The Shema

Most Jews today know the Shema and recite it as part of their daily devotions. It is said upon rising in the morning, and before going to sleep each night.

It is the central prayer in the Jewish Siddur (prayer book) and is often the first section of scripture that a child learns.

It is a declaration of faith, a pledge of allegiance to One God.

The words of the Shema have been central in Jewish worship, liturgy, and prayer for thousands of years.

Few people, Jew or Christian, know that the Shema was the answer that Jesus gave the Pharisee when asked the question, “which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt. 22:36-37).

As early as the second century C.E., the Shema consisted of three portions from the Hebrew Scriptures that were to be recited every morning and evening;

  1. Deuteronomy 6:4-9,
  2. Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and
  3. Numbers 15:37-41.

The first passage declares the acceptance of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, the second passage declares the acceptance of the yoke of God’s commandments, and the third passage deals with putting on tzitzit , a reminder to keep all of God’s commandments. 

Let’s look at the three passages of scripture together:


Deuteronomy 6:4  Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD:
5  And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
6  And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
7  And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
8  And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.
9  And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.
Deuteronomy 11:13  And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto my commandments which I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul,
14  That I will give you the rain of your land in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil.
15  And I will send grass in thy fields for thy cattle, that thou mayest eat and be full.
16  Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them;
17  And then the LORD’S wrath be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest ye perish quickly from off the good land which the LORD giveth you.
18  Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes.
19  And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
20  And thou shalt write them upon the door posts of thine house, and upon thy gates:
21  That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the LORD sware unto your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth.
Numbers 15:37  And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
38  Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue:
39  And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the LORD, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring:
40  That ye may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God.
41  I am the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD your God.

But what does it mean to accept the yoke of the Kingdom of God upon one’s life?
And how would this fulfill God’s purpose for Israel and the nations?

The Yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven
The first paragraph of the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, speaks of the acceptance of the yoke of God’s Divine Kingdom and rule. The Shema has been described as a declaration of faith, a creed. It has often been called the watchword of Israel’s faith (Wilson, 1989, p. 123). When the Shema is read, it speaks of the absolute singularity of God, it affirms faith in the one and only God who created the universe, it affirms the premise that God alone rules the universe; He revealed the Torah to Israel and will one day redeem the world from injustice and strife by righting all the wrongs and ushering in a better age (Hoffman, 1997, p. 19). In this paragraph Moses addressed the individual Jew (Donin, 1980, 151) and the foreigner who sojourns with Israel (Ex. 12:38):

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Dt. 6:4-9, Jewish Study Bible, JSB).

Attention or obedience
The Hebrew word Shema expresses the idea “to hear with attention or obedience”. To “yoke” means to link, join, unite, to bond or couple together for a specific work. The Hebrew word “yoke” (ole) in rabbinic literature serves as a metaphor, it means a yoke on the neck; it signifies animals linked to the plow and to one another making farming possible. Thus, the yoke of Heaven constituted hearing with attention and accepting the existence of God as one and unique with a public declaration that there was no other (Kravitz and Olitzky, 1993, p. 50).

The decision to submit to God in prayer (not the prayer itself) is the equivalent of the acceptance of the yoke of God upon one’s neck. The Shema establishes the approach to God, the undertaking to work alongside God as an instrument of His holy purpose in submission to Him out of fear and trembling (Levin, 2002, p. 130). The Shema asserts monotheism, when spoken publicly it is a proclamation of exclusive loyalty to YHVH  as the sole Lord of Israel and its recitation was given legal significance. The prayer was regarded as a legally binding oath to carry out the requirements of Torah (Berlin and Brettler, 2004, p. 380).

The Shema in Hebrew, transliterated into the Western alphabet, “Shema yisrael hashem elokeinu hashem echad”

This video features the legendary Shlomo Carlebach singing-telling a story of belief in God that occurred during the attack on Israel and the Jewish People. The Arabs attacked from Israel’s southern and northern borders on the Yom Kippur holiday – the holiest day of the year. The images from the Yom Kippur War create a very powerful background to the story. Ultimately, the Israeli Army won a smashing victory against it’s enemies, but at a great cost of life to the young fledgling Jewish State.

And in this video, Charlie Harary expounds on the powerful aspects of the “Shema” prayer. He explains that trust in God, and remembering that all is God-given through saying the words of the Shema prayer will lead us to “navigate life with a certain calm, clarity, and faith.”


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