What is the Shema?

Brendan McGuigan

Shema is a term given to a set of daily prayers recited by members of the Jewish faith. They are affirmations of the sovereignty of God, and the singular nature of God, underpinning the monotheistic elements of Judaism. The Shema is recited twice a day, during both morning and evening prayers, and are considered a commandment, or mitzvah, separate from the commandment simply to pray.

Morning prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Morning prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The Shema begins Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad, meaning roughly Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One. Different traditions recite the Shema standing or sitting. Traditionally it was recited while standing, in order to show it a special reverence, and to demonstrate that it was an act of testifying for the Lord, as in Jewish courts testimony is always given standing. In the 9th century a sect of Judaism used the standing to signify that the Shema was the only truly divinely originated segments of the Torah, and so mainstream Jews stopped standing while reciting it.

The Shema contains lines from the Torah.
The Shema contains lines from the Torah.

These days, different congregations have different practices during the Shema. Most Orthodox Jew sit while reciting the Shema, because studying is done while sitting, and recitation from the Torah is considered study. Many Conservative and Reform Jews stand again, however, to demonstrate respect for the recitation. Jews who wear the tallit usually hold the fringes with the left hand while the Shema is recited, and when the commandments are mentioned the fringe is kissed out of love.

Shema is a term given to a set of daily prayers recited by members of the Jewish faith.
Shema is a term given to a set of daily prayers recited by members of the Jewish faith.

The first line of the Shema is considered by most to be the most important, and special reverence is given to those words. Often the eyes are covered with the hands to remove all distraction, and great focus should be given to the words’ meaning.

A blessing is given next, harkening back to the days of the Temple. The line is Barukh shem kvod malkhuto l’olam va-ed, or roughly: Blessed is the Name of His Glorious Majesty, for ever and ever. Since this line does not originate from the Torah itself, it is usually spoken more quietly than the other parts of the Shema, although on Yom Kippur it is often spoken with full force.

Next come various passages from the Torah. The first passage continues the beginning of the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:5-9. It demonstrates one’s commitment to the Lord, and a desire to study and pass on the knowledge of God’s Word. It reads roughly: You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words, which I command you today, shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you are sitting at home, and when you go on a journey, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be jewels between your eyes. You shall inscribe them on the doorposts of your house, and on your gates.

The second long passage from the Shema is from Deuteronomy 11:13-21. It deals with the commandments passed down by God, and the obligation to carry out those commandments. It also discusses the ideas of punishment and of reward for the faithful. It talks about the sending of rain for those who serve God with all their hearts, and the furiousness of God with those who turn from God and worship false gods.

The third long passage of the Shema is from Numbers 15:37-41. It deals with the obligation to wear the fringed tzitzit, to remember the commandments God passed down to His people. It also reaffirms the obligation to follow the commandments, and reminds the faithful that, I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord your God. Truth.

In the Reform movements one often sees the second and third long paragraphs omitted from the recitation of the Shema, since the Reform concept of retribution is very different, and the commandment to wear the tzitzit is not accepted. The last two verses, however, of Numbers 15:40-41, are still included.

In Judaism, the shema is recited twice a day, during morning and evening prayers.
In Judaism, the shema is recited twice a day, during morning and evening prayers.

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Discussion Comments


@Grivusangel -- I think of the Jews praying these prayers in places like Auschwitz and Dachau. Anne Frank and her family started and ended their days with these prayers. Considering it in that way, for me, brings me closer to these people.

I am reminded of the scene in "Schindler's List" when Itzhak (Ben Kingsley) and the other factory workers are doing their jobs and Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) reminds them it is nearing sundown on Friday. They stop, light candles and begin the Sabbath prayers. A beautiful scene.


These are truly beautiful prayers. As a Christian, I think of how Moses and Aaron and King David, Elijah and Elisha and Isaiah prayed these prayers, and also that Jesus prayed these, too.

Much like the Kaddish, which is recited at death, the prayers praise God and reflect His sovereignty.

It would be a good thing if all Christians learned much more about the Jewish faith, since the Christian faith owes so much to it. We should learn about it because it helps us understand Jesus in His time, our own New Testament and why people in the Old Testament did what they did. It even helps us understand world history, since the Jews have played such a pivotal role in it!

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