Shema Yisrael (or Sh'ma Yisrael; Hebrew: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל; "Hear, [O] Israel") are the first two words of a section of the Torah, and is the title (sometimes shortened to simply "Shema") 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: "Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one", found in Deuteronomy 6:4. Observant Jews consider the Shema to be the most important part of the prayer service in Judaism, and its twice-daily recitation as a mitzvah (religious commandment). It is traditional for Jews to say the Shema as their last words, and for parents to teach their children to say it before they go to sleep at night.
The term "Shema" is used by extension to refer to the whole part of the daily prayers that commences with Shema Yisrael and comprises Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37–41. These sections of the Torah are read in the weekly Torah portions Va'etchanan, Eikev, and Shlach, respectively.
- 1 History
- 2 Content
- 3 Recitation and reading
- 4 Women and the Shema
- 5 Accompanying blessings
- 6 Bedtime Shema
- 7 Other instances
- 8 Divine Unity of the Shema in Hasidic philosophy
- 9 Shema in Christianity
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 External links
Originally, the Shema consisted of only one verse: Deuteronomy 6:4 (see Talmud Sukkah 42a and Berachot 13b). 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. The 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 (70-200 CE), the Shema is seen as an opportunity to commemorate the Ten Commandments.
There are two larger-print letters in the first sentence ('ayin ע and daleth ד) which, when combined, spell "עד". In Hebrew this means "witness". 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 that of the Ari, teach that when one recites the last letter of the word "'ecḥad'" (אחד), meaning "one", he is to intend that he is ready to "die into God".
Rabbinic Judaism teaches that the Tetragrammaton (י-ה-ו-ה), YHWH, is the ineffable and actual name of God, and as such is not read aloud in the Shema but is traditionally replaced with אדני, Adonai ("Lord"). For this reason, the Shema is recited aloud as:
- Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad - Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One
The literal word meanings are roughly as follows:
- Sh'ma — listen, or hear & do (according to the Targum, accept)
- Yisrael — Israel, in the sense of the people or congregation of Israel
- Adonai — often translated as "LORD", it is read in place of YHWH; Samaritans say Shema, which is Aramaic for "the [Divine] Name" and is the exact equivalent of the Hebrew "ha-Shem", which Rabbinic Jews substitute for "Adonai" in a non-liturgical context such as everyday speech.
- Eloheinu — the plural 1st person possessive of אֱלֹהִים Elohim, meaning “our God”.
- Eḥad — the cardinal number one
Another possibility is the Samaritan reading:
- Sh'ma Yisrael Shema Eloheinu Shema Eḥad. (Hear, O Israel, the Name is our God, the Name is One.)
The connective "is" is implied rather than stated as it would be in modern English.
This first verse of the Shema relates to 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! Adonai is our God! Adonai is One!" and,
- "Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God – Adonai 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.
בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד - "Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever”
The second line is a rabbinic addition and is recited silently during congregational worship (except on Yom Kippur, when it is recited aloud). It was originally a liturgical response in use in the Temple when the name of God was pronounced and took the form of "Baruch shem k’vodo l’olam", "Blessed be His glorious name" (Psalm 72:19). However, in time the words, "malchuto" ("His kingdom") and "va’ed" ("for ever and ever") were added. "Malchuto" was introduced by the rabbis during Roman rule as a counter to the claim of divine honors by Roman emperors. "Va’ed" was introduced at the time of the Second Temple to contrast the view of the "minim" (sectarians) that there is no life after death.
The following verses, commonly referred to by the first word of the verse immediately following the Shema as the V'ahavta, or in Classical Hebrew W'ahav'ta meaning "And you shall love...", contain the commands to love God (the Talmud emphasizes that you will, at some point, whether you choose to or not therefore "shall" future tense, love God), with all one's heart, soul, and might; then the verse goes on to remind you 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" (classically Jewish oral tradition interprets as tefillin), and to inscribe them on the door-posts of your house and on your gates (referring to mezuzah).
V'haya im shamoa
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. It also contains punishment for transgression. It also contains a repetition of the contents of the first portion -but this time spoken to the second person plural, (Whereas 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.
In summary, 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 full content verse by verse, in Hebrew, English transliteration and English translation, can be found here.
