What is the Shema?

The Shema is the title of a prayer that Jews recite twice daily, every morning and every evening. This prayer, often considered the most important prayer in Judaism, is taken from Scripture and is composed of Deuteronomy 6:4–9, Deuteronomy 11:13–21, and Numbers 15:37–41. These recitations of Scripture are meant to express a commitment of loyalty to keeping covenant with God by loving Him fully, obeying His ways, and teaching children to do the same.

The prayer is called the Shema because Shema is the first word of the prayer in Hebrew. In Hebrew, shema does not simply mean "hear" as in ears perceiving sound and the brain processing information. Rather shema means listening, taking heed, and responding with action to what has been heard. So this twice daily prayer calls Jews to live out their commitment to God, putting into practice their love for Him.

Jesus references the Shema in Mark 12:28–31 when responding to the question of which commandment is the most important. "And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, 'Which commandment is the most important of all?' Jesus answered, 'The most important is, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." The second is this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." There is no other commandment greater than these.'" Seeing how Jesus affirmed the importance of loving the one true God with every aspect of ourselves, it behooves Christians to familiarize themselves with this important Jewish prayer. It is printed below for that purpose.

"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deuteronomy 6:4–9).

"And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full. Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you. You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth" (Deuteronomy 11:13–21).

"The LORD said to Moses, 'Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD your God'" (Numbers 15:37–41). [Please note that this third section is recited only in the morning when the tallit (garment with tassels) is put on.]

The first portion of the Shema asserts the oneness of God and the supremacy of His kingship, commanding people to love God with their whole selves and teach their children to do the same. The second portion shows how obeying these commands leads to rewards, but disobeying them leads to punishment. It also repeats contents of the first portion of the prayer, but this time it does so in second person plural, speaking to the whole community rather than just the individual. The third portion helps people fulfill these commands by wearing the tzitzit (tassels) as a visual reminder of their commitment to keeping their covenant with God.

Things like the tzitzit are part of the Mosaic covenant and not necessary for Christians today. But the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and all of it is profitable for helping us know God and for equipping us to live for Him (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Christians can look to the words of the Shema as a beautiful expression of God's kingship and covenant-keeping ways and as a call to live out a love for God that not only hears but also obeys His call to love Him and love our neighbors (James 1:22–25; John 15:1–17; 1 John 3:16–18, 23–24; 4:7–12).

Related Truth:

What is the Torah?

What do Jews believe? What is Judaism?

What do Jews believe? What is Judaism?

What are the differences between the Old and New Testaments?

Why should we read the Old Testament?

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