The Shema (Hebrew: שְׁמַע “Hear”) is the title of a prayer that serves as a centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services. The first verse encapsulates the monotheistic essence of Judaism, and observant Jews consider the Shema to be the most important part of the prayer service. (see full article…)
1. The Shema Consists of Three Paragraphs
The Shema prayer consists of three biblical paragraphs: Deuteronomy 6, 4–9, 11, 13–21, and Numbers 15, 37–41. The first two sections (Deuteronomy 6, 4–9 and 11, 13–21) declare the oneness of GOD and our duty as believers to love Him, to study the Torah (the Pentateuch for Christians) and teach it to children, to follow His mitzvot (Biblical precepts). The third section (Numbers 15, 37–41) speaks of the mitzvah of tzitzit and of the Exodus from Egypt.
2. Jewish tradition say Shema twice daily
In the first paragraph of the longer version of the Prayer, the fourth verse tells us: “And you shall teach them to your children… when you lie down and when you rise up.” From this verse, we learn to recite the Shema twice daily, in the morning and in the evening. In order to fulfill one’s obligation of saying Shema, ideally one should say all three paragraphs. In a pinch, there are varying views among the rabbis as to what one can do to fulfill the minimal obligation; but certainly, one should at least recite the first paragraph.
3. Cover or make sure your eyes are closed for the First Verse
While reciting the first verse, the Jewish tradition teaches to cover our eyes with our right hand. The basic reason is for respect and to eliminate distractions during this essential prayer. There is yet a deeper reason: during the Shema prayer we declare that everything is GOD, so that when we uncover our eyes we discover a new reality. A reality that centers on Godliness. The physical world that we see is not all that exists; there is a greater reality above the mundane.
4. The Shema is one of the first things a newborn Jew learn
In the Laws of Torah study, in the Code of Jewish Law, we are told that when a child starts to talk we should teach them two verses: “The Torah that Moses commanded us is a heritage for the congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33, 4). And the second is: “Hear, Oh Israel: The LORD is our GOD; the LORD is One”(Deuteronomy 6, 4 the first verse of Shema). These two verses are the fundamentals of our faith.
5. The second line of Shema
The second sentence of this prayer, which is said quietly, reads: “Blessed be the Name of His glorious Kingdom forever and ever.” This verse does not appear anywhere in the Bible, and there are differing views as to its origin. One source is a discussion and story in the Talmud, tractate Pesachim, where this very question is asked: Jacob is on his deathbed, questioning his sons’ allegiance to the one GOD. His sons respond with the first verse of the shema which led Jacob to exclaim: “Blessed be the Name of His glorious Kingdom forever and ever.” The Talmud concludes, since it is not a Biblical verse it is said quietly.
6. A deeper meaning, more than Monotheism
The idea that “GOD is One” means not only that there is one GOD, but that GOD and the whole of creation are actually one. There is nothing apart from GOD. Nothing exists outside of Him; everything that we perceive, every particle of existence, is nothing but a veiled manifestation of GOD. For this reason, everything in the Universe is totally dependent on GOD at every moment. GOD created the Universe a long time ago, but He also perpetually recreates its existence. The Sages speak of a stream of energy emanating from the infinite essence of GOD, recreating the universe at every moment. Were He to remove this life-giving force, the Universe and all therein would cease to exist.
7. The Shema expresses two levels of unity
Rabbi Schneur Zalman was a Chassidic luminary and the first Rebbe of Chabad, whose seminal work is titled, Tanya. In the second section of Tanya, The Gate of Unity and Faith, he explains how the first two sentences of Shema refer to two levels of divine unity. The first verse describes how GOD relates to the world from GOD’s perspective, how in truth everything is GOD. The second sentence employs the word ‘kinship,’ referring to the lower level of unity, the perspective of His creations. For there cannot be a king without a nation. All women and men depend on GOD to sustain their existence.
8. The Shema is about Love
In the first paragraph of the Shema we are commanded to “Love GOD with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” This means that we must harness our human desires, (like primeval passions) to serve Him—developing a love for GOD to the point that we are excited to fulfill His wishes. We must dedicate our very life-force, our soul to GOD. We must be prepared to sanctify His Name, as many believers have done so to the extent of putting their lives on the line. And lastly we must use our entire strength to serve GOD, with at least the same energy we generally use to make a living.
9. Crying out Shema is the climax of Yom Kippur
At the height of the holiest day of the year is the Neilah prayer, the fifth prayer recited as the day slips away. The climax of this prayer happens just before the shofar blast, and includes three verses. The first, said once, is the opening verse of Shema: “Hear Oh Israel, the LORD our GOD, the LORD is One.” The next, said three times, is the second sentence of the Shema: “Blessed be the Name of His glorious Kingdom forever and ever.” And the third verse, said seven times, is: “GOD, He is the Only GOD.” At this moment we are taught that we must be willing to give up our very lives for the sake of heaven.
10. Belivers say Shema at bedtime
Before settling down for the night, many have the custom (that derives from the Talmud) to recite an order of prayers that includes the Shema (this is in addition to the evening service which also includes the Shema). Many reasons are given for this custom. The end of the day is an ideal time for introspection, a chance to look back at our day and see what can be improved, so these prayers can help us grow in the right direction. The Talmud also tells us that it is proper to go to sleep with words of Torah on one’s lips; therefore, we recite the Shema again.