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 Gemarrah 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.
The Shema does not have to be recited in Hebrew. It may be recited in any language the worshipper 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. The recitation should be performed in a suitable place that expresses reverence.
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 near the end of Ne'ila service on Yom Kippur.
Women and the Shema
In Orthodox Judaism, women are not required to recite the Shema (as a command from the Torah), as with other time-bound requirements which might impinge on their traditional familial obligations, although they are obligated to pray at least once daily without a specific liturgy requirement and many discharge that obligation through prayers like the Shema.
However, the practice among all Jews—women, men, and children—is to recite it. The Mishnah suggests that the time for recitation should not be more than 3rd hour, but if it is after that time, it should still be read, since it contains expressions of the unity of God, belief in a Creator etc.
It is incumbent to teach children to recite the first verse, and subsequent paragraphs as soon as they are able to understand its meaning. Women are not time bound in its recitation and therefore are not required to say it within its time.
Conservative Judaism generally regards Jewish women as being obligated to recite the Shema at the same times as men.
Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism do not regard gender-related traditional Jewish ritual requirements, including obligations for men but not women to pray specific prayers at specific times, as necessary in modern circumstances; instead, both genders may fulfill all requirements.
According to the Talmud, the reading of the Shema morning and evening fulfils 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, Sukkah 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 first paragraph of the Shema aloud.
During Shacharit, there are two blessing before the Shema and one thereafter. These numbers, two before and one after, are based on the Mishnah Tractate Brachos, Chapter 11, which states: "In the morning one blesses two before and one after," though there is a question in Jewish law as to whether one recites these blessing on the Shema, or surrounding the Shema. The conclusion that has been drawn is that they are to be blessing surrounding the Shema, because the structure is similar to that of blessings of the Torah, and there is doubt as to whether such blessings would actually enhance the Shema.
During Maariv, there are two blessings before the Shema and three after. The two before are HaMaariv Aravim and Ahavat Olam. The three after are Emet V'Emunah, Hashkiveinu, and Baruch Hashem L'Olam, though the latter is not recited on Shabbat or Yom Tov.
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).
Some also have the custom to read all three paragraphs, along with a whole list of sections from Psalms, Tachanun, and other prayers. Altogether this is known as the K'riat Shema she-al ha-mitah. According to Arizal, reading this prayer with great concentration is also effective in cleansing one from sin. This is discussed in the Tanya.
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 patiently endured while his flesh was being torn with iron combs, and died reciting the Shema. He pronounced the last word of the sentence, Eḥad ("one") with his last breath (Talmud Berachot 61b). Since then, it has been traditional for Jews to say the Shema as their last words.
Roi Klein (d. 2006), a major in the IDF, said the Shema before jumping on a live grenade to save his fellow soldiers, in accordance with the traditional Jewish practice of reciting the Shema when one believes one is going to die.
In Parade, a musical based on true events, the main character Leo Frank, wrongly accused of the murder of a child worker at the pencil factory he manages, recites the Shema Yisrael as a vigilante gang kidnap and hang him in the final scenes of the work.
In Pi, Max Cohen and Lenny Meyer can be seen reciting the first three verses of the Shema.
Matisyahu Matisyahu recites the Shema in his songs "Got no water" and "Tel Aviv'n".
Divine Unity of the Shema in Hasidic philosophy
The second section of the Hasidic text the Tanya, by Schneur Zalman of Liadi (Shaar Hayichud Vehaemunah-Gate of Unity and Faith), brings the mystical Panentheism of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, into philosophical explanation. It explains the Hasidic interpretation of God's Unity in the first two lines of the Shema, based upon their interpretation in Kabbalah. The emphasis on Divine Omnipresence and immanence lies behind Hasidic joy and dveikut, and its stress on transforming the material into spiritual worship. In this internalisation of Kabbalistic ideas, the Hasidic follower seeks to reveal the Unity and hidden holiness in all activities of life.
