Tefillah

Shema Yisrael

February 21, 2013

Shema Yisrael

After the recitation of the two blessings preceding Shema, we prepare to fulfill the Biblical
commandment of reciting the Shema each morning. We cover our eyes with our right hand to block
out any distractions and demonstrate that G-d is not seeable and say aloud the biblical verse– Shema
Yisrael Hashem Elokeynu Hashem Echad – translated as Hear Oh Israel the Lord is G-d the Lord is
One. When reciting the Shema we are commanded to accept the Yoke of Heaven upon us. Rav
Avigdor Miller zt”l writes that the word Shema – to Hear, is the word that was also used at the
moment of the original acceptance of G-d and His Torah at Sinai when the Jewish people cried out
“Naaseh Venishmah – We will do and we will hear”. As our forefathers declared 3328 years ago, so
do we declare today “Shema Yisrael..”.
Our sages teach that although Shema Yisrael is an actual verse in the Torah Deut 6:4 the first
declaration of the Shema dates back to when our father Jacob was on his deathbed. In Genesis 49:1
we read that Yaakov summons his children to his bedside to say farewell and reveal the secret
destiny of the Jewish people. When he is unable to invoke his divine insights he grows despondent
and concerned that perhaps his children (the original children of Israel) were not true to the G-d of
Israel. At that anxiety filled moment Jacob’s children recited in unison “Shema Yisrael… Echad.
This provides comfort and fulfillment to him at the closing moments of life on this earth.
Since then, “Shema Yisrael” has become the prayer recited by dying martyrs who died in the name
of the G-d. The Talmud relates the painful story of Rabbi Akiva’s death at the hands of the Romans
(Berachot 61B). As his soul was departing from his body he too recited the Shema Yisrael. It is
suggested that this is why Jews say Shema every night before going to sleep – before reaching a
somewhat deathlike unconsciousness, we faithfully recite Shema.
The words of the Shema are so significant that they fill our Tefillin boxes and our Mezuzot. We
attach the Shema to our bodies and our homes to demonstrate our love and commitment to Hashem
and His Torah. The opening word – Shema is written in the Torah with a large Ayin and the last
word of the phrase Echad shows a large Dalet. The two letters together spell Ayd which means
testimony. Saying the Shema every day in the morning and the evening is a testimony to ones
conviction to walk in the ways of G-d.
Take Home tip: It is documented that the guards outside the crematoria in
Auschwitz knew the words Shema Yisrael very well because every day they heard
thousands of our ancestors crying Shema in their final gasps. Our recital of the
Shema each day is a living testimony that they did not die in vain, rather to
sanctify the name of Hashem.