The Shema- Cornerstone of Jewish Faith
Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohainu, Adonai Echad.
If Judaism was to be summarized or affirmed in one sentence, that sentence might very well be the first line of the Shema. The Shema is a call for complete devotion, both mentally and physically. It proclaims the covenant received by the Jewish people and describes the close bond which seals a Jew's life and his religion together. It is beautiful in its simplicity, yet contains many levels of depth. In attempting to understand the fundamental elements of the Shema, one comes closer to understanding the essence of Judaism, as it was revealed to all Jews. I am including only the first line of the Shema in my examination. The remaining verses, although just as powerful, are an explanation of what to do with one's acceptance the first line. Almost every Jew can recite the first line of the Shema from memory; it may very well be the most well known Hebrew sentence in the world, (next to the blessing over wine).
The direct meaning of the Shema has grown with the Jews, earning itself new depths of meaning since it was first received at Mount Sinai. Most notably, Rabbi Akiva awakened and renewed the importance of the Shema in his noble resistance to the Romans. He physically embodied the phrase in the Shema that explains "And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might"
The simple structure of the Shema's first line centralizes one's thoughts. It is builds a simple and solid foundation for all of the particulars that follow it. There are six words, divided into three thoughts. Three and six are very natural numbers. Together they form 36, which is symbolic of a circle. In Hebrew letters, 36 represent a Double Chai. The Star of David is a six-pointed star, composed of two triangles. The first line of the Shema is very similar in shape to this. The Star of David shares not only the form of the Shema, but also its conceptual function as a shield and protector of Jews.
Why would an affirmation of belief start with Hear O Israel? Invoking both the speaker of the prayer and his entire religion as well, the Shema calls for the attention of all Jews. Most prayers are addressed to God Himself. The Shema has a markedly different form, partially because it is an excerpt from the Torah. It is a request and affirmation, directed both outward to all Jews, and more importantly, inwards to oneself. The receiving of the Shema on Mt. Sinai was for the Jews what the Bar-Mitzvah is for a child. It was a marking of passage into the realm of acceptance of the faith, and accountability for sustaining it. Thus, Jews throughout history reaffirm the commitment which was accepted at that eternally recurring moment, by reciting the Shema.
Hashem is identified in the center part of the first line. There are many Hebrew words that describe God, but the two words used in the Shema create a specific belonging with God. Essentially there are saying my Lord, our God. The first of the two words is interpreted to mean God of Mercy. This was the same word that was used when Moses witnessed the Burning Bush.
The second word Our God, is associated with a ruler, and justice. Putting these two words together defines a presence that is both supreme, yet compassionate, or merciful. To some people, absolute power and mercifulness are contradictory. This Shema calls for Jews to dispel this myth.
"The Lord is One" is the central theme and conclusion of this utterance. Recognizing this unity is to recognize our integral relationship to everything. Nothing is beyond the subject of this prayer, and everything falls under its domain. It also implies that the universe is in a state of symbiosis, where the creator and the created occupy the same infinite space. It symbolizes a Unity of the Cosmos. The Shema is the first time in the 5 books where this declaration is made . It symbolizes a progression from the point of being an "almighty". The term "Almighty" might imply that a separation exists between the Almighty, and his subjects. By declaring a Oneness, this interpretation is dispelled. Also, it removes the possibility for comparison to other things in the world, such as nature, or kings, or scientific theory.
Above all, what makes the Shema so timeless is that it weaves simplicity, depth and beauty together in way that cannot ever be replaced by different words, or other prayers. Recited every day, with intention and heart, the Shema keeps the Ruach of the Chosen People burning.
Scherman, N. Zlotowitz, Meir. 1993 The Chumash: Stone Edition, Mesorah Publications
Scherman, N. Zlowitz, M 1976 The Three Portions of the Shema, Mesorah Publications