּנְיָא סוֹמְכוֹס אוֹמֵר: כָּל הַמַּאֲרִיךְ בְּ״אֶחָד״, מַאֲרִיכִין לוֹ יָמָיו וּשְׁנוֹתָיו. אָמַר רַב אַחָא בַּר יַעֲקֹב: וּבַדָּלֵית
It was taught Somchos says, “All who lengthen the word ‘ehad [meaning one]’ lengthen their days and years.” Rav Acha bar Yaakov said, “[this refers to lengthening the letter] dalet.”
Today, this lengthening of the letter dalet in the word “ehad” is the sharp, staccato “d” that echoes through our sanctuaries at the end of the Shema. However, the dalet of our Aramaic-speaking Babylonian sages of 200-500 CE, who wrote the Talmud, was actually a soft, dental that sounded more like a “z” or a “th.” You can achieve this sound by placing the top of your tongue on the roof of your mouth right behind your front teeth (try it!), which creates somewhat of a buzzing sound. It was this sound that the sages meant to prolong in our tefillah at the end of the Shema—but why?
Throughout this page of Talmud, as our sages argue with one another about when in our prayer we must summon the utmost kavannah, literally “directing our hearts toward God,” numerous options are offered. But the one piece that each of them can agree on is that when saying the Shema (the first line of it) we must have kavannah, because it is with these words that we accept God’s sovereignty and that we declare God’s connection to our lives whether we are aware of it or not. The rabbis surmised that this lengthened buzzing at the end of the Shema gave every person in the kahal (community) an opportunity to ground themselves and to direct their hearts to the words that moved through their lips. Hearing the dalet of those around us, we are able to feel the presence of God within our community.
This past weekend, our Sanctuary was buzzing with excitement as our community gathered from all over the country and even from all over the world. Just in our Friday night service alone, there was a moment of connection for each of us—it could have been when people of every generation rose to dance for Lekha Dodi, or at the beginning of the Amidah as the entire congregation stood and reoriented themselves towards the east, or it could have even been the moment of pause before the Shema.
In Deuteronomy 6:4, where the Shema is written in the Torah, the letter ayin in the word שמע and the dalet in the word אחד are larger than the rest of the letters. Our sages say that this is because they spell the word eid (עד), which means “witness.” In this way, when we say the Shema we are witnesses to God’s oneness. When we said the Shema at our Back Home Shabbaton, we were not only witnessing God’s oneness, but also the ability of individuals spanning the globe to come together as one in pursuit of connecting with each other and connecting with God. As we move into this coming Shabbat, perhaps geographically far from each other, we direct our hearts towards the oneness of God, still hearing the buzzing in our ears.