Shema Israel, Jewish Prayer and Ritual


Shema Israel, Jewish Prayer and Ritual


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Shema Yisrael

By Avi Lazerson

    If a study was made to determine what is the central point of Judaism, there is no doubt that the "Shema Yisroel" would be selected. No other prayer or commandment reaches the total essence of Judaism in such a rich and compact form. The Shema is recited twice daily, once in the morning and once in the night.

    Through out our generations of national and communal life, the Shema Yisrael was chosen to be the one last utterance on the lips of the many martyrs that were tortured and killed because of their simple and basic belief in the one G-d, the G-d of Israel. Why was this their last utterance in this world before their deaths?

    The central message of the "Shema Yisrael" is proclaiming the absolute unity and sovereignty of G-d over and in the entire universe. Perhaps today, when idol worship has basically diminished and disappeared from the face of the earth, the Shema seems irrelevant. But that is only on the most superficial and surface level of understanding.

    Let us understand more about this unique prayer, that is neither a request nor a praise as most prayers are, but an affirmation of our total belief of G-d's total manifestation and absolute rule in not only this world, but also all worlds.

    The Shema Yisroel consists of three different paragraphs from the Torah. The first paragraph is from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, the second paragraph is from Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and the third paragraph is from Numbers 15:37-41.

    It is the first paragraph that begins with the famous phrase, "Hear O Israel, G-d (the four letter name) is our G-d (the name that refers to nature), G-d is One." This is not a simple recital but a pledge of allegiance to the concept that there is no god, no power in the universe other than our G-d.

    More so, by stating the "Oneness", we declare that everything in the world is of G-d, from G-d, and even is an extension of G-d. Even though we may perceive that the world is separate from G-d, this is only our mistaken perception; there is nothing which is not one with G-d.

    This complete "Oneness" is not just a unity of two diverse elements, but rather a simple unity in which there is only one. This means that all that exists, although it may appear separate - even alien or against G-d Himself- really exists only because G-d has willed it to exist and continues to will it to exist If the divine will that something exist be suspended, the created object would cease to exist. The will to bring into existence is the creation and as long as that divine will continues, creation continues. Hence all being one with G-d means that all is really a manifestation and extension of G-d.

    When we recite this first statement, we close our eyes and cover them with our right hand to enable ourselves to concentrate on this very lofty and central thought. We say the words slowly, visualizing G-d's manifest presence as it descends from the uppermost of the worlds, the realm of angels and fiery serpents down to this world, the lowest of the worlds. We then visualize G-d's presence in all of the creation in this world in the four directions of the compass and up and down.

    After reading the first sentence, we add a silent phrase that is not written in the Torah. "Blessed is the Name of the Honor of His Kingdom in this World always." This was added, as the Chasidic masters teach, to enable us to descend from the lofty concept of "all is G-d and nothing else has a true existence" to the lower level of "the world is real and we must relate to it as a true existence".

    In the first paragraph, we read the commandment to love G-d and dedicate ourselves to carrying out His will, and teaching this vital message to our children and to ourselves. In this paragraph, is also the commandment to wear Tephilin (those black boxes that we tie on our arm and fix upon our head), which is the reason that most men don their tephilin during the recitation. The Mezzuzah, that we affix to all of our doorposts, is also mentioned in this first paragraph.

    In the second paragraph, there is the promise that if we observe the commandments of G-d, He promises that we shall live happily in our land and we shall have all our needs met sufficiently. If we do not follow the laws of G-d and we get involved with idol worship, we will be exiled from our land. Again the commandments to learn and teach our children the laws of G-d, to wear Tephilin and fix Mezzuzahs on our doorposts is repeated.

    The third paragraph contains the commandment of "Tzitzits", the traditional fringes worn on our "talit", our prayer shawl. The Talit is also worn at this time. The passage which commands us to remember our exodus from Egypt is also in this last paragraph which reminds us that like he took us out from Egypt, fulfilling his promise to our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This fills us with the expectation that soon he will complete our redemption and give us back true dominion in our land that we may build the third Temple together with the righteous Messiah, for whom all mankind wait.

    The Shema is a very powerful statement, compact, and rich in thought. We start with the highest, loftiest concepts and bring them down to this very world.

    The Shema is recited prior to the standing silent prayer known as the "Amida" (standing prayer) or "Shmona Esrai" (eighteen benediction prayer). Many Chasidic masters understand that prior to actually praising G-d or asking a favor from G-d, first we must understand the essence of G-d and accept upon ourselves his mastery of the world.

    Now we can begin to appreciate the beauty and power of the twice daily recitation of the Shema and why it is the central pivotal point in Judaism. With the above explanation in mind, we can appreciate why that each day that we continue to say it, it becomes deeper and deeper. Through daily repetition, we become one with its pure reality, and one with our creator.


from the November 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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