What is Shema Yisrael?

Shema Yisrael (or Sh’ma Yisrael; שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל; “Hear, [O] Israel”) is a prayer. It is also the first two words of a section of the Torah, and is the title (better known as The Shema) of a prayer that serves as a centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services. The first verse encapsulates the monotheistic essence of Judaism:

“Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one”
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד

Observant Jews consider the Shema to be the most important part of the prayer service in Judaism, and its twice-daily recitation as a mitzvah (religious commandment). Also, it is traditional for Jews to say the Shema as their last words, and for parents to teach their children to say it before they go to sleep at night.

The verse is sometimes alternatively translated as “The LORD is our God; the LORD is one” or “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” (Biblical Hebrew rarely used a copula in the present tense, so it has to be inferred; in the Shema, the syntax behind this inference is ambiguous.) The word used for “the LORD” is the tetragrammaton YHWH.

The term “Shema” is used by extension to refer to the whole part of the daily prayers that commences with Shema Yisrael and comprises Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13–21, and Numbers 15:37–41. These sections of the Torah are read in the weekly Torah portions Va’etchananEikev, and Shlach, respectively.

Shema Yisrael at the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem

Shema Yisrael at the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem


Originally, the Shema consisted of only one verse: Deuteronomy 6:4 (see Talmud Sukkah 42a and Berachot 13b). The recitation of the Shema in the liturgy, however, consists of three portions: Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13–21, and Numbers 15:37–41. The three portions are mentioned in the Mishnah (Berachot 2:2). The three portions relate to central issues of Jewish belief. In the Mishnah (Berakhot 2:5) the reciting of the shema was linked with re-affirming a personal relationship with God’s rule. Literally, reciting the shema was stated as “receiving the kingdom of heaven.” [“Heaven” is a metaphor for God. The best texts of the Mishnah, Kaufmann and Parma, do not have the addition “yoke” that is found in later printed Mishnahs: “receive the {yoke of the} kingdom of Heaven.” The original statement appears to have been “to receive the kingdom of Heaven”.]

Additionally, the Talmud points out that subtle references to the Ten Commandments can be found in the three portions. As the Ten Commandments were removed from daily prayer in the Mishnaic period (70–200 CE), the Shema is seen as an opportunity to commemorate the Ten Commandments.

There are two larger-print letters in the first sentence (‘ayin ע and daleth ד) which, when combined, spell “עד”. In Hebrew this means “witness”. The idea thus conveyed is that through the recitation or proclamation of the Shema one is a living witness testifying to the truth of its message. Modern Kabbalistic schools, namely that of the Ari, teach that when one recites the last letter of the word “‘ecḥad'” (אחד), meaning “one”, he is to intend that he is ready to “die into God”.


Shema Yisrael

The first, pivotal, words of the Shema are, in the original Hebrew:

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד׃,
Sh’ma Yisra’el, YHWH ‘eloheinu, YHWH ‘eḥad.

Rabbinic Judaism teaches that the Tetragrammaton (י-ה-ו-ה), YHVH, is the ineffable and actual name of God, and as such is not read aloud in the Shema but is traditionally replaced with אדני, Adonai (“LORD“). For that reason, the Shema is recited aloud as:

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ecḥad – “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.”

The literal word meanings are roughly as follows:

Sh’ma — listen, or hear and do (according to the Targum, accept)
Yisrael — Israel, in the sense of the people or congregation of Israel
Adonai — often translated as “LORD”, it is read in place of the YHVH written in the Hebrew text; Samaritans say Shema, which is Aramaic for “the [Divine] Name” and is the exact equivalent of the Hebrew “ha-Shem”, which Rabbinic Jews substitute for “Adonai” in a non-liturgical context such as everyday speech.
Eloheinu — the plural 1st person possessive of אֱלֹהִים Elohim, meaning “our God”.
Echad — the unified and cardinal number one אֶחָד

This first verse of the Shema relates to the kingship of God. The first verse, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD,” has ever been regarded as the confession of belief in the One God. Due to the ambiguity of the possible ways to translate the Hebrew passage, there are several possible renderings:

“Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God! Adonai is One!” and,
“Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God – Adonai alone.”

Many commentaries have been written about the subtle differences between the translations. There is an emphasis on the oneness of God and on the sole worship of God by Israel. There are other translations, though most retain one or the other emphases.

