Women saying the Shema during prayer services at a synagogue in Medellin, Colombia. (Zion Ozeri/Jewish Lens)

The Shema

An affirmation of God’s singularity, its daily recitation is regarded by traditionally observant Jews as a biblical commandment.

The Shema is the centerpiece of the daily morning and evening prayer services and is considered by some the most essential prayer in all of Judaism. An affirmation of God’s singularity and kingship, its daily recitation is regarded by traditionally observant Jews as a biblical commandment.

Structure

The first verse of the Shema, from the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, is among the best-known in all of Jewish liturgy. It is recited at the climactic moment of the final prayer of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, and traditionally as the last words before death.

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד

She-ma yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad

Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One

This verse is followed by one line of text that is traditionally recited in an undertone:

בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד

Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va-ed

Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever

Ask the Expert: Covering Your Eyes for Shema

The remainder of the Shema prayer is taken from three biblical sources:

Deuteronomy 6:5-9:

וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽך
וְהָי֞וּ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ
וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ֖ בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ
וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל־יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 11:13-21

וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מִצְותַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֙ וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁכֶֽם׃ וְנָתַתִּ֧י מְטַֽר־אַרְצְכֶ֛ם בְּעִתּ֖וֹ יוֹרֶ֣ה וּמַלְק֑וֹשׁ וְאָסַפְתָּ֣ דְגָנֶ֔ךָ וְתִֽירֹשְׁךָ֖ וְיִצְהָרֶֽךָ׃ וְנָתַתִּ֛י עֵ֥שֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ֖ לִבְהֶמְתֶּ֑ךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ׃ הִשָּֽׁמְר֣וּ לָכֶ֔ם פֶּ֥ן יִפְתֶּ֖ה לְבַבְכֶ֑ם וְסַרְתֶּ֗ם וַעֲבַדְתֶּם֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶ֖ם לָהֶֽם׃ וְחָרָ֨ה אַף־יְהוָ֜ה בָּכֶ֗ם וְעָצַ֤ר אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֣ה מָטָ֔ר וְהָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן אֶת־יְבוּלָ֑הּ וַאֲבַדְתֶּ֣ם מְהֵרָ֗ה מֵעַל֙ הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם׃ וְשַׂמְתֶּם֙ אֶת־דְּבָרַ֣י אֵ֔לֶּה עַל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וְעַֽל־נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם וּקְשַׁרְתֶּ֨ם אֹתָ֤ם לְאוֹת֙ עַל־יֶדְכֶ֔ם וְהָי֥וּ לְטוֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֵיכֶֽם׃ וְלִמַּדְתֶּ֥ם אֹתָ֛ם אֶת־בְּנֵיכֶ֖ם לְדַבֵּ֣ר בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃ וּכְתַבְתָּ֛ם עַל־מְזוּז֥וֹת בֵּיתֶ֖ךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃ לְמַ֨עַן יִרְבּ֤וּ יְמֵיכֶם֙ וִימֵ֣י בְנֵיכֶ֔ם עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע יְהוָ֛ה לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶ֖ם לָתֵ֣ת לָהֶ֑ם כִּימֵ֥י הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the LORD your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil— I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the LORD’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the LORD is assigning to you. Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children—reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates— to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth.

Numbers 15:37-41

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם וְעָשׂ֨וּ לָהֶ֥ם צִיצִ֛ת עַל־כַּנְפֵ֥י בִגְדֵיהֶ֖ם לְדֹרֹתָ֑ם וְנָֽתְנ֛וּ עַל־צִיצִ֥ת הַכָּנָ֖ף פְּתִ֥יל תְּכֵֽלֶת׃ וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוות יְהוָ֔ה וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָתֻ֜רוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם׃ לְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכְּר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֶת־כָּל־מִצְותָ֑י וִהְיִיתֶ֥ם קְדֹשִׁ֖ים לֵֽאלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ אֲנִ֞י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצֵ֤אתִי אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִ֑ים אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

The LORD said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the LORD and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the LORD your God.

Meaning

The first verse of the Shema is considered the most essential declaration of the Jewish faith — the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. The passage that follows details the particular ways in which that faith should be lived: Love God with all of your being, teach it to your children, recite it when you wake and lie down, bind it as a symbol on your body.

The second section specifies what will happen if God’s commands are heeded — and if they are not. Submission to God’s command will result in rain in its proper season, gathering of grain, wine and oil, grass in the fields for cattle, and abundant food. But if God’s will is flouted and foreign gods are worshipped, none of those blessings will come.

To ensure that these commandments are remembered, the final section concerns the biblical commandment of tzitzit, the ritual fringes that serve as a reminder of God’s presence and which are worn by many Orthodox men at all times.

Recitation

From the verse in Deuteronomy 6:7, which commands to “Recite them … when you lie down and when you get up,” the rabbis determined that the Shema should be recited twice daily, in the morning and in the evening, which is why it is included in both the morning and evening services. The first verse of the Shema is also recited at the conclusion of Yom Kippur and is included in the Kedusha service on Shabbat. It is customary to recite the Shema, or a portion thereof, immediately before bedtime, and when one’s death is believed to be imminent. It is also a custom to cover one’s eyes while reciting the Shema.

Bedtime Shema

When reciting the Shema during the regular morning prayer service, it is surrounded by three long blessings. The first two, which precede the Shema, thank God for creation and revelation. The third, which follows the Shema, thanks God for redemption. The full text in Hebrew and be found here.

