The Shema: The Essence of Judaism in Six Words (A Deep Dive Into Prayer)
We’ve started a new series at my congregation, “Deep Dive into Prayer” (pretty appropriate for Seaside Jewish Community 🌊)
At certain services, we will focus in on one prayer or one section of the liturgy, and “dive deep” by exploring it’s history and meanings, while also experiencing it in new ways. The first one was on March 12, 2022, when I shared this teaching about the Shema, with an exercise at the end from my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. I wanted to share it with all of you at Wellsprings of Wisdom, too.
by Rabbi Dr. Julie Hilton Danan
Let’s take a deep dive into prayer and focus on one line, just 6 words, words that define us as a people and have even changed the course of history:
Sheme Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad
Or let me call this, #essenceofjudaisminsixwords (essence of Judaism in six words).
Let me take you back: In the aftermath of World War II, Youth Aliyah workers from Israel circulated among the refugees in Europe’s displaced persons camp, looking for Jewish children who had lost everything. They met destitute young orphans who had no conscious memory of their early homes or prewar lives. How to know if they are Jewish? The workers say to them each child in turn: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad. When the children showed a moment of recogniction or said the words with them, they had found another Jewish child to bring home to the Land of Israel.”
Flash forward a few decades. As a rabbi, I visit at the bedsides of infirm and frail Jews who seem lost in their own worlds, not responding to anything I say. But when I sing the Shema, they brighten and sing along with me.
What is the power of this six word prayer that is among the first words taught to Jewish children, the prayer that Jews aspire to make our last words? The Shema encapsulates in one sentence the essence of the Jewish mission in the world. (Yes, the full Shema has three biblical paragraphs that go after it, but for now I will focus on six Hebrew words of the first line).
The odd thing about the Shema is that it’s a prayer that isn’t exactly a prayer. Consider: who is it addressing? Not God, but us, Israel: Listen Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. It is calling on us, more a declaration of belief than a plea or a praise.
The words of the Shema, straight from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4), are first said by Moses to the people of Israel near the end of his life, as he gives them instructions on how to live as a people. If you look in a Torah scroll (and some Siddurim / Jewish prayer books), you will notice that they are written a special way: the ayin—the last letter in Shema, and the dalet, the last letter in Echad, are written extra big. One reason that has been given is so that we pronounce them correctly. But the more spiritual reason that has been given for this is that those two letters together spell out a Hebrew word, “’Ed,” meaning “witness.”
When we say the “Shema,” we are witnesses to our most profound truths as Jews. But what are we witnessing? A while back on social media there was a hashtag called “Six word stories.” #sixwordstories Just like it said, you shared six words to tell a story. The Shema is the Jewish version. In six words:
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad
we get an essence of Judaism.
Let’s unpack those six words, one by one:
Shema: Listen! Hearken! Understand!
Deep listening is the beginning of making peace and creating a better world. That’s a profound truth that I learned from my friends and mentors, Len and Libby Traubman. Len, of blessed memory, was a pediatric dentist in San Mateo California, and his wife Libby, may she merit long life, was in social work. But their real profession was being lamed-vavniks (those legendary humble righteous people who sustain the world).
Life changed for the Traubmans in 1969. I found out recently that the two things changed their life trajectory that year were the birth of their first child, and seeing an image of our earth from outer space, the very that my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Reb Zalman) called the most important religious icon of our age. Motivated by this radical new perspective, the Traubmans became global citizens. They devoted their lives to dialogue, from Cold War citizen diplomacy between Americans and Russians, to the Middle East, to Africa, and to their own California neighborhood. They started the first and longest lasting Palestinian-Jewish living room dialogue group, that inspired many others, including one that I started in San Antonio with a Palestinian Muslim Imam. The Traubmans constantly shared hopeful news of peace and made connections between people around the world, and it all started with one idea: LISTEN to others, HEAR their stories. By doing so you turn a stranger and potential enemy into a friend.
Len described it like this: “What is distinctive about dialogue as a way of communication is very different than ‘conversation’ which is shallow, conversational, and usually pretty safe. And ‘discussion’ which is like percussion–batting a ping-pong ball back and forth, waiting for what I want to say. And it is definitely not ‘debate’ which is I win, you lose; we learn nothing; and we become further apart. Dialogue has a really new quality of listening and listening to learn, not waiting for what I’m going to say next. And what it does is it dignifies both people. It dignifies the listener and it dignifies the person who is being listened to.”
How much we need this approach to dialogue right now! The word Shema and the Shema prayer call us to live our lives as deep listeners, bridging gaps and increasing understanding.
There is also a hint in the word “Shema,” to seeing. Reb Zalman adds that the big letter Ayin in the word “Shema” tells us to see as well as to hear. That’s because the word “ayin” means, “eye.” So the word Shema is telling us to open our ears to hear others, to listen to their stories, and to open our eyes wide to see others.
