The unit of biblical passages that we know as The Shema is essential to our out liturgy. It is part of our morning (Shacharit) and evening (Ma’ariv) services on weekdays, Shabbat and on holidays. It is also recited when retiring for the night. It has been referred to as “the watchword of our faith”. It is the quintessential statement of monotheism, “the Lord is One”.
It is interesting that the Shema is direct quote from the Torah, (or actually three verbatim sections) so why has it become a “prayer”? What is it say to us that makes it appropriate prayer service material? What makes it so essential?
Perhaps the best place to start is at the source. In Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verse 4 (Deut 6:4), Moses says to the assembled people Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad” Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”. That this is, fundamentally, a statement of monotheism, is apparent. But what about the word Shema. What does it mean? The simple, most straightforward meaning seems to be “hear”. It could be just the passive perception of sound waves entering the ear. Moses, in my opinion, is asking more of the Israelite people. He is asking for active participation in the communication, possible listen and absorb-try to understand.
There is another thought. In the translation in the Etz Chaim Chumash of Genesis 23:16, when Abraham is negotiating the purchase of a burial site for Sarah, we are told “and Abraham ACCEPTED Ephron’s terms.” I like this understanding a lot. It demands both active listening and the acceptance of “buying into” monotheism as requisite for membership in the Israelite people.
This first verse of Shema then, is not just a statement of faith. It is not just believing. It demands knowing, deep in one’s essence, that we have but one God, that God is Adonai and that that knowledge is an essential part of being a Jew/ Israelite/Hebrew.
I see this statement as being analogous to the beginning of Aseret ha Divrot, the ten commandments, which we saw restated just one chapter before. Deut 5:6-7 say “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt…”. This sounds and feels more like a statement than a commandment but, to me, the commandment is intrinsic acceptance of Adonai and of the monotheistic implication of the second Commandment: “you shall no other gods before me (that is, in my (omni)presence.
This is my understanding of the beginning of the Shema unit, the acceptance of the unity of our God in our lives. There is more to these passages and I hope to share my take on them in future posts. I also promise to share my belief as to the answer to the question of why it is incorporated into the prayer service.
Please remember I am a layman sharing my search. I do not expect you, my friends and readers to adopt my spiritual take (if you do, that is great). What I hope is that you are moved to your own search and to find your spiritual and religious comfort zone.