Baruch Shem

בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד – “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever”

The second line is a rabbinic addition and is recited silently during congregational worship (except on Yom Kippur, when it is recited aloud). It was originally a liturgical response in use in the Temple when the name of God was pronounced and took the form of Baruch shem k’vod l’olam, “Blessed be his glorious name” (Psalm 72:19). However, in time the words malchuto (“His kingdom”) and va’ed (“for ever and ever”) were added. Malchuto was introduced by the rabbis during Roman rule as a counter to the claim of divine honors by Roman emperors. Va’ed was introduced at the time of the Second Temple to contrast the view of the minim (heretics) that there is no life after death.


The following verses are commonly referred to as the V’ahavta according to the first word of the verse immediately following the Shema, or in Classical Hebrew V’ahav’ta meaning “and you shall love…”. They contain the command to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5). The Talmud emphasizes that you will, at some point, whether you choose to or not, and therefore uses “shall” – future tense – love God.

Then verse 7 goes on to remind the community to remember all the commandments and to “teach them diligently to your children and speak of them when you sit down and when you walk, when you lie down and when you rise”, to recite the words of God when retiring or rising; to bind those words “on thy arm and thy head” (classically Jewish oral tradition interprets as tefillin), and to “inscribe them on the door-posts of your house and on your gates” (referring to mezuzah).

V’haya im shamoa

The passage following the Shema and V’ahavta relates to the issue of reward and punishment. It contains the promise of reward for serving God with all one’s heart, soul, and might (Deut 11:13) and for the fulfillment of the laws. It also contains punishment for transgression. It also contains a repetition of the contents of the first portion -but this time spoken to the second person plural, (Whereas the first portion is directed to the individual Jew, this time it is directed to the whole community, all the Jews).


The third portion relates to the issue of redemption. Specifically, it contains the law concerning the tzitzit (Numbers 15:37-41) as a reminder that all laws of God are obeyed, as a warning against following evil inclinations and in remembrance of the exodus from Egypt. For the prophets and rabbis, the exodus from Egypt is paradigmatic of Jewish faith that God redeems from all forms of foreign domination. It can be found in the portion “Shlach Lecha” in the book of Numbers.

The first paragraph of the Shema seen in a Tefillin scroll

The first paragraph of the Shema seen in a Tefillin scroll


In summary, the content flows from the assertion of the oneness of God’s kingship. Thus, in the first portion, there is a command to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and might, and to remember and teach these very important words to the children throughout the day. Obeying these commands, says the second portion, will lead to rewards, and disobeying them will lead to punishment. To ensure fulfillment of these key commands, God also commands in the third portion a practical reminder, wearing the tzitzit, “that ye may remember and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God.”

The full content verse by verse, in Hebrew, English transliteration, and English translation, can be found on the jewfaq.org website.

The second line quoted, “Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever”, was originally a congregational response to the declaration of the Oneness of God; it is therefore often printed in small font and recited in an undertone, as recognition that it is not, itself, a part of the cited Biblical verses. The third section of the Shema ends with Numbers 15:41, but traditional Jews end the recitation of the Shema by reciting the first word of the following blessing, Emet, or “Truth” without interruption.

Jewish women and the Shema

Main article: Women in Judaism

In Orthodox Judaism, women are not required to daily recite the Shema (as a command from the Torah), as with other time-bound requirements which might impinge on their traditional familial obligations, although they are obligated to pray at least once daily without a specific liturgy requirement, and many fulfill that obligation through prayers like the Shema.

Conservative Judaism generally regards Jewish women as being obligated to recite the Shema at the same times as men.

Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism do not regard gender-related traditional Jewish ritual requirements as necessary in modern circumstances, including obligations for men, but not women, to pray specific prayers at specific times. Instead, both genders may fulfill all requirements.

Accompanying blessings

The Benedictions preceding and following the Shema are traditionally credited to the members of the Great Assembly. They were first instituted in the liturgy of the Temple in Jerusalem.

According to the Talmud, the reading of the Shema morning and evening fulfils the commandment “You shall meditate therein day and night”. As soon as a child begins to speak, his father is directed to teach him the verse “Moses commanded us a law, even the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4), and teach him to read the Shema (Talmud, Sukkah 42a). The reciting of the first verse of the Shema is called “the acceptance of the yoke of the kingship of God” (kabalat ol malchut shamayim) (Mishnah Berachot 2:5). Judah ha-Nasi, who spent all day involved with his studies and teaching, said just the first verse of the Shema in the morning (Talmud Berachot 13b) “as he passed his hands over his eyes” which appears to be the origin of the Jewish custom to cover the eyes with the right hand whilst reciting the first verse.