The second word: Yisrael / Israel.
That’s us. We are the children of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. One Midrash holds that the real first time the Shema was recited was when Jacob/Israel’s sons said it to him on his deathbed: “Listen Israel—listen Dad—we are all faithful to the covenant and we all declare that God is one.” And then he answered “Thank G-d! Praise the one whose glory fills all time and space –Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Le’olam Va’ed.” You probably recall that Jacob got his name changed to Israel when he wrestled with an angel. Rabbi Arthur Waskow famously translates Yisrael as “God-wrestler.”
Shema Yisrael: As Jacob-Israel’s heirs, we are bidden to see and hear, and then to struggle mightily on God’s behalf to make a better world.
Words three and four: Adonai Eloheynu,
are usually translated, “The Lord is Our God.” But really, the meaning is much deeper. Start with Adonai. We say Adonai (“our Lord”), but that’s really just a substitute word for the original four letter name of God from the Torah: Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, a name tradition says is too holy for us to pronounce. It’s not about a childish image of an old man in the sky. The four letter Divine name could mean: “I will be what I will be” – all tenses past-present-future – undefinable – the awesome ungraspable life force that fills and creates our world without ceasing. And at the same time, those four letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey are intimate. In ancient times, the vav was pronounced like a “W,” as it still is in Yemenite Hebrew. So it’s Yud – Hey – Wav – Hey.
Breathing in and out through your mouth, you can hear the sounds
(as you breathe in)
(as you breathe out)
They are the sounds of breathing, especially when we pronounce the Vav as a Wav, as it was in ancient times. Y-H-W-H. Rabbi Arthur Waskow calls the Four Letter Name of God, “the Breath of Life.”
And then, Eloheynu, Our God, “Our Elohim.”
In Biblical Hebrew, Elohim can mean both God and Judge. In mystical thought, Elohim can mean the immanent God, that experience of divinity we sense close to us, filling our world and all of nature, the Shechinah. Jewish mystics pointed out that in Gematria, Hebrew numerology, Elohim is equivalent to Ha-Teva, nature.
Word Five: We come back to Adonai: YHWH, the paradox of God, utterly transcendent and beyond us, yet as close as our breath, our life spirit…
and this time we affirm:
God is ONE: Echad! Which can mean there is only one God. It can also mean that God is totally unique. And it implies: God is a Unity and therefore we are all part of a great Unity. Ultimately all of us are one, all connected. “One, every single one, each one joined and united in the One.”
So Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad: Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One, can be understood more fully: Listen and see, you wrestlers for God! YHWH, the indefinable, transcendent, divine life force –that’s our God! This is our ultimate measure, the only thing that can we judge life by. And that same, un-namable God, that breath of all life—is ONE, is a unity, and therefore nothing is outside it and we are all part of a whole!”
Or to make it simpler, we can just say: Hashtag #essence of Judaism in six words.
So think now, if we would truly live our lives bearing witness to the meaning of the Shema, the essence of our faith, what would that mean every day:
To really listen, To really see,
To declare for all the world that the mystery of creation fills everything and all,
And that ultimately we are all one in the one!
How would that change how we deal with:
People who look different? Have different opinions? The needy, the poor, the immigrant? The person we walk by on the street? How would it change how we regard: Endangered species? Trees and bird and animals? Our whole world?
One thing that really opened the Shema for me was learning this simple but powerful Shema exercise from my teacher, Reb Zalman. In this exercise, you say that first line of the Shema five times, each time addressing it to someone else.
First: The traditional way, imagining as if you are hearing Moses say the Shema for the first time. He said God’s actual name of the YHWH, but since we no longer pronounce that aloud, you could say “Adonai,” or “Yah.” …
Now proclaim the Shema to yourself, to your own name, Hebrew or English. For example: “Shema Julie!: Or “Shema Yehudit Tovah!
Now offer the Shema to someone else, someone you want to hear this essential message, to one person or a group. Like: “Shema, my grandchildren,” or “Shema, leaders of the world…”
Think for a moment who needs the message. …
Now back to the traditional words, but this time as if it’s your last Shema, like you are pouring out your soul. We can think of all the Jews who said these words word with their last breath, and join with them.
Finally, once more, say the Shema, this time with all the intentions held together. . . .
Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Le’olam Va’ed! “Through time and space, your glory shines, Majestic One.” (Reb Zalman’s Translation).
When you say it at home before bed, or you say it in Shul (synagogue) on Shabbat or shouted out at the end of Yom Kippur, remember these six words bear witness to the essence of our faith. May we merit not only to say them but to live by them: to listen and wrestle and affirm the unity behind all diversity.
May it be so! Amen.
Here is a beautiful video by Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann to learn more: