Shema isn’t a prayer.
Colloquially we tend to refer to any words meant for God as prayer. That can mean requests, praise, or gratitude. But None of those sentiments are found anywhere in the Shema. So what is the Shema and why do we regard it as so important?
Essentially, the Shema is a motto or mantra of the Jewish people. Our daily affirmation if you will. Speaking technically, the Shema breaks down into 4 distinct parts.
In last week’s parsha Va’eschanan we got the first two parts (the big line and the first paragraph.) This week, in parsha Eikev, we get the 2nd paragraph. For the most part, the two paragraphs are the same. They talk about loving God, teaching Torah to your children, wearing tefillin, hanging a mezuzah on your door, etc. But there are some paramount differences. What are these differences and are they so important that they necessitate reciting practically the same paragraph twice in the morning and twice in the evening?
Parts of Whole
The first big difference you can’t see if you are only looking at the English. But compare the two words בְּכָל־לְבָֽבְךָ֥ with all your heart, where as in the 2nd paragraph it reads בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם, with all your heart but the your is in the plural. 2nd person plural is hard to recognize in English. The point being is that the entire first paragraph is in the singular, but much of the 2nd paragraph is in the plural, speaking to the Jewish community as a whole.
From this distinction we have a clue about the other differences between the paragraphs. So what else is different?
Reward and Punishment
The concept of reward and punishment based off of our actions is a very murky if not volatile topic. Why the good suffer and the wicked prosper is quite possibly the most sounded objections to the concept of God. Though Judaism does speak about it, a proper answer is a complex one that is beyond the scope of this blog. However one element of the answer is contained in the Shema. During the first paragraph, there is no mention of reward or punishment. However the second paragraph mentions gathering grain, oil, and wine, proper rain fall, and being satisfied. But if one’s heart turns from God, His wrath will turn upon us and all those blessings will disappear. Why the difference?
The idea is that the Jewish people are interconnected. An individual who sins may never feel their consequences in this world. And if a tragedy befalls someone (God forbid) it may have nothing to do with any of their actions. However when problems arise in the community, it is the community’s responsibility to come together to comfort, reflect, and fix the problem. The things we do affect the people around us. (For more explanations on reward and punishment check out The Way of God and the Tanya.)
God Doesn’t Get All My Stuff
Another difference is the way we serve God. In the first paragraph we are supposed to love God “with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mehodecha” (I’ll translate that in a sec). But in the second paragraph, mehodecha is left out. Why the omission?
First off, what does it mean to love/serve God with all your heart? Some say that means that when you pray you have to actually mean it (something known as kevanah). Others point to a reference that the Hebrew has an extra letter which hints that you should serve God with both your good inclination as well as your evil inclination. What does it mean to serve God with all your soul? The word itself is nefesh, which is one of the parts of the soul, the one that’s most connected to our body. So some say it means we have to serve God with our life. Meaning the aim of your life should be to fix the world and connect to God. Others say you should be prepared to give up your life if you’re put in a situation where you have to transgress one of the three big sins (murder, idolatry, sexual immorality.) So we can understand how an individual and a community might be expected to fulfill those expectations.
What about this third idea, mehodecha? It can be translated it as might, as being, or as money. My understanding is that it refers to all the resources we have at our disposal. So for some it would be wealth, others time, and for some it could even be their physical strength. Seems simple enough, but why isn’t it included in the communal version?
I think this speaks to the nature of people. We can’t tell how much intention the person next to us is praying with. Nor can we tell if they will ever sacrifice their life should the situation arise. But there is no shortage of people willing to pass judgment on how a neighbor spends their money. I believe the Torah doesn’t wish to encourage people to fixate on such materialism or foster jealousy. Also I believe these mitzvahs are aspirational. To serve God with all your heart and all your life, is a life’s work. But when it comes to our resources, individuals can work towards that, but society as a whole will always need to spend some of those resources on the mundane and physical.
A Nation of One
Probably the most notable difference between the two versions is that the second paragraph ends with the line, “in order that your days may increase and the days of your children, on the land which the Lord swore to your forefathers to give them…”
After having just finished the three weeks and Tisha B’av, we should all be acutely aware that disunity of the Jewish people lead to expulsion from the land. So the end of the second paragraph warns us of that exact fate. It may be cliche to remark “united we stand, divided we fall” but I find it odd that the Jewish people didn’t just get expelled to one single place but to countries all over the world. As if to drive home the point that if we couldn’t find unity in our own land, we wouldn’t just have to be exiled but scattered.
Judaism isn’t meant to be practiced alone. Across the tradition we find strength in numbers. Whether it is a community of ten for a minyan, a group of three for grace after meals, learning in partnership (chevrusa), or sharing in joy as well as grief, clearly the most impactful elements of Judaism are unlocked through the community. Side note: there are even some cases that if you break a law in partnership with another person, there’s no punishment for the transgression. Though an individual may need to personally connect to God alone, the ultimate goal of the religion as a whole is a partnership to build a thriving society. That’s when things get real. The consequences, the reward, and the land to support it. So twice a day we need to remind ourselves just how important that is.
Thank you for digging into the Shema. I’m a Liberal Jew here in the UK (so your Reform, I guess) and the full Shema isn’t something that is addressed in our shuls. I’ve just recently taken the full Shema into my own daily practice, so this is timely. On a separate note, I really enjoy your writing style – thank you.
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Thank you so much! S’koyach (congratulations) on taking on the full Shema. Your comment means a lot. Have a great Shabbos.
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Timely article indeed. I just received my first set of Mishnah (The Mishnah Elucidated, 23-vol by ArtScroll) and read all the good intro and then chapter 1 of “Berachos” of the first order Zeraim. It opens with the laws of the “Shema.” I did not know this, as I had never had a volume of Mishnah in my hand, just the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. And, I certainly learned something, especially since I started “The Gates of Repentance” by Rabbi Jonah (13th c.) at the same time, and he emphasizes these same ancient statutes. Thanks for your posts, blessing to you in your studies. — in North Texas
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Nice. Thanks for the comment. Where in North Texas? I’m from Dallas.