Medieval, rationalist Jewish philosophers (exponents of "Hakirah"-rational "investigation" from first principles in support of Judaism), such as Maimonides, describe Biblical Monotheism to mean that there is only one God, and His essence is a unique, simple, infinite Unity. Jewish mysticism gives a deeper explanation, by distinguishing between God's essence and emanation. In Kabbalah and especially Hasidism, God's Unity means that there is nothing independent of His essence. The new doctrine in Lurianic Kabbalah of God's Tzimtzum ("Withdrawal"), received different interpretations after Isaac Luria, from the literal to the metaphorical. To Hasidism and Schneur Zalman, it is unthinkable for the "Withdrawal" of God that "makes possible" Creation, to be taken literally. Tzimtzum only relates to the Ohr Ein Sof ("Infinite Light"), not the Ein Sof (Divine essence) itself. God's true infinity is revealed in both complimentary infinitude (infinite light) and finitude (finite light). The "Withdrawal" was only a concealment of the Infinite Light into the essence of God, to allow the latent potentially finite light to emerge after the Tzimtzum. God Himself remains unaffected ("For I, the Lord, I have not changed" Malachi 3:6). His essence was One, alone, before Creation, and still One, alone, after Creation, without any change. As the Tzimtzum was only a concealment, therefore God's Unity is Omnipresent. In the Baal Shem Tov's new interpretation, Divine Providence affects every detail of Creation. The "movement of a leaf in the wind" is part of the unfolding Divine presence, and is a necessary part of the complete Tikkun (Rectification in Kabbalah). This awarenes of the loving Divine purpose and significance of each individual, awakens mystical love and awe of God.
Schneur Zalman explains that God's Unity has two levels, that are both paradoxically true. The main text of Kabbalah, the Zohar, describes the first verse of the Shema ("Hear Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One") as the "Upper level Unity", and the second line ("Blessed be the Name of the Glory of His Kingdom forever") as the "Lower level Unity". Schneur Zalman gives the Hasidic explanation of this. In Kabbalah, all Creation is dependent on the immanent, potentially finite, "Light that Fills all Worlds", that each Creation receives continually. All is bittul-nullified to the light, even though in our realm this complete dependence is hidden. From this perspective, of God knowing the Creation on its own terms, Creation exists, but the true essence of anything is only the Divine spark that continuously recreates it from nothing. God is One, as nothing has any independent existence without this continual flow of Divine Will to Create. This is the Lower Level Unity.
In relation to God's essence, Creation affects no change or withdrawal. All Creation takes place "within" God. "There is nothing but God". The ability to create can only come from the infinite Divine essence, represented by the Tetragrammaton name of God. However, "It is not the essence of the Divine, to create Worlds and substain them", as this ability is only external to the Infinite essence. Creation only derives from God's revelatory "speech" (as in Genesis 1), and even this is unlike the external speech of Man, as it too remains "within" God. From this upper persective of God knowing Himself on His own terms, Creation does not exist, as it is as nothing in relation to God's essence. This Monistic Acosmism is the "Upper Level Unity", as from this persective, only God exists.
Shema in Christianity
Shema is one of the sentences that is quoted in the New Testament. The Gospel of Mark 12:29-30 mentions that Jesus of Nazareth considered the beginning exhortation of the Shema to be the first of his two greatest commandments: "The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment." (KJV).
In addition, the apostle Paul reworks the Shema in 1 Corinthians 8:6 vis-à-vis the risen Christ: "But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him." (KJV)
- Baruch Shem: The 2nd line of the Shema – Ask the Rabbi
- [Mishnah Berurah, O.C. 106:1 §7]
- [Shailos and Teshuvos, Rav Ephraim Greenblatt, Rabbavot Ephraim, Vol. 1, (O.C) §52]
- [Mishnah, Berachos 1:2]
- [Mishnah, Berachos 1:2].
- With all your heart: the Shema in Jewish worship, practice and life By Meir Levin, ISBN 1-56871-215-4, page 207-12
- Tanya, p. 23
- English translation and commentary on the second section of Tanya: Shaar Hayichud Vehaemunah-Gate of Unity and Faith from Chabad.org. Retrieved Oct. 2009
- cf. N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant, 1994; E. Waaler, The shema and the First Commandment in First Corinthians, 2008
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Shema
- Recitation of the Shema Yisrael
- Explanation of the Shema by Rabeinu Bachya