Shema Yisrael (or Sh'ma Yisroel or just Shema) (Hebrew: שמע ישראל; "Hear, [O] Israel") refers to the most important prayer in Judaism that is recited every morning and evening during Jewish prayers. Its twice-daily recitation is a religious commandment (mitzvah) for observant Jews. The full "Shema" prayer comprises Deuteronomy , , and Numbers .
The text of the first part of the Shema is as follows:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
The two-fold message of the prayer is, first, that God is One, and, second, that each person should love God with all one's heart, soul, and might. Jesus considered the Shema to be part of the greatest commandment: "And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, 'Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord'" (Gospel of Mark 12:29 KJV). Jesus added that the second commandment is to love one's neighbor as oneself. Jesus also refers to the Shema in the Gospel of John 10:30.
According to the Talmud, the Shema originally consisted only of one verse: Deuteronomy 6:4. The recitation of the Shema in the liturgy, however, consists of three portions: Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13–21, and Numbers 15:37–41. These three portions relate to central issues of Jewish belief.
Additionally, the Talmud points out that subtle references to the Ten Commandments can be found in the three portions. As the Ten Commandments were removed from daily prayer in the Mishnaic period, the Shema is seen as an opportunity to commemorate the Ten Commandments.
The idea thus conveyed is that through the recitation or proclamation of the Shema one is a living witness testifying to the truth of its message. Modern Kabbalistic schools, namely Rabbi Isaac Luria, teach that when one recites the last letter of the word 'ehadh' (אחד), meaning "one," he/she is to intend that he is ready to "die into God."
The first, most pivotal, words of the Shema are: שמע ישראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד, which are transliterated as Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. The literal word meanings are roughly as follows:
- Shema (A three part word)—listen, or hear, and act on
- Yisrael—Israel, in the sense of the people or congregation of Israel
- Adonai—often translated as "Lord," it is used in place of the Tetragrammaton.
- Eloheinu—our God, the word "El" or "Elohei" signifying God, and the plural possessive determiner suffix "nu" or "einu" signifying "our"
- Echad—the Hebrew word for "1" (the number)
The first portion relates to the issue of the kingship of God. The first verse, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord," has ever been regarded as the confession of belief in the One God. Due to the ambiguities of the Hebrew language there are multiple ways of translating the Shema:
- "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God! The Lord is One!" and
- "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God—the Lord alone."
Many commentaries have been written about the subtle differences between the translations. There is an emphasis on the oneness of God and on the sole worship of God by Israel. There are other translations, though most retain one or the other emphases.
The following verses, commonly referred to by the first word of the verse immediately following the Shema as the V'ahavta, meaning "And you shall love…," contain the commands to love God with all one's heart, soul, and might; to remember all commandments and "teach them diligently to your children and speak of them when you sit down and when you walk, when you lie down and when you rise" (Deut 6:7); to recite the words of God when retiring or rising; to bind those words "on thy arm and thy head" (interpreted as tefillin), and to inscribe them on the door-posts of your house and on your gates (referring to Mezuzah).
The passage following the "Shema" and "V'ahavta" relates to the issue of reward and punishment. It contains the promise of reward for serving God with all one's heart, soul, and might (Deut 11:13) and for the fulfillment of the laws, as well as containing punishment for transgression. It also contains a repetition of the contents of the first portion -but this time spoken to the second person plural (where as the first portion is directed to the individual Jew, this time it is directed to the whole community, all the Jews).
The third portion relates to the issue of redemption. Specifically, it contains the law concerning the Tzitzit as a reminder that all laws of God are obeyed, as a warning against following evil inclinations and in remembrance of the exodus from Egypt. For the prophets and rabbis, the exodus from Egypt is paradigmatic of Jewish faith that God redeems from all forms of foreign domination. It can be found in the portion "Shlach Lecha" in the book of Numbers.
The content flows from the assertion of the oneness of God's kingship. Thus, in the first portion, there is a command to "love God with all one's heart, soul, and might" and to remember and teach these very important words to the children throughout the day. Obeying these commands, says the second portion, will lead to "rewards," and disobeying them will lead to punishment. To ensure fulfillment of these key commands, God also commands in the third portion a "practical reminder," wearing the tzitzit, "that ye may remember and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God."
The second line quoted, "Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever," was originally a congregational response to the declaration of the Oneness of God; it is therefore often printed in small font and recited in an undertone, as recognition that it is not, itself, a part of the cited Biblical verses. The third section of the Shema formally ends at Numbers 15:41, but in fact traditionally Jews end the recitation of the Shema with the following word from the next verse, Emet, or "Truth," as the end of the prayer.