The first verse of the Shema is recited aloud, simultaneously by the hazzan and the congregation, which responds with the rabbinically instituted Baruch Shem (“Blessed be the Name”) in silence before continuing the rest of Shema. Only on Yom Kippur is this response said aloud. The remainder of the Shema is read in silence. Sephardim recite the whole of the Shema aloud, except the Baruch Shem. Reform Jews also recite the whole of the first paragraph of the Shema aloud.


During Shacharit, there are two blessing before the Shema and one thereafter. These numbers, two before and one after, are based on the Mishnah Tractate Berachos, Page 11, which states: “In the morning one blesses two before and one after,” though there is a question in Jewish law as to whether one recites these blessing on the Shema, or surrounding the Shema. The conclusion that has been drawn is that they are to be blessing surrounding the Shema, because the structure is similar to that of blessings of the Torah, and there is doubt as to whether such blessings would actually enhance the Shema.

The two blessings that are recited before the Shema are Yotzer ohr and Ahava Rabbah/Ahavat Olam. The blessing after is known as Emet Vayatziv.


During Maariv, there are two blessings before the Shema and two after. The two before are HaMaariv Aravim and Ahavat Olam. The two after are Emet V’Emunah and Hashkiveinu. Ashkenazim add Baruch Hashem L’Olam outside of Israel on weekdays.

Overall, the three blessings in the morning and four in the evening which accompany the Shema sum to seven, in accordance with the verse in Psalms: “I praise You seven times each day for Your just rules.”

Bedtime Shema

Before going to sleep, the first paragraph of the Shema is recited. This is not only a commandment directly given in the Bible (in Deuteronomy 6:6–7), but is also alluded to from verses such as “Commune with your own heart upon your bed” (Psalms 4:4).

Some also have the custom to read all three paragraphs, along with a whole list of sections from Psalms, Tachanun, and other prayers. Altogether this is known as the K’riat Shema she-al ha-mitah. According to Arizal, reading this prayer with great concentration is also effective in cleansing one from sin. This is discussed in the Tanya.

Other instances

The exhortation by the Kohen (“priest”) in calling Israel to arms against an enemy (which does not apply when the Temple in Jerusalem is not standing) also includes Shema Yisrael (Deuteronomy, 20:3Talmud Sotah, 42a).

According to the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva patiently endured while his flesh was being torn with iron combs, and died reciting the Shema. He pronounced the last word of the sentence, Eḥad (“one”) with his last breath. Since then, it has been traditional for Jews to say the Shema as their last words.

Roi Klein (d. 2006), a major in the IDF, said the Shema before jumping on a live grenade to save his fellow soldiers, in accordance with the traditional Jewish practice of reciting the Shema when one believes one is going to die.


Arnold Schoenberg used it as part of the story to his narrative orchestral work A Survivor from Warsaw (1947).

In Parade, a musical based on true events, the main character Leo Frank, wrongly accused of the murder of a child worker at the pencil factory he manages, recites the Shema Yisrael as a vigilante gang kidnap and hang him in the final scenes of the work.

Pop versions have been published by Mordechai ben David and Sarit Hadad.

In Pi, Max Cohen and Lenny Meyer can be seen reciting the first three verses of the Shema.

In The Shoes of the Fisherman, Anthony Quinn, as the fictional Pope Kiril, explores the back streets of Rome disguised as a simple priest, and recites the Shema at the bedside of a dying Roman Jew.

Reggae singer Matisyahu recites the Shema in his songs “Got no water” and “Tel Aviv’n”.

Yaakov Shwekey in his “Shema Yisrael,” used the story of Rabbi Eliezer Silver’s saving Jewish children hidden in Christian monasteries following the Holocaust by reciting the first line of the Shema.

Singer Justin Bieber says the Shema before each public performance with his manager Scooter Braun, who is Jewish.


In episode 9 of season 3 of the television series The Man in the High Castle (TV series), the character Frank Frink recites the Shema just before he is executed.

Divine Unity of the Shema in Hasidic philosophy

See also: Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah, and Hasidic philosophy

Schneur Zalman of Liadi articulated Divine Unity in Hasidic philosophy

Schneur Zalman of Liadi articulated Divine Unity in Hasidic philosophy

The second section of the Tanya brings the mystical panentheism of the founder of Hasidic Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov, into philosophical explanation. It outlines the Hasidic interpretation of God’s Unity in the first two lines of the Shema, based upon their interpretation in Kabbalah. The emphasis on Divine Omnipresence and immanence lies behind Hasidic joy and devekut, and its stress on transforming the material into spiritual worship. In this internalisation of Kabbalistic ideas, the Hasidic follower seeks to reveal the Unity and hidden holiness in all activities of life.

