The Shema Israel
By Nachum Mohl
Perhaps no other prayer defines the essence of Judaism more than the prayer called the Shema. The origin of the Shema is to be found in the Bible, Deuteronomy 6:4, "Hear O Israel, The Eternal is our G-d, the Eternal is One".
The Shema, meaning "hear," is one of the central points of the morning and evening prayer service. Additional blessings have been added to the Shema to enhance our perception of G-d in our minds and hearts.
The Shema proceeds the Shmona Esra prayer in the morning and evening prayers. The Shmona Esra is the standing silent prayer that originally consisted of eighteen blessings, but later a nineteenth was added. The name, meaning eighteen, however remained the same.
The difference between the two prayers explains why the Shema precedes the Shmona Esra. The Shema is essentially an acceptance of the yoke of heaven upon the individual, whereas the Shmona Esra is a petition to G-d for individual and communal needs.
Like a new recruit in the army, we must first take a pledge of allegiance to G-d, only after we are in the army of G-d, so to speak, may we make a request. Making a request to G-d for our needs before accepting that he is The Ruler and Master of the world is considered impudent. Could a civilian request a furlough or supplies from an army officer? We must first show our connection to G-d and only afterwards make our needs known.
In addition to its important status in our daily prayers, it has been the prayer that Jewish martyrs have uttered moments before their lives. The reason is that the Shema, in addition to being an acceptance of G-d's divine rule in the universe, also asserts G-d's Oneness.
This aspect of G-d's essence, his Oneness in the universe is not always understood properly. Basically, it means that G-d, unlike everything created has no beginning and no end, is not burdened with time or dimension, nor effected by any worldly or spiritual matter.
G-d existed before the world was created and the creation of the world and the entire universe did nothing to displace G-d, rather, the world exists inside of G-d. He is not affected by the world, but rather He effects the world. Since G-d is timeless, meaning that He had no beginning, unlike us who were born and began life at a certain time, He is also endless, also unlike us who are subject to death. G-d is basically timeless, meaning that time, which is a created element in our lives, is not a real entity for G-d; for us time is real, but for G-d time is something He created, much like the earth and light, and exists only for us.
The world is really a facade or a charade into which we were put for each one's individual reasons. However, as a Jew, we acknowledge that there exists a greater realm than this fragile and temporal world. Therefore, throughout our tumultuous and tortuous history, many Jews, who upon rejecting false gods and beliefs were made to give up their lives, chose this simple but powerful statement to declare the Oneness of G-d in the world.
The meaning of the words, also reflect a much deeper concept than the first reading might suggest. There are several names of G-d in the Bible which refer to various aspects of G-d. When we say the Shema, we utilize two of the names. The name most commonly referred to as the Eternal or as Lord in most prayer books, is the four lettered word that we do not utter as it is written. This is the name that is a compound of the Hebrew words: was, is and will be - but all at the same time. This refers to the essence of G-d beyond the world, to the state in which He alone exists, above time, timeless and eternal.
The second name of G-d that is mentioned in the Shema is the name that is usually translated as G-d. This name in Hebrew is the name of G-d as he manifests Himself in nature. It is the name used in the Bible during the narration of G-d's creation of the world (see Genesis). This name refers to the convergence and concealment of the supreme creative powers of G-d vested in a creation to which we call "nature", since upon examination of the physical, we can not see beyond these laws.
Simply speaking, in our declaration of the Shema Israel, the Eternal is our G-d, the Eternal is One, we declare two important points. The first being that the Eternal Infinite Being who transcends time and space, who is not bound by any earthly laws is the same creator who's essence is enveloped in the world in every molecule and particle. There is no separation between the G-d that looms above and beyond the physical world in the realm of the infinite and the G-d that manifests Himself in the finite mundane world as the life force and substance. We humbly declare that He is our G-d.
The second point is that the Eternal is One. We declare that there is no separation between Him and the created world. What may appear to us as a separate physical world and a distant spiritual world is merely a delusion. G-d's Oneness extends into every aspect of the universe. He is one with the world as is a dreamer with his dream; the dream exists in the dreamer as if it is a separate entity, but the reality is that they are one. G-d is the only One, there is no other, nothing has a true independent existence other than Him; any appearance of an independent existence is only a facade.
Now we can understand why the Shema is such an important prayer in our religion. Whereas the Shema is not a petition for bounty or forgiveness, it precedes all efforts to reach up to G-d.
The Shema actually consists of three paragraphs which deal with various aspects of serving G-d with love and fear. The last paragraph deals with the wearing of tzizit, the fringes that men were on the four corners of garments.
The Shema is to be recited twice each day, once by daylight and the other at night. It should be recited in the first quarter of the daylight hours and then again at night. It may be recited standing or sitting but should not be recited while lying down on the back or stomach. If a person is lying in bed, he should turn to the side. Also, if he is walking he should stop for the first sentence.
It may be recited in English, but when recited in Hebrew it is important to ensure that the words are pronounced correctly. It should be recited slowly, concentrating on its meaning. The words should be pronounced loud enough that the speaker can hear them in his own ears. When reciting the Shema, we do not involve ourselves in other actions, such as winking, smiling, watch the world around us; we involve our minds in the Shema, shutting out outside ideas and actions. Ideally, the Shema should be said out of a prayer book and not by rote. It is customary to cover the eyes with the right hand to aid in concentration.
The Shema connects each individual Jew together with G-d. May you merit the revelations of G-d with the rebuilding of the third Temple.
from the May 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine