What is the Shema?

Knesset Menorah Shema Inscription
Inscription on the Knesset Menorah in Israel. SuperJew/WikiCommons

One of the most well-known prayers in Judaism is the ​shema, a blessing that finds its place throughout the daily prayer service and well into the evening hours at bedtime.  

Meaning and Origins

Shema (Hebrew for "hear") is a shortened form of the full prayer that appears in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21, as well as Numbers 15:37-41. According to the Talmud (Sukkah 42a and Brachot 13b), the recitation comprised only one line: 

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהֹוָה אֶחָד

Shema Yisrael: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. 

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one (Deut. 6:4).

During the period of the Mishnah (70-200 CE), the recitation of the Ten Commandments (also called the Decalogue) was removed from the daily prayer service, and the Shema is considered to have taken its place as an homage to those commandments (mitzvot)

The longer version of the Shema highlights central tenants of Jewish belief, and the Mishnah viewed it as a means of reaffirming one's personal relationship with God. The second line in brackets is actually not from the Torah verses but was a congregational response from the time of the Temple. When the High Priest would say the divine name of God, the people would respond with, "Baruch shem k'vid malchuto l'olam va'ed." 

The English translation of the full prayer is:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one. [Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever.]

And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes. And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.

And it will be, if you hearken to My commandments that I command you this day to love the Lord, your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give the rain of your land at its time, the early rain and the latter rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil. And I will give grass in your field for your livestock, and you will eat and be sated. Beware, lest your heart be misled, and you turn away and worship strange gods and prostrate yourselves before them. And the wrath of the Lord will be kindled against you, and He will close off the heavens, and there will be no rain, and the ground will not give its produce, and you will perish quickly from upon the good land that the Lord gives you. And you shall set these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes. And you shall teach them to your sons to speak with them, when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way and when you lie down and when you rise. And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates, in order that your days may increase and the days of your children, on the land which the Lord swore to your forefathers to give them, as the days of heaven above the earth.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue [wool] on the fringe of each corner. This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray. So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord, your God. (Translation via Chabad.org)

When and How to Recite

The first book of the Talmud is called Brachot, or blessings, and it opens with a lengthy discussion about precisely when the Shema needs to be recited. The Shema itself clearly says "when you lie down and when you rise up," which would suggest that one should say the blessing in the morning and in the evening.

In the Talmud, there's a discussion about what constitutes evening and, ultimately, it's connected to the rhythms of the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem.

According to the Talmud, the Shema was recited when the Kohanim (priests) went to the Temple to eat the offering for being ritually impure. The discussion then went into just about what time that was, and concluded that it was around the time that three stars were visible. As for the morning, the Shema can be recited at first light. 

For Orthodox Jews, the full Shema (written above in English) is recited twice a day during morning (shacharit) and evening (ma'ariv) services, and the same is true for many Conservative Jews. Although the rabbis agreed that the prayer is most powerful in Hebrew (even if you don't know Hebrew), it's fine to recite the verses in English or whatever language is most comfortable for you. 

When one recites the first verse, "Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad," the right hand is placed upon the eyes. Why do we cover the eyes for the Shema? According to the Code of Jewish Law (Orach Chayim 61:5), the answer is actually very simple: When saying this prayer, one should not be distracted by anything external, so closing the eyes and covering the eyes, concentration is increased.

 

The next verse — "Baruch shem k'vid malchuto l'olam va'ed" — is recited in a whisper, and the rest of the Shema is recited at regular volume. The only time the "Baruch" line is recited aloud is during Yom Kippur services. 

Also, before falling asleep, many Jews will recite what is called the "bedtime shema," which is technically the first line and the first full paragraph (so the words "Hear, O Israel" through "your gates"). There are some introductory and concluding prayers that some include, while others do not. 

Although many recite the Shema in the evening services, the rabbis derived the need for the "bedtime shema" from verses in Psalms

"Commune with your own heart upon your bed" (Psalms 4:4)

“So tremble, and sin no more; ponder it on your bed, and sigh” (Psalms 4:5).

Bonus Facts

Interestingly, in the Hebrew text, the word for God is yud-hey-vav-hey (י-ה-ו-ה), which is the actual name of name that is not pronounced by Jews today.

Hence, in the transliteration of the prayer, the name of God is pronounced as Adonai

The Shema is also included as part of the mezuzah, which you can read about here