In past weeks we have discussed the purpose of prayer, the Barkhu – the call to prayer, the Thanksgiving Blessing – the Shehecheyanu. This week we turn to the single most important prayer—The Shema—which is found in Deut. 6:4.
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.
The Shema starts with God speaking words to get our attention: “HEAR O ISRAEL.” We respond with “The Lord is God”. This is a personal declaration that the Lord is OUR God. We then go on to affirm that there is only ONE God. “The Lord is One”.
This is what truly set Israel apart from other nations—that they believed in only one God, not many gods. It should absolutely be the central declaration of our faith—that we believe that the Lord is our God, and that the Lord is One.
Our God is echad—a unity of one. Unfortunately, in Christianity there has been a tendency to divide the Lord—to break up the echad. God is spoken of as the harsh “Father” who must be appeased by the death of “the Son.” This contradicts the words of Yeshua who said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”
The Shema is the prayer we should say when we get up and when we go to bed at night. It should be said when we are full of hope and when all hope is gone and the end is near. Whether in moments of joy or despair, in thankfulness or in resignation, it is the expression of a believer’s conviction in the reality of One True God.
It is believed that this prayer was once read as part of the 1st & 2nd Temple services. After hearing the prayer recited by the priests, the people would then all reply with what we currently recite as the second half of the Shema:
Barukh shem kvod malkhuto l’olam va-ed.
Blessed is His glorious name. His kingdom is forever and ever.
This response is not a quotation from any biblical verse though it bears some similarities to a verse in Psalms (72:19).
It is customary for worshipers wearing a tallit to gather the fringes from the four corners of the tallit before beginning the Shema. As the tzi-tzi are a reminder of the commandments of God, as we pledge our allegiance to the One True God, we pledge to keep the commandments that He gave us as a demonstration of our love and dedication to Him.