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;
- Deuteronomy 6:4-9,
- Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and
- 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:
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.”