The quintessential declaration of Jewish faith - the Shema - is recited twice a day. This follows the biblical instruction to speak about Torah beshochbecha (when you lie down) and bekumecha (when you arise) (see Deuteronomy 6:7; 11:18).
Our sages sought to define the parameters of these times: When exactly is "beshochbecha" in the evening and "bekumecha" in the morning?
Regarding the earliest time for the morning Shema, the Mishna presents two opinions as to when people awake in the morning (M. Brachot 1:2). According to the first opinion, the morning Shema time begins when one can distinguish between white and blue - that is, the white wool of the tzitzit and the single blue thread in the garment. This fits the third paragraph of the Shema, where we are instructed to see the blue strand in the tzitzit (see Numbers 15:39).
The second opinion states a different time: when one can distinguish between blue and a greeny leek color. These two colors are similar, and hence more light is needed to discern the blue thread from close imitations. This opinion, therefore, proposes a slightly later time.
The thrust of both opinions is that people rise in the morning at daybreak, and that is when the Shema obligation begins.
The Mishna continues with the latest time for reciting Shema in the morning, and once again two opinions are offered. According to one opinion, the window for Shema is very small: Shema should be read by sunrise, since most people arise by this time. The second opinion provides more latitude for this morning obligation: Shema may be recited until the end of the first three hours of the day.
Why may Shema be recited until the end of the third hour - that is, long after most people have risen from their slumber? The Mishna explains that it is the custom of kings to get up three hours into the day. Since some people are still rising at this late hour, it is still considered "bekumecha," and the morning Shema may be read.
Why is such a license of extended time for reading Shema granted to royalty? Are they not obligated, just like every person, to acknowledge the Almighty each morning? We may understand the license as a privilege of office; the monarch does indeed have certain dispensations by virtue of his position. Alternatively, it may be seen as a necessity, not as a privilege: The ruler must deal with affairs of national importance, and while he is not granted a reprieve from his religious obligation, he is given greater latitude in fulfilling this obligation. A third possibility - and the one that sounds most likely from the language of the Mishna - is that the extended time is an issue of practicality: Kings sleep late.
The fascinating aspect of this parameter is that it is not a rule just for kings; this is the latest time for anyone to read the Shema!
In systems of law - Jewish law included - rules generally apply equally to all. The argument in the Mishna, therefore, is what should be the rule. The first opinion suggests that the rule as defined by the "bekumecha" verse should follow the prevalent practice: most people rise early in the morning, and hence Shema should be said by all - presumably kings included - early in the morning.
The second opinion suggests that the rule should follow the practice of kings. Why should "bekumecha" be defined by the practice of kings - a clear minority compared to the masses?
We may be able to suggest an answer to this question in light of a Mishna from a different tractate. Our sages discuss care of the sick and use of medicine on Shabbat (M. Shabbat 14:3-4). It is permissible to violate Shabbat for someone who is dangerously ill, yet taking medicines when the ailment is not serious is prohibited. This prohibition is born out of the concern that in preparing the medicine, ingredients will be crushed - a violation of the injunction against grinding on Shabbat.
One important parameter set down by the Mishna refers to regular foods that also have medicinal properties. Despite the general Shabbat ban on medicines for non-dangerous ailments, our sages rule that any item that serves as a food or drink for healthy people may also be given on Shabbat to a person in discomfort in order to alleviate pain.
In the list of various remedies discussed in the Mishna, the sages deal with someone who feels pain in his loins and wishes to alleviate this discomfort with an oil ointment. Smearing the loins with a wine or vinegar ointment is prohibited, since such liquids are only used for therapeutic purposes; people do not regularly put wine or vinegar on their bodies. Smearing with oil, however, is permitted, for healthy people also anoint themselves with oils.
What about rose oil, a rare and expensive oil that most people do not use except for therapeutic purposes? Two opinions are stated in the Mishna. The first opinion prohibits smearing with rose oil, since its cost prevents most people from using it except in cases of medical necessity. Princes, however, may apply rose oil to their wounds on Shabbat, for they have the means to use it even when they are healthy.
The second opinion in the Mishna rejects the idea of two classes - one that is permitted to use rose oil on Shabbat and the other that is banned from such use (Rashi, 11th century, France). What, then, should be the rule? The masses don't use rose oil when they are healthy; shouldn't the rule therefore follow the majority? Rabbi Shimon succinctly states: "All Israel are princes." According to Rabbi Shimon, smearing rose oil on Shabbat is permitted for all. The reason for this license is that every Jew is considered royalty.
While most people do not have the royal privilege of sleeping late each morning, and many of us cannot afford a daily rose oil massage, our tradition views us all as royalty. Indeed, we are the children of a king, the King of Kings.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.