While the translation below uses masculine God language, numerous Jewish prayer books (siddurs) use gender-neutral language when referring to God. Most synagogues provide prayer books for use during services. However, if you are considering buying your own Jewish prayer book, we recommend you read How to Choose a Siddur, or Jewish Prayer Book.

The full translation follows:

Blessing One:

Praised are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, creating light and fashioning darkness, ordaining the order of all creation.

You illumine the world and its creatures with mercy; in Your goodness, day after day You renew Creation. How manifold Your works, O Lord; with wisdom You fashioned them all. The earth abounds with Your creations. Uniquely exalted since earliest time, enthroned on praise and prominence since the world began, eternal God, with Your praise and prominence since the world began, eternal God, with Your manifold mercies continue to love us, our Pillar of strength, protective Rock, sheltering Shield, sustaining Stronghold.

Our praiseworthy God with vast understanding fashioned the rays of the sun. The good light He created reflects His splendor; radiant lights surround His throne. His heavenly servants in holiness exalt the Almighty, constantly recounted His sacred glory. Praise shall be Yours, Lord our God, for Your wondrous works, for the lights You have fashioned, the sun and the moon which reflect Your glory.

Our Rock, our Redeemer, our King, Creator of holy beings, You shall be praised forever. You fashion angelic spirits to serve You; beyond the heavens, they all await Your command. In chorus they proclaim with reverence words of the living God, eternal King. Adoring, beloved, and choice are they all, in awe fulfilling their Creator’s will. In purity and sanctity they raise their voices in song and psalm, extolling and exalting, declaring the power, praise, holiness, and majesty of God, the great, mighty, awesome King, the Holy One. One to another they vow loyalty to God’s kingship, one to another they join to hallow their Creator with serenity, pure speech, and sacred song, in unison chanting with reverence:

Holy, holy, holy, Adonai tzeva’ot; the whole world is filled with His glory.

As in the prophet’s vision, soaring celestial creatures roar, responding with a chorus of adoration:

Praised be the glory of the Lord throughout the universe.

To praiseworthy God they sweetly sing: the living, enduring God they celebrate in song. For He is unique, doing mighty deeds, creating new life, championing justice, sowing righteousness, reaping victory, bringing healing. Awesome in praise, Sovereign of wonders, day after day in His goodness He renews Creation. So sang the Psalmist: “Praise the Creator of great lights, for His love endures forever.” Cause a new light to illumine Zion. May we all soon share a portion of its radiance. Praised are You, Lord, Creator of lights.

Blessing Two: Revelation

Deep is Your love for us, Lord our God, boundless Your tender compassion. You taught our ancestors life-giving laws. They trusted in You, our Father and King. For their sake graciously teach us, Father, merciful Father, show us mercy; grant us discernment and understanding. Then will we study Your Torah, heed its words, teach its precepts and follow its instruction, lovingly fulfilling all its teachings. Open our eyes to Your Torah, help our hearts cleave to Your mitzvot. Unite all our thoughts to love and revere You. Then shall we never be brought to shame. Trusting in Your awesome holiness, we will delight in Your deliverance. Bring us safely from the ends of the earth, and lead us in dignity to our holy land. You are the Source of deliverance. You have called us from all peoples and tongues, constantly drawing us nearer to You, that we may lovingly offer You praise, proclaiming Your Oneness. Praised are You, Lord who loves His people Israel.

Blessing Three: God Alone is the Eternal Redeemer

Your teaching is true and enduring. Your words are established forever. Awesome and revered are they, eternally right; well ordered are they, always acceptable. They are sweet and pleasant and precious, good and beautiful and beloved. True it is that eternal God is our King, that the Rock of Jacob is our protecting shield. He is eternal and His glory is eternal; He is God for all generations. His sovereign throne is firmly established; His faithfulness endures for all time.

His teachings are precious and abiding; they live forever. For our ancestors, for us, for our children, for every generation of the people Israel, for all ages from the first to the last, His teachings are true, everlasting. True it is that You are the Lord our God, even as You were the God of our ancestors. Our King and our ancestors’ King, our Redeemer and our ancestors’ Redeemer, our Creator, our victorious Stronghold. You have always helped us and saved us. Your name endures forever. There is no God but You.

You were always the help of our ancestors, a shield for them and for their children, our deliverer in every generation. Though You abide in the pinnacle of the universe, Your just decrees extend to the ends of the earth. Happy the one who obeys Your mitzvot, who takes to heart the words of Your Torah. You are, in truth, Lord of Your people, their defender and mighty King. You are first and You are last. We have no King or Redeemer but You. You rescued us from Egypt; You redeemed us from the house of bondage. The firstborn of the Egyptians were slain; Your firstborn were saved. You split the waters of the sea. The faithful You rescued; the wicked drowned. The waters engulfed Israel’s enemies; not one of the arrogant remained alive. Then Your beloved sang hymns and acclamation, extolling You with psalms and adoration. They acclaimed God King, great and awesome Source of all blessings, the everliving God, exalted in majesty, who redeems the meek, helps the needy and answers His people’s call. Praises to God supreme, ever praised is He. Moses and the people Israel sang with great joy this song to the Lord:

Who is like You, Lord, among all that is worshiped? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders? (Exodus 15:11)

The redeemed sang a new song for You. They sang in chorus at the shore of the sea, acclaiming Your sovereignty:

“The Lord shall reign throughout all time.” (Exodus 15:18)

Rock of Israel, rise to Israel’s defense. Fulfill Your promise to deliver Judah and Israel. Our Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, Adonai tzeva’ot is His name. Praised are You, Lord, Redeemer of the people Israel.

(Prayer translation via Siddur Sim Shalom: A Prayerbook for Shabbat, Festivals and Weekdays. Reprinted with permission.)

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