The Sages said to him: It would indeed have been fitting for you to have come to harm. For by deliberately lying down for the Shema, you transgressed upon the words of Beis Hillel! We thus see that one who follows Beis Shammai in this matter is deserving of death.This passage has been gnawing at me since I read it last Friday. What happened to the notion that both these and those are the words of the one true God? This dismissal of Shammai's followers as "deserving of death" must surely be restricted to the specific case of those who put themselves in danger to observe a stringent interpretation of the law when a lenient one is available. Am I forcing this text to be more wise than it actually is?
It is not a problem restricted to the one passage. A similar caution is echoed on 14b where Rav recites the Shema before donning tefillin. The gemara explains that he does this because his servant is late delivering the tefillin, but goes on to cite Ulla, who said, "Regarding anyone who performs the recital of the Shema without wearing tefillin, it is as if he utters false testimony upon himself."
In talking with Mike about these last few folios, I had to listen to him ask over and over, why would God care how we stand and the order with which we say the words? Why would God care what we wear? Why would God be interested in our prayers at all? These are impossible questions and they force me to acknowledge the strangeness of the text. The prayers are for the peace of mind of the petitioner, and the discipline to frame them in a manner that would please the rabbis is part of a pre-modern therapy for alleviating distress.
Such postmodern drashes will surely not satisfy most modern readers. Even for me, they serve only as a possible explanation for the role the text may have played at one time in the communities that studied it, but it is not a justification for following it in the present.
These folios contain much of the explanation for the order of the prayers that follow the Shema in the sense that they explain the order of a traditional service, but they provide no more than an exegetical attempt to justify a construction that is clearly a rabbinic invention to fill the void created by the destruction of the Second Temple.
Is there also ambivalence behind such questions as those on 13 and 14 as to whether one must be focussing on the recitation or one may permit one's mind to wander; whether the recitation must be in Hebrew or it may be recited in any language; whether there are moments during the recitation when one may pause to greet one's friend or teacher and/or inquire about their health?
Consider this teaching from 13b:
These sorts of things conjure up an image of a synagogue very much like the one down the street-- full of grumpy, distracted, and rumpled souls who may at any moment doze off or interrupt their prayers to gossip with their neighbor. Not everything that stands the test of time is noble; even the mundane has a crack at immortality!
Rav Nachman said to his servant Daru: If you see me dozing off while reciting the first verse of the Shema, discomfort me so that I become totally conscious and alert. For more than that (i.e. for the rest of the Shema) do not discomfort me.