Judaism is one of the world’s foremost religions. It is a deep and complex faith filled with mysteries and rich with history. You’ll find a variety of prayers offered to God by the Jewish people. Of all the different prayers spoken in solemnity, the Shema Prayer holds an especially important place in worship by Jews. There are many aspects of Jewish life that are viewed as indispensable by all Judaic denominations. And the Shema prayer is one of the basic components of what it means to be a Jew.
What Is the Shema Prayer?
So, you may wonder what the Shema prayer is and why it’s so important to the Jewish people. The complete answer to this question can seem fairly complicated. But we can begin to answer this by understanding its role in the life of every Jew. It starts in the Torah, from which all law and wisdom in the Jewish faith derives.
The Shema prayer is found in the Torah and consists of three biblical passages. These are Deuteronomy 6:4–9, Deuteronomy 11:13–21 and Numbers 15:37–41.
The Shema Israel
The first verse, or the Shema Israel, is considered the very core of Judaism and consists of only one line. “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Or, in Hebrew, “Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.” Judaism teaches that the name of God is not spoken in the Shema. So instead, they’ve replaced it with “my Lord” (Adonai). The acknowledgment of God’s existence as a sole entity is core to the Jewish faith. So, worshippers say this part of the prayer intently, with their hands covering their eyes. This helps you concentrate and devote your entire being to the meaning behind the verse.
When written, the scribe writes the two Hebrew letters Dalet and Ayin larger than the rest of the text. When used together, they form the Hebrew word “ed“ (“witness” in English). This signifies that in the first verse, the prayer serves as a testimony of a witness to God’s unity.
The second and third verses of the Shema Prayer
You won’t find the second line or verse of the prayer in the Torah at all, but in the Talmud. It once served as a response by the congregation when the Shema prayer was used in the Shabbat liturgy in the synagogue. Because of this, you say it quietly to yourself: “Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.”
The third verse is a declaration of devotion to God: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
The commandment to recite the Shema
Most rabbis and scholars consider the Shema the single most important prayer in all of the Jewish faith. In practice, observant Jews say it twice a day. The mitzvot require that Jews recite the Shema once upon waking in the morning and once before going to bed at night. The prayer itself contains instructions on when to use it in the first section.
“And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.”
The prayer, and Deuteronomy, also require Jews to affix the words of the Shema to themselves and their homes. To remind themselves of God’s presence in their lives and to comply with God’s laws, Jews fix a mezuzah on the entrances to their homes. These small cases contain the handwritten text of the Shema, usually comprising just the first two sections. When passing through a door that has a mezuzah, touch it with your hand and then kiss the fingers that touched it to show your love for God’s commandments.
The promises God made to Jews and the commandments
After reciting the testimony to God’s unity, a list of promises made by God to the Israelites follows, from Deuteronomy 11:13–21. The third section, Numbers 15:37–41, discusses God’s commandments regarding the tzitzit. These are the fringes observant Jews wear on their clothing to remind themselves of God’s requirements.
“Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue [wool] on the fringe of each corner.”
The Reform tradition generally omits the section regarding God’s promises, as they reject the concept of Godly reciprocity when it comes to reward and punishment on Earth. So, this leaves the first verse as the very core of faith that underlies all Jewish prayer.
The Importance of the Shema Prayer in Jewish Life
The Shema prayer is the first prayer taught to Jewish children, along with how and when to recite it. When a Jew dies, the Shema prayer is the very last prayer spoken while they are alive and should be their dying words. They also recite the Shema when preparing to study or read the Torah
When to Say the Shema Prayer
Aside from private prayer morning and night, the Shema prayer is often part of group prayer and synagogue services. Among the best known of all Jewish liturgy, the first line of the Shema prayer, known as the Shema Israel, is always recited at the climax of the final prayer on Yom Kippur. During Shabbat, the Cantor recites the Shema as part of the Kedushah service, along with the congregation.
For those who practice Judaism, the Shema prayer is considered the foremost essential prayer in the religion. It serves as an act of affirmation of the singularity of God. The meaning of the Shema prayer concerns itself with the power and totality of the one God, found in the first verse “the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” which is an essential declaration of faith and the cornerstone of Judaism.