“Shema Israel” The ultimate manifestation of faith in Judaism

 

By Gideon

No other prayer defines the essence of Judaism more than the prayer called the Shema. Observant Jews consider the Shema to be the most important part of the prayer service in Judaism.

Throughout the ages, the cry of Shema has always symbolized the ultimate manifestation of faith in the gravest situations. With the Shema on their lips, Jews accepted martyrdom at the Inquisitor’s stake and in the Nazi gas chambers.

“One cannot overestimate the importance Sh’ma Yisrael has in Jewish heritage throughout the generations. In many cases, these were the only ‘Jewish words’ that Jews, who lived in remote places and who heard them from their ancestors, knew. The ‘marranos’ in Spain and Portugal passed them on from parent to child, sometimes without knowing, their actual meaning but with profound understanding of their value. Many Jews, beginning with Rabbi Akivah and up to the victims of the Holocaust recited the Sh’ma with their last breath.” reformjudaism.org

The Torah records Moses including the Shema in his farewell address to the Jewish people.

Jewish law requires a greater measure of concentration on the first verse of the Shema than on the rest of the prayer. People commonly close their eyes or cover them with the palm of their hand while reciting it to eliminate every distraction and help them concentrate on the meaning of the words.

The Shema is one of only two prayers that are specifically commanded in Torah (the other is Birkat Ha-Mazon — grace after meals). It is the oldest fixed daily prayer in Judaism, recited morning and night since ancient times. It consists of three biblical passages, two of which specifically say to speak of these things “when you lie down and when you rise up. The Shema to be read at home before going to bed at night.

The first verse of the Shema, from the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, is among the best-known in all of Jewish liturgy. It is recited at the climactic moment of the final prayer of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, and traditionally as the last words before death.

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד

She-ma yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, adonai echad

Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One

(The LORD is our God, the LORD is one.)

The Shema is the centerpiece of the daily morning and evening prayer services and is considered by some the most essential prayer in all of Judaism. An affirmation of God’s singularity and kingship, its daily recitation is regarded by traditionally observant Jews as a biblical commandment.

The first verse of the Shema is considered the most essential declaration of the Jewish faith — the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. The passage that follows details the particular ways in which that faith should be lived: Love God with all of your being, teach it to your children, recite it when you wake and lie down, bind it as a symbol on your body.

In 1945, Rabbi Eliezer Silver was sent to Europe to help reclaim Jewish children who had been hidden during the Holocaust with non-Jewish families. How was he able to discover the Jewish children? He would go to gatherings of children and loudly proclaim Shema Yisrael – “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Then he would look at the faces of the children for those with tears in their eyes – those children whose distant memory of being Jewish was their mothers putting them to bed each night and saying the Shema with them.

In thejewishpress.com the meaning of the word Shema is explained in five different ways:

“The root “sh-m-a” is a keyword in the book of Deuteronomy, where it occurs 92 times, usually in the sense of what God wants from us in response to the commandments. But the verb “sh-m-a” means many things. Here are some of the meanings it has in Genesis:

1) “To hear,” as in “Abram heard that his relative Lot had been taken captive” (14:14).

2) “To listen, pay attention, heed,” as in “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree” (3:17) and “Then Rachel said: ‘God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son’ ” (30:7).

3) “To understand,” as in “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other” (11:7). This is how tradition understood the later phrase, “na’aseh v’nishma” (Exodus 24:7) to mean, “First we will do, then understand.”

4) “To be willing to obey,” as in the angel’s words to Abraham after the binding of Isaac: “Through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you were willing to obey me” (22:18). Abraham was about to obey God’s command but at the last moment an angel said, “Stop.”

5) “To respond in deed, to do what someone else wants” as in “Do whatever Sarah tells you” (shema bekolah, 21:12). It is in this last sense that it comes closest in meaning to “obey.”

There are many artistic interpretations to the Shema prayer. Some performers remain close to the original text, others take the liberty to personalize it,using some of the original words:

Shema prayer

Shema prayer

A Jewish mother teaching her young children the Shema prayer

Modern interpretation to the Shema prayer

Modern interpretation to the Shema prayer

Interpretation to the Shema prayer

Modern interpretation to the Shema prayer

Modern interpretation to the Shema prayer

 

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