Recitation and reading
The first book of the Talmud, tractate Brachot, opens with a discussion of when exactly the Shema needs to be recited. The Mishna connects the time of recitation with details of the rhythm of the life of the Temple in Jerusalem, saying that the Shema should be recited in the evening when the Kohanim (Jewish priests) who were Tamei (ritually impure) (and had been unable to serve) enter to eat their Terumah (heave offerings). The Gemarah contains a wide-ranging discussion of exactly when this occurred, with general agreement that it occurred in the evening, either after sunset or after three stars were visible. A similar discussion describes the morning Shema, which can be recited at first light prior to sunrise, as soon as colors can be discerned.
Before going to sleep, the first paragraph of the Shema is recited. This is not only a commandment directly given in the Bible (in Deuteronomy 6:6–7), but is also alluded to from verses such as "Commune with your own heart upon your bed" (Psalms 4:4).
The Shema does not have to be recited in Hebrew. It may be recited in any language the worshiper understands (Berakhot 2:3). However, it is an almost universal custom among observant Jews to recite it in Hebrew.
In Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, the Shema should be recited twice daily, whether or not one is able to attend services with a congregation, wherever one is. Even a requirement of decent surroundings (e.g. not to recite it in the bathroom) can be waived if necessary, as occurred for example at Auschwitz. In Orthodox Judaism, women are not required to recite the Shema, as with other time-bound requirements that might impinge on their traditional familial obligations, although they are obligated to pray at least once daily. Since 2002, Conservative Judaism has regarded Conservative women as generally obligated to recite the Shema as many times as men. Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism do not regard gender-related traditional Jewish ritual requirements as necessary in modern circumstances; instead, both genders may fulfill all requirements.
The Shema, or as much of the first verse of it as can be said under the circumstances, is traditionally recited by a dying person as part of an affirmation of faith upon death. It is also recited at the end of Ne'illah service on Yom Kippur.
The Benedictions preceding and following the Shema are traditionally credited to the members of the Great Assembly. They were first instituted in the liturgy of the Temple in Jerusalem.
According to the Talmud, the reading of the Shema morning and evening fulfills the commandment, "You shall meditate therein day and night." As soon as a child begins to speak, his father is directed to teach him the verse "Moses commanded us a law, even the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob" (Deut. 33:4), and teach him to read the Shema (Talmud, Sukkot 42a). The reciting of the first verse of the Shema is called "the acceptance of the yoke of the kingship of God" (kabalat ol malchut shamayim) (Mishnah Berachot 2:5). Judah ha-Nasi, who spent all day involved with his studies and teaching, said just the first verse of the Shema in the morning (Talmud Berachot 13b) "as he passed his hands over his eyes" which appears to be the origin of the Jewish custom to cover the eyes with the right hand whilst reciting the first verse.
The first verse of the Shema is recited aloud, simultaneously by the hazzan and the congregation, which responds with the rabbinically instituted Baruch Shem ("Blessed be the Name") in silence before continuing the rest of Shema. Only on Yom Kippur is this response said aloud. The remainder of the Shema is read in silence. Sephardim recite the whole of the Shema aloud, except the Baruch Shem. Reform Jews also recite the whole of the Shema aloud including the Baruch Shem.
The exhortation by the Kohen ("priest") in calling Israel to arms against an enemy (which does not apply when the Temple in Jerusalem is not standing) also includes Shema Yisrael (Deuteronomy 20:3; Talmud Sotah 42a).
Rabbi Akiva is said to have patiently endured while his flesh was being torn with iron combs, and died reciting the Shema. He pronounced the last word of the sentence, Echad ("one") with his last breath (Talmud Berachot 61b). Since then, it has been traditional for Jews to say the Shema as their last words.
Arnold Schoenberg used the Shema as part of the story to his narrative orchestral work, A Survivor from Warsaw (1947).
Shema in Christianity
The Shema is quoted in the New Testament. The Gospel of Mark 12:29 mentions that Jesus considered the Shema the beginning exhortation of the first of his two greatest commandments: "And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, 'Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord'" (KJV). Jesus also refers to the Shema in the Gospel of John 10:30.
In addition, Saint Paul reworks the Shema in 1 Corinthians 8:6 vis-à-vis the risen Christ: "yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist."
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Lamm, Norman. The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism. Jewish Publication Society of America, 2000. ISBN 978-0827607132
- Stern, Chaim. A Gateway to Prayer: The Shema and the Amidah (Gateway to Prayer). Behrman House Publishing, 1996. ISBN 978-0874414905
- Wright, N.T. The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992. ISBN 080062632X
- Zlotowitz, Meir. Shema Yisroel: The Three Portions of the Shema Including the Bedtime Shema. Artscroll, 1982. ISBN 978-0899061887
All links retrieved January 27, 2023.
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Shema.
- The Shema Yisrael in Hebrew and English.
- Transliteration of the Shema Yisrael.
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