This week we continue with the single most important prayer within Judaism—The Shema— which is found in Deut. 6:4. As I stated last week, the Shema is not a prayer in the ordinary sense of the word. The Shema is a declaration of faith, a pledge of allegiance to the One True God.
שמע ישראל, יהוה אלהינו, יהוה אחד
Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad
Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One.
It starts with God getting our attention. “HEAR O ISRAEL.” When we respond with “The Lord is God,” we are declaring, “The Lord is OUR God.” We then go on to affirm that there is only ONE God with “The Lord is One”. This is what truly set Israel apart from other nations. It should be what sets apart all believers in the God of scripture.
One disadvantage of not using a Siddur (a prayer book) in our service is that we do not have three little words that are present just before the Shema:
אל מלך נאמן
El melekh ne’eman
God, Faithful King.
The first letters of these three words, ( א ) aleph, ( מ ) mem, ( ן ) nun, spell out the Hebrew word “Amen”. The reason for adding these three words is to bring the number of the words in the Shema (in Hebrew) up to 248, to symbolize the proverbial 248 parts of the human body, thus indicating that the worshiper dedicates his/her entire body to the service of God.
When we pray the Shema, we cover our eyes. Why? Because we want to cut out any outside distractions, to enter into a place of holiness with God and to concentrate only upon Him.
After stating the initial declaration of our faith in God the remainder of the Shema consists of three paragraphs. In our service we only recite the first paragraph:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, will all your means. And these words which I command you this day shall be taken into your heart. Teach them diligently to your children, and talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. Bind them for a sign upon your hand and frontlets between your eyes. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
And you should love your neighbor as yourself.
This first paragraph of the Shema emphasizes several things
- To love God intensely.
- To teach Torah to our children.
- To talk of Torah on every possible occasion.
- To love our neighbor.
Love of God expresses itself best by a willingness to sacrifice and do things on behalf of the one loved. It implies the readiness to sanctify His name, which means to behave in ways that make God beloved to others, believers and non-believers alike. When it speaks of teaching Torah it means to “review it again and again” until we are extremely well versed in Torah.
The second paragraph of the Shema comes from Deut. 11:13–31 and deals with keeping the commandments of God and the rewards that He has for us if we keep them.
The final paragraph of the Shema comes from Numbers 15:37 – 41 and speaks specifically to the wearing of tzitzit (fringes) on the corners of the garments. It gives the reason—that every time we see them, we are reminded of God’s commandments, to keep them and to not stray from God. They are to serve as a daily reminder that God rescued each and every one of us and has a plan of salvation for you and me.
The Shema really is a prayer that we should say every day to remind us of our belief in the One True God who wants to have a personal relationship with us and so longs for us to come home to Him.