This Jewish prayer, like many others, is known by its opening words, ‘Shema Yisrael’ or, more simply, as the ‘Shema’.
The prayer in fact consists of three biblical passages with just a single line of additional text inserted after the first line of the first passage. These three passages are referred to as the three paragraphs of the Shema. The first passage is Deuteronomy 6: 4-9, the second passage is Deuteronomy 11: 13-21, and the third passage is Numbers 15: 37-41.
The prayer starts with the most fundamental of Jewish beliefs – monotheism, the belief that there is only one God (for many centuries this was the major point of distinction between Judaism and other faiths and this changed only with the birth of the other monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Islam). But, like Judaism itself, the prayer does not confine itself to theological positions and contains a number of practical observances to be undertaken by a religious Jew.
The significance of the Shema prayer in Judaism can be seen from the fact that not only is it one of the first prayers taught to small children, but its first line in particular is recited as a confession of faith by those about to die. Religious Jews recite the Shema prayer twice a day, upon arising in the morning and upon going to bed at night, and the prayer also forms an important part of the morning and evening prayer services.
The opening line of the prayer is its most significant:
Shema Yisra’el, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.
Translation of the sentence is not a straight-forward task due to the nuances of the Hebrew language which allow this sentence to be understood (and translated) in more than one way. The best known translation of this verse is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One’ (the phrase ‘O Israel’ indicates that the statement is being addressed to the Jewish people – ‘Israel’ – as a whole). Another, equally valid, translation is ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone’. Although the wording of the English translation may vary somewhat, the clear intention of the sentence is to assert the monotheistic nature of Judaism.
Following is the translation of the first paragraph of the Shema prayer according to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (previously Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth):
Listen, Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and all time.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. These words which I command you today shall be on your heart. Teach them repeatedly to your children, speaking of them when you sit at home and when you travel on the way, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be an emblem between your eyes. Write them on the doorposts of your house and gates.
After talking about man’s relationship with God, this paragraph contains commandments to educate children religiously and to observe the commandments of tefillin and mezuzah. These commandments are repeated in the 2nd paragraph of the Shema, but whereas the 1st paragraph is written in the 2nd person singular, thus imposing obligations on individual Jews, the 2nd paragraph is written in the second person plural and thus imposes obligations on the Jewish community as a whole. The 2nd paragraph also introduces the concept of reward and punishment for actions performed.
The second paragraph is translated into English as follows:
If you indeed heed My commandments with which I charge you today, to love the Lord your God and worship Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain in your land in its season, the early and the late rain; and you shall gather in your grain, wine and oil. I will give grass in your field for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied. Be careful lest your heart be tempted and you go astray and worship other gods, bowing down to them. Then the Lord’s anger will flare against you and He will close the heavens so that there will be no rain. The land will not yield its crops, and you will perish swiftly from the good land that the Lord is giving you. Therefore, set these, My words, on your heart and soul. Bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be an emblem between your eyes. Teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit at home and when you travel on the way, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and gates, so that you and your children may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, for as long as the heavens are above the earth.
The third and final paragraph of the Shema is as follows:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the Israelites and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments for all generations. They shall attach to the tassel at each corner a thread of blue. This shall be your tassel, and you shall see it and remember all of the Lord’s commandments and keep them, not straying after your heart and after your eyes, following your own sinful desires. Thus you will be reminded to keep all My commandments, and be holy to your Go. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord your God.’
This paragraph introduces the mitzvah (commandment) of tzitzit which, together with mezuzah and tefillin, form a group of commandments called eidot (‘testimonies’) by the rabbis, the idea being that they provide a visible, physical reminder of God’s commandments.
Links to other Web Pages about the Shema
Aish: Shema Yisrael
Chabad: The Shema
Wikipedia: Shema Yisrael
Jewish Virtual Library: The Shema
United Synagogue: Why do we cover our eyes when we say the first verse of the Shema? (Video, 2 mins 17 secs)