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What is Shema?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht

  

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A. Shema is the central and absolutely most critical prayer is Judaism. It sums up the essence of Jewish faith in its power-packed opening verse: Shema Yisrael, Ado-nai Elo-hay-nu, Ado-nai Echad, meaning, Listen, Israel, G-d is our Lord, G-d is One. It is a direct quote from the Torah1 .

B. Reciting Shema is Positive Mitzvah #10. One is to recite it twice daily, once in the morning and once at night. For more details regarding the proper timing of this mitzvah, see When is the proper time to recite the Shema?. To make things convenient, they incorporated Shema into the Shacharit and Maariv services. If, however, you won’t be doing those, you can just recite Shema by itself. Either way, cover your eyes with your right hand as you recite that first verse.

C. While most folks are under the impression that Shema is a one-liner, that eternally famous one-liner is actually just the beginning of the first of Shema’s three paragraphs. The first paragraph (Deuteronomy 6:4-10), called Shema, contains the mitzvahs of love of G-d, Tefillin, Jewish education, Torah study, and Mezuzah. The second paragraph (Deuteronomy 11:13-21), called Vehayah, discusses reward and punishment, and repeats the mitzvahs of tefillin, torah study, Jewish education and mezuzah. The third paragraph (Numbers 15:37-41), called Vayomer, discusses the subject of Tzitzit, and also makes mention of the Exodus from Egypt.

Within the three paragraphs of Shema, one will find a microcosm of the most sacred Jewish mitzvahs and principles...

What is the significance of Shema?

1. Judaism 101

Within the three paragraphs of Shema, one will find a microcosm of the most sacred Jewish mitzvahs and principles. Beginning with the belief in G-d Himself, and how He is to be defined, the Jew declares the very staples of Judaism—the bonding to G-d through tefillin, the demarcation of the Jewish home with Mezuzahs, the perpetuation of our people through education of our youth—as he recites the Shema two times a day.

2. The Ultimate Statement of Faith

As abovementioned, the opening verse of Shema is the most important part of this most important prayer. It is traditionally whispered into the little ears of Jewish newborns, so that the totality of Jewish faith impresses itself onto that tiny consciousness, never to be erased, and is traditionally the last words uttered by a terminally ill Jew on his or her deathbed. Thus, the Jewish life begins and ends with the purest of faith. “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad!” were also the last words sung out by countless Jewish martyrs through the eons before they were brutally killed by Jew-haters, declaring their unswerving faith in G-d in the face of death.

It is traditionally whispered into the little ears of Jewish newborns... “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad!” were also the last words sung out by countless Jewish martyrs through the eons... declaring their unswerving faith in G-d in the face of death
3. The Deeper Meaning of Shema

Shema is a spiritual ladder with its top in Heaven and its feet planted firmly on Earth. When you say Shema, you begin at the top, meditating on the unity of G-d and how He is everywhere and everything. This is seen in Echad, or One, the concluding word of Shema’s first sentence. Echad is formed of the three Hebrew letters Aleph, Chet and Dalet, whose numerical values are 1, 8, and 4, respectively, signifying that there is One G-d in the Seven Heavens and One Earth, Whose jurisdiction extends to all Four Points of the compass. In Chassidic philosophy, this is called Higher Unity. Practically speaking, this means that G-d is all over the place. Now that you know what G-d is, you bring that idea down the ladder, from the ethereal realm of spirituality into the reality of your life, and from your intellect into your emotions. This is seen in the first mitzvah mentioned in the first paragraph, which instructs us to love G-d “with all your heart, soul, and might”. What is earthier than love? And what is more celestial than G-d? In Chassidic philosophy, this fusion is called Lower Unity, and in Shema, these two opposite extremes come together in a wonderful fusion.

Footnotes

  • 1. Deuteronomy 6:4
TAGS: shema,

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COMMENTS

Mezuzah $ Shema

Posted by: Tom Lightfoot, Kemp, Texas on Aug 24, 2005

All I can say is great teaching.

al kiddush HaShem

Posted by: Anonymous, Israel on Aug 20, 2006

Rav Seren Roi Klein, zl, of the 51st Golani Unit, from the settlement of Eli, in this current war for the survival of Israel, threw himself on a grenade which was about to explode to save the lives of his soldiers. As he threw himself upon the "rimon" his soldiers tell, he uttered the cry "SHEMA YISRAEL". He was buried on his 31st birthday. He died on kiddush Hashem, may his memory be for a blessing, amen.

RELATED CATEGORIES

Mitzvot » Tefillin
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Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Tefillin
Black leather boxes containing small scrolls with passages of the Bible written on them. Every day, aside for Sabbath and Jewish holidays, the adult Jewish male is required to wrap the Tefillin--by means of black leather straps--around the weaker arm and atop the forehead.
Chassidic
(Pl.: Chassidim; Adj.: Chassidic) A follower of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of "Chassidut." Chassidut emphasizes serving G-d with sincerity and joy, and the importance of connecting to a Rebbe (saintly mentor).
Mezuzah
A rolled up scroll containing certain verses from the Torah which is affixed to the right-hand doorpost of doorways in a Jewish home.
Shacharit
Morning prayer service. One of the three prayers a Jew is obligated to pray every day.
Hashem
"The Name." Out of respect, we do not explicitly mention G-d's name, unless in the course of prayer. Instead, "Hashem" is substituted.
Maariv
Evening prayer service. One of the three prayers a Jew is obligated to pray every day.
Tzitzit
Literally: the fringes which are attached to four cornered garments, as Biblically mandated. Normally this word refers to a t-shirt sized four cornered garment which contains such fringes, and is usually worn beneath the shirt.
Exodus
1. The miraculous departure of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage in 1312 BCE. 2. The second of the Five Books of Moses. This book describes the aforementioned Exodus, the giving of the Torah, and the erection of the Tabernacle.
Deuteronomy
The fifth of the Five Books of Moses. This book is a record of the monologue which Moses spoke to the Israelites in the five weeks prior to his passing.
Yisrael
1. Additional name given by G-d to Patriarch Jacob. 2. A Jew who is not a Kohain or Levi (descendant of the Tribe of Levi).
Mezuzahs
Plural form of Mezuzah. Rolled up scrolls containing certain verses from the Torah which are affixed to the right-hand doorposts of doorways in Jewish homes.
Shema
The most fundamental Jewish prayer, recited twice daily. This prayer, of Biblical origin, professes the belief in G-d's absolute unity.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.