Medieval, rationalist Jewish philosophers (exponents of Hakirah–rational “investigation” from first principles in support of Judaism), such as Maimonides, describe Biblical monotheism to mean that there is only one God, and his essence is a unique, simple, infinite Unity. Jewish mysticism provides a philosophic paradox, by dividing God’s Unity into God’s essence and emanation. In Kabbalah and especially Hasidism, God’s Unity means that there is nothing independent of his essence. The new doctrine in Lurianic Kabbalah of God’s tzimtzum (“withdrawal”) received different interpretations after Isaac Luria, from the literal to the metaphorical. To Hasidism and Schneur Zalman, it is unthinkable for the “withdrawal” of God that “makes possible” Creation, to be taken literally. The oyxmoron of Tzimtzum only relates to the Ohr Ein Sof (“Infinite Light”), not the Ein Sof (Divine essence) itself. God’s infinity is revealed in both complementary infinitude (infinite light) and finitude (finite light). The “withdrawal” was only a concealment of the Infinite Light into the essence of God, to allow the latent potentially finite light to emerge after the God limiting tzimtzum. God himself remains unaffected (“For I, the Lord, I have not changed” Malachi 3:6). His essence was One, alone, before Creation, and still One, alone, after Creation, without any change. As the tzimtzum only limits God to a concealment, therefore God’s Unity remains Omnipresent. In the Baal Shem Tov’s interpretation, Divine providence affects every detail of Creation. The “movement of a leaf in the wind” is part of the unfolding Divine presence, and is a necessary part of the complete Tikkun (Rectification in Kabbalah). This awareness of the loving Divine purpose and significance of each individual and his free will, awakens mystical love and awe of God.

Schneur Zalman explains that God’s divided Unity has two levels, an unlimited level and a limited one, that are both paradoxically true. The main text of medieval Kabbalah, the Zohar, describes the first verse of the Shema (“Hear Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One”) as the “Upper level Unity”, and the second line (“Blessed be the Name of the Glory of His Kingdom forever”) as the limited “Lower level Unity”. Schneur Zalman gives the Chabad explanation of this. In his Kabbalah philosophy, all Creation is dependent on the limited, immanent, potentially finite, “Light that Fills all Worlds”, that each Creation receives continually. All is bittul–nullified to the light, even though in our realm this complete dependence is hidden. From this perspective, of God knowing the Creation on its own terms, Creation exists, but the true essence of anything is only the Divine spark that continuously recreates it from nothing. God is One, as nothing has any independent existence without this continual flow of Divine Will to Create. This is the pantheistic Lower Level Unity.

In relation to God’s essence, Creation affects no change or withdrawal. All Creation takes place “within” God. “There is nothing but God”. The ability to create can only come from the infinite Divine essence, represented by the Tetragrammaton name of God. However, “It is not the essence of the Divine, to create Worlds and sustain them”, as this ability is only external to the Infinite essence “outside” God. Creation only derives from God’s revelatory antropomorphic “speech” (as in Genesis 1), and even this is unlike the external speech of Man, as it too remains “within” God. From this upper perspective of God knowing himself on his own terms, the created existence of Creation does not exist, as it is as nothing in relation to Zalman’s philosophically constructed concept of God’s essence. This monistic acosmism is the “Upper Level Unity”, as from this perspective, only God exists.

In Christianity

See also: Christian views on the Old Covenant

The Shema is one of the Old Testament sentences quoted in the New Testament. The Gospel of Mark 12:29–31 mentions that Jesus of Nazareth considered the opening exhortation of the Shema to be the first of his two greatest commandments and linked with a second (based on Leviticus 19:18b): “The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” In Luke 10:25-27 the Shema is also linked with Leviticus 19:18, only by the questioner, before Jesus’ agreement. The verses Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18b both begin with ve’ahavta, “and you shall love”. In Luke’s Gospel, it appears that this connection between the two verses was already part of cultural discussion or practice.

Theologians Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch noted that “the heart is mentioned first (in Deuteronomy 6:5), as the seat of the emotions generally and of love in particular; then follows the soul (nephesh) as the centre of personality in man, to depict the love as pervading the entire self-consciousness; and to this is added, “with all the strength,” i.e. of body and soul”.

The Shema has also been incorporated in Christian liturgy, and is discussed in terms of the Trinity. In the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, the Shema is read during the Night Prayer or Complines every Saturday, thereby concluding the day’s prayers. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer in use in Canada since 1962, has included the Shema in its Summary of the Law. Since 2012, when the Anglican Use version of the BCP was adapted for use in Canada, it has been recited by Roman Catholics as well.

The Orthodox Church of the Culdees utilize the Shema in the Daily Services.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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