The Shema is considered one of the most paramount pieces of scripture in all of Judaism. The verse found in Devarim (Deuteronomy) isn’t so much a prayer as it is the motto or daily affirmation of the religion and bares with it the requirement to recite twice daily. Much of the prayer service, though important, if done without intention (in Hebrew: Kevanah) still fulfills their requirements. That’s not the case with the Shema. But due to that twice daily obligation, I’ve recently found it difficult to stay focused and not let my mind wander, reciting it by rote.
So in an effort to inspire my kevenah, I’ve decided to dedicate a series of posts as a sort of deep dive on Shema. Supposedly the Shema is one of the most robust concepts in the Jewish tradition and I’ve barely scratched the surface with my previous Shema postings. (Which you can read here, here, and here. )
Shema at a Glance
Laying it all out, Shema has the main line…
…after which we quietly utter, “Baruch Shem kavod malchuso layolam v’ed.” From here we immediately move on to the first paragraph usually referred to as the “V’ahavta.”
Then we continue on to two additional paragraphs which I’ll cover in another post. That should fulfill the mitzvah requirement. However, on top of those recitations, there are two (rather long) blessings we say before Shema and there are blessings after. The blessings change whether we are saying Shema in the morning or in the evening. Then, if that weren’t enough, there is a special “bed time Shema” we are supposed to say, which to me seems a little superfluous if we’ve already said it at night. That should be it though right?
But then there are times in the Torah service the congregation recites it. And if we really want to do the offerings portion of the service fully, there’s another Shema there. Also if you go to an evening service (maariv) too early, you’d have to repeat Shema again. So all in all, we could end up saying Shema like 6 times in a day? Not to mention the fact that the phrase is supposed to be the last thing your mouth utters when you die, so there’s another one!
Zero in. Or One in.
Let’s forget all that for a second and just focus in on the main line. Shema Yisorel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad. (Note that I’ve adjusted some pronunciations so as not to actually write God’s name.) I don’t think you need me to tell you that the main idea is that God is One. But the concept of God is One is more than just that there is no other God. The Oneness of God is such a deep concept that it’s a little tricky to wrap our heads around. The true essence of God is completely spiritual and not at all physical. But our world is physical and God is everywhere, so is that a contradiction? If we have free will and choice, does that make us distinct from God? And if Hashem is Echad, can He be limited at all? Finally, if God is One, does that mean the evil in the world is God, too?
These seem to be musings for a philosophy class. However, where philosophy rarely extends beyond intellectual exercise, Judaism demands contemplation to achieve clarity so that we can take action, unfettered by doubt. In short, we do need to resolve this. So let’s ask another question. If the main idea of the Shema is “Hashem Echad” why do we need the rest of the sentence?
Schematics of Shema
“Shema Yisorel.” It’s not just “Hear O’Israel” as it is often translated. The word shema, which does mean to hear, has a nuance… to internalize. Israel refers to the children of Israel, so all Jews everywhere. Whatever is being said in the Shema, it needs to become part of our being. It should imbue our outlook. There is a psychological term which describes the pervasive frameworks that we habitualize. Let’s say your friend Steve is a really hard worker. So you see him in the break room with his head down. You might think, “Wow, Steve must have worked himself to exhaustion!” Meanwhile your friend Billy is a slacker. You see Billy in the break room with his head down in the exact same way as Steve. But this time you might think, “There’s Billy wasting time, being lazy again!” Same action, different framework of interpretation. Do you know what this psychological outlook is called? Schema. Kinda looks like Shema, doesn’t it? The Shema should create a schema within us that God is One.
No Other Powers?
Okay, so we’re good with Shema Yisroel, and Hashem Echad. But what is Hashem Elokeinu doing for us? When this phrase is translated we often see it as “Our Lord, is God.” What does that mean? Remember earlier, I brought up the question that if God is One, then what does that mean for evil in the world? The Hitlers, the hunger, and the corona viruses of history, what is God’s part in all of that? Either God is all powerful or all good, but clearly not both, right? Other religions rectify this by saying there are two powers (at least). That Satan wars against God. That the powers of darkness are eternally in conflict against Heaven.
That’s not how Judaism handles the problem. The opening blessing of Shema deals with this directly, but I’ll go into that another time. Instead, I’ll look at the names of God listed. Hashem is a substitution (as I said above) for the holiest name of God, the Yud-Hey-Vuv-Hey name. That Name is synonymous with kindness, a personal involvement that wants nothing but pleasant goodness for you. Elokeinu on the other hand is associated with judgment and rules of law. If you jump off a cliff, I don’t care how much you believe in God, you’re probably not walking away from that. In fact, if you look at the beginning of the Torah, the Name for God used is Elokim (the same name, except Elokeinu means our God). Elokim made a world of physical rules, boundaries, and judgement. The Laws of Nature as it were. However, in the second chapter of the Torah, the creation story is told again, but this time with Hashem and Elokim, introducing the aspect of mercy and kindness.
When we say Hashem Elokeinu, we are to recognize that though God is our Father who loves us, there is also a world of rules, judgement, and consequences that we are responsible for. We all have heard of parents who want to be their children’s best friends and abhor disciplining them in any way. Clearly that is a recipe for disaster. So with us, there must be repercussions for what we do. That may look evil, but part of our job in this world is to rid it of “evil.” When we perfect the world, it makes us better. This duality of Hashem Elokeinu is an essential part of our Shema schema.
But it is all One.
With this dual nature of a loving, merciful God balanced with a judging, rule centric God, we can now look at the final piece, Hashem Echad. God is One. These two natures are just two sides of the same coin. But the final phrase isn’t Elokeinu Echad, it’s Hashem Echad. The Shema ends emphasizing that the true nature of God is kindness and mercy. Even though things may seem hard, painful, and even evil, ultimately it is kindness and mercy. While we are in it, it may be impossible to see. We may never see how it is good in our lifetime. However, when we adopt the Shema as our outlook, it helps us color our perspective that everything that happens to us is for the good. At that point, the world stops being something that you live in that influences your emotions (I had a good day vs I had a bad day), and it becomes a constant communication with the Almighty that can help guide you to becoming the happiest, healthiest, best version of yourself possible.