Thursday, May 7, 2009

Shema Yisrael - why is this prayer so famous?

Shema Yisrael is the most renowned prayer in Judaism. In fact, it is not exactly a prayer, but rather a confession, a declaration addressed to God proclaiming: " Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One". "Shema" is usually used by extension to refer to the full version of the daily prayer but is best known for its first psalm. The full version of Shema Yisrael includes three paragraphs from the Torah: Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37–41. These verses comprise the biblical commandants to say Shema Yisrael twice a day - before sunrise and shortly after nightfall- and affix a mezuzah to every doorpost. The verses that comprise Shema Yisrael are written on a scroll that must be kosher (written by a Sofer Stam according to Jewish law ) and this scroll is placed inside a mezuzah case.

Shema Yisrael mezuzah case by Caesarea Arts

These words express the foundation of the Jewish religion: the belief that the God of Israel is the only God.

Every Jewish person is commanded to recite this prayer twice a day. Every child knows it and every parent must pass it to the children. Jewish women are not obligated to recite Shema. However, it is common practice among all Jews - women, men, and children – to do so. It must be because these words touch the soul of every Jewish believer.

Calling out the words Shema Yisrael has become an integral part of Jewish collective memory after the Holocaust. Hundred of thousands of Jews who were led to their death called out Shema Israel before the Nazis murdered them. That is another important aspect of the prayer, and some argue the most important: by saying Shema Yisrael the believer declares his unconditional faith even in the gravest of moments- we accept the fact the God who has brought the Good is the same God who brought the bad.

There is interseting folkolre about a great Tzadik- a righteous man- called Rabbi Akiva Ben Yoseph. Rabbi Akiva who lived in the second century was imprisoned by Tyrannus Rufus and painfully tortured - his flesh was being torn with irons tools. Even as he was suffering, Rabbi Akiva was reciting his prayers calmly. When asked by his tormenter whether he was a sorcerer since he seemed to be feeling no pain, Rabbi Akiba replied with no hesitation, "I am no sorcerer; but I rejoice at the opportunity now given to me to love my God with all my life.” Rabbi Akiva, who has become a legend, died on the Attonememt Day reciting the Shema with his last breath . His last word was Echad - One in Hebrew (Talmud Brakhot).

A Shema Yisrael pendant is a very popular Jewish jewelry accessory. I've already introduced you to a Star of David pendant inscribed with these two sacred words. Here is another Shema yisrael pendant alsomt mythical – in some mysterious way the craftspeople of an Israeli studio design wrote the prayer on an Opalite stone. If you watch the image closely you can see the words beautifully written in Hebrew.

Shema Yisrael pendant with an Opalite stone by Golan studio

Below, the song Shema Yisrael performed by Israeli singer Sarit Hadad, who might be the most successful female singer in Israel for the past decade. The song was written as a prayer, asking God to strengthen our souls when times are hard. This song has become an Israeli hymn.

Listen to the song Shema Yisrael with English subtitles (well, sort of…)

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