Shema

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The Shema is one of only two prayers that are specifically commanded in Torah (the other is Birkat Ha-Mazon -- grace after meals). It is the oldest fixed daily prayer in Judaism, recited morning and night since ancient times. It consists of three biblical passages, two of which specifically say to speak of these things "when you lie down and when you rise up." This commandment is fulfilled by including the Shema in the liturgy for Ma'ariv (evening services) and Shacharit (morning services). Traditional prayerbooks also include a Bedtime Shema, a series of passages including the Shema to be read at home before going to bed at night. Note that, as in most Jewish texts, it puts evening before morning, expressing once again the idea that the day starts at night.

Part 1: Deuteronomy 6:4-9

The first part of the Shema begins with one of the best-known, most fundamental expressions of Jewish belief, and the one from which this prayer gets its name: Shema Yisra'el... (Hear, Israel). This expression is so fundamental that the most liberal Reform synagogue I know has these words carved on the outside of the building in foot-high letters (albeit in English). The end off that line, The Lord is One, expresses some core ideas about Judaism: monotheism (there is only one god) and that God is a single, unified whole (any attempt to describe him in attributes or pieces is merely an accommodation of our limited human understanding).

The second line of this part (Barukh sheim k'vod...) is actually not part of this passage from the Torah. It doesn't even appear anywhere in the Bible. It's a congregational response from the days of the Temple: whenever the High Priest would say the Divine Name, the people would respond with this line. Today, it is not said aloud except during Yom Kippur services. The rest of the time, it is read only in an undertone.

Later in this paragraph, it commands two important symbols of Judaism: tefillin and mezuzot. Mezuzot are cases containing passages of scripture that are attached to the doorposts of the house. Most Jewish houses have these on their doorposts. Tefillin are strapped to the arm and the forehead between the eyes during weekday morning services. Most Jews today don't attend weekday services, so this is a less common observance. The Hebrew word used in this passage for the thing between the eyes is totafot, and the meaning of the word is not clear. The root, Tet-Tet-Peh, does not occur in the Bible in any other context. Many Christian Bibles translate the word as "frontlets" but I have no idea what that's supposed to mean. Many Orthodox sources simply translate the word as tefillin. Some Conservative prayer books translate it as reminder, which is a good understanding of the purpose.

Part 3 introduces an third important symbol: tzitzit.

Sh'ma Yisra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

in an undertone

Barukh sheim k'vod malkhuto.
Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom
l'olam va'ed.
for ever and ever
V'ahav'ta eit Adonai Elohekha m'odekha.
And you shall love the Lord your God
b'khol l'vav'kha uv'khol naf'sh'kha.
with all your heart and with all your soul
uv'khol m'odekha
and with all your might
V'hayu had'varim ha'eileh
And it shall be that these words
asher anokhi m'tzav'kha hayom
that I command you today
al l'vavekha
[shall be] in your heart
V'shinan'tam l'vanekha
And you shall teach them diligently to your children
v'dibar'ta bam
and you shall speak of them
b'shiv't'kha b'veitekha
when you sit at home
uv'lekh't'kha vaderekh
and when you walk along the way
uv'shakh'b'kha uv'kumekha
and when you lie down and when you rise up.
Uk'shar'tam l'ot al yadekha.
And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand
v'hayu l'totafot bein einekha.
and they shall be for totafot between your eyes
Ukh'tav'tam
And you shall write them
al m'zuzot beitekha uvish'arekha
on the doorposts of your house and on your gates
 

Part 2: Deuteronomy 11:13-21

The second part of the Shema repeats many of the themes from the first part, but adds promises of rewards and punishments.

