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Why are some letters in the first line of Shema larger than others?

by Rabbi Zalman Abraham

  

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"Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad"-"Hear, oh Israel; the L-rd our G-d is one L-rd"

When written in Torah; Tefillin and Mezuzah scrolls, the last letter of the first word of Shema –“ayin”, and the last letter of the last word (echad) –“daled”,1 are larger than the other letters. These two letters together spell the Hebrew word “eid” - witness. When a Jew recites the Shema, he bears witness to G-d’s unity and dominion over all of existence.

The Hebrew letter ayin has a numerical value of 70 (in Gematriah), representing the 70 names of the Jewish nation who were given a Torah that has 70 names and can be expounded in 70 ways to set them apart from the 70 nations.

The large Daled has a numerical value of four (in Gematriah), representing the union of G-d’s kingship in the heaven; earth and all four directions. Alternatively, the daled is larger so it won’t be confused with the letter reish which is similar in shape and if mistaken, would change the reading of the Shema into a statement of heresy (“Hashem acher”-“a different god”) in place of the fundamental declaration of belief ("Hashem echad"-“G-d is one”).2

The famous kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria (The Arizal) explains that larger letters represent a higher level of G-dly awareness, the large daled represents the divine attribute of Binah (understanding) and the Matriarch Leah.3

See also: What is Shema?; Why is the Shema more important then many other prayers?; Should I recite the Shema today if I'm unable to make a steady commitment?When is the proper time to recite the Shema?; Why do we recite the second verse of the Shema in an undertone?

Footnotes

  • 1. The daled of the word Echad should be four times the size of a regular daled (see Magen Avraham – Orach Chayim 32:1)
  • 2. Baal Haturim - Deuteronomy 6:4.
  • 3. Shaar Hakavanot - Kavanat Kriat Shema - Drush 6.

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Mitzvot » Prayer » About

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.
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.
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.
Isaac
Second of the three Jewish Patriarchs, son of Abraham and Sarah. Lived in Canaan (Israel); b. 1712 BCE, d. 1532 BCE.
Leah
Fourth of the four Jewish matriarchs. Elder daughter of Laban, wife of Patriarch Jacob, and mother of six of the Tribes, including Levi and Judah.
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).
Shema
The most fundamental Jewish prayer, recited twice daily. This prayer, of Biblical origin, professes the belief in G-d's absolute unity.
Arizal
Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 15th Century founder of Modern Kabbalah.
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.