Shema’ (Part 1)—What We Know and What We Don’t

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Apr 25, 2014 / 5774 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer | Prayer

Ask almost any group of Jews to identify the most important Jewish “prayer” of all, and at the top of the list will almost certainly be the Shema’. Technically, it is not a prayer, for it is not addressed to God, but to the community of Israel. But that is a technical quibble, so (for now) let it pass. Traditionally, we say the Shema’ twice each day within the formal liturgy, and also just before going to sleep. The first sentence also appears in the kedushah of Musaf (perhaps for the benefit of latecomers to shul), and at the end of the final (Ne‘ilah) service of Yom Kippur. And if a person is conscious of his or her own approaching death, “Shema’ Yisra’el” is the last utterance as life ends. In rabbinic understanding, this sentence reflects “kabbalat ol malchut shamayim” (accepting the yoke of heavenly sovereignty). There are certainly many books that expound upon the Shema’, and several that are completely devoted to this extraordinary text; it is worth mentioning the magisterial volume edited by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, The Sh’ma and Its Blessings, in his My People’s Prayer Book series (Jewish Lights), which presents the work of a diverse array of scholars and theologians.

I have noted with students that people write books to explain what they do know, but I often stress it is at least interesting, and perhaps important, to make clear what we do not know. Given the importance of the Shema’ as a piece of liturgy, it is striking that we know nothing of the context in which an interesting and even profound text from Deuteronomy became a liturgical text of the Jewish people. Dr. Marc Brettler, a renowned scholar of Bible at Brandeis University, notes, “Strange as it may seem to us, the Sh’ma is of no particular significance in the Hebrew Bible” (Hoffman 86). In other words, no one in the Bible, not Abraham, Moses, Hannah, Jeremiah, or Ezra ever “recited the Shema’.” It would not have ocurred to them to do so.

The first question of the Talmud (BT Berakhot 2a) is, famously, “Me’ematai qor’in et Shema’ ba’aravin” (From what time may we recite the Shema’ in the evenings?). Now, in order to open a discussion by exploring the time for a specific act, it must “go without saying” that the act is accepted and known to all. So the Bible knows nothing of the Shema’, and for the Rabbis, it is already bedrock. To this day, we know nothing of how the love affair with this text was born. Who first thought that this paragraph should be recited daily, and on our deathbed? No one knows. Yet the text has woven itself into the individual and collective souls of the Jewish community. There are myriad customs and traditions, some ancient and some contemporary, that seek to enrich and deepen our understanding of the text, and the understandings that may arise from it. We are careful, even punctilious, about pronunciation and choreography, finding meaning in text and context. In the coming weeks, we will look (and listen) to some of these points of meaning to deepen our understanding and engagement with the Shema’.

Hear a traditional rendering of the Shema’ in three Jewish languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic).

Here is a contemporary meditative chant, based on a melody by Svika Pick.

As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at