V'hayah im shamo'a tish'm'u
And it shall come to pass if you surely listen
ff
el mitz'votai
to My commandments
asher anokhi m'tzaveh et'khem hayom
that I command you today
l'ahavah et Adonai Eloheikhem
to love the Lord your God
ul'av'do b'khol l'vav'khem
and to serve him with all your heart
uv'khol naf'sh'khem
and with all your soul
V'natati m'tar ar'tz'khem b'ito
That I will give rain to your land in its time
yoreh umal'kosh
the early rains and the late rains
v'asaf'ta d'ganekha v'tirosh'kha v'yitz'harekha
that you may gather in your grain, your wine and your oil
V'natati eisev b'sad'kha liv'hem'tekha.
And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle
v'akhal'ta v'sava'ta
and you will eat and you will be satisfied
Hisham'ru lakhem pen yif'teh l'vav'khem
Beware, lest your heart be deceived
v'sar'tem va'avad'tem Elohim acheirim
and you turn and serve other gods
v'hish'tachavitem lahem
and worship them
V'charah af Adonai bakhem
And anger of the Lord will blaze against you
v'atzar et hashamayim
and he will close the heavens
v'lo yih'yeh matar
and there will not be rain
v'ha'adamah lo titein et y'vulah
and the earth will not give you its fullness
va'avad'tem m'heirah.
and you will perish quickly
mei'al ha'aretz hatovah.
from the good land
asher Adonai notein lakhem
that the Lord gives you
V'sam'tem et d'varai eileh
So you shall put my words, these
al l'vav'khem v'al naf'sh'khem
on your heart and on your soul
uk'shar'tem otam l'ot al yed'khem
and you shall bind them for signs on your hands
v'hayu l'totafot bein eineikhem
and they shall be for totafot between your eyes
V'limad'tem otam et b'neikhem
And you shall teach them to your children
l'dabeir bam
and you shall speak of them
b'shiv't'kha b'veitekha
when you sit at home
uv'lekh't'kha vaderekh
and when you walk along the way
uv'shakh'b'kha uv'kumekha
and when you lie down and when you rise up.
Ukh'tav'tam
And you shall write them
al m'zuzot beitekha uvish'arekha
on the doorposts of your house and on your gates
L'ma'an yirbu y'maychem
In order to prolong your days
vi-y'may v'naychem al ha-adamah
and the days of your children on the land
asher nishba Adonai la-avotaychem
that the Lord promised your fathers
latayt lahem
that he would give them
ki-y'may ha-shamayim al ha-aretz
for the days that the heavens are over the earth

Part 3: Numbers 15:37-41

This third part of the Shema does not mention the need to speak of these things morning and night. It talks about the tzitzit (fringes) that are traditionally worn like a string around the finger as a reminder of the commandments. It is included in the Shema because, like the tefillin and mezuzot that are commanded in the first two paragraphs, tzitzit are a symbol that serves as a reminder of the commandments. The passage is also included to fulfill the mitzvah to remember the Exodus from Egypt every day of our lives.

Vayo'mer Adonai el mosheh lei'mor
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying...
Dabeir el b'nei Yis'ra'eil
Speak to the children of Israel
v'amar'ta aleihem
and say to them
v'asu lahem tzitzit
they should make themselves tzitzit
al kan'fei vig'deihem l'dorotam
on the corners of their clothing throughout their generations
v'nat'nu al tzitzit hakanaf
and give the tzitzit of each corner
p'til t'kheilet
a thread of blue
V'hayah lakhem l'tzitzit
And they shall be tzitzit for you
ur'item oto
and when you look at them
uz'khar'tem et kol mitz'vot Adonai
you will remember all of the Lord's commandments
va'asitem otam
and do them
v'lo taturu
and not follow
acharei l'vav'khem v'acharei eineikhem
after your heart and after your eyes
asher atem zonim achareihem
which lead you astray
L'ma'an tiz'k'ru va'asitem
In order to remember and do
et kol mitz'votai
all of My commandments
viyitem k'doshim lei'loheikhem
and be holy for your God
Ani Adonai Eloheikhem
I am the Lord, your God
asher hotzei'ti et'khem
who lead you
mei'eretz Mitz'rayim
from the land of Egypt
lih'yot lakhhem leilohim
to be a God to you
Ani Adonai Eloheikhem
I am the Lord, your God

In services, the Shema is normally followed one of two other prayers: in the evening, Emet ve'Emunah (True and Faithful) in the evening, which emphasizes His powerful deeds for Israel (deliverance from tyrants, etc.); in the morning, Emet v'Yatziv (True and Certain), which emphasizes His characteristics (fair, faithful, awesome, powerful, etc.). The prayers are tied together when the chazzan loudly proclaims the last two words of the Shema with he first word of the next prayer: Adonai Eloheikhem Emes! (The Lord, Your God, is True! or It is True that the Lord is our God!)


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