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Shema: The Commentaries Above and Below the Text

Posted on August 29, 2017 by Rabbi Jonah Zinn

When our son was born, we began the tradition of singing Shema to him every night when we put him to sleep.

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְיָ אֶחָֽד:

Sh’ma, Yisrael: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad!

Listen, Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!

Reciting Shema together each evening offers a special moment for our family to gather, reflect and pray. We sing together as we hold our son tightly; then we tell him how much we love him and give him a kiss. Twenty-one months later our son now sings along with Jamie and me as we recite Shema every night.

Our son in not unique. Shema is the first Hebrew prayer many people learn. The rabbis determined that Shema should be recited twice daily, in the morning and in the evening, and so it has become a fixture in the morning and evening worship services. Many Jews recite Shema shortly after they awake in the morning and as they prepare to go to sleep each evening. This act is known as “K’riat Shema,” reading, calling or an exclamation of these words which comes from Deuteronomy 6:4. The ritual of reciting Shema helps us ensure we set aside time for prayer and contemplation twice each day. It is a powerful opportunity for connection to Jewish tradition and the divine. Mishkan HaNefesh offers all the opportunity to reflect anew on the meaning of this ancient affirmation many easily recite from memory.

Whenever Shema is found in Mishkan HaNefesh it is accompanied by commentaries which provide perspective and insight into the prayer, its meaning and the practice of reciting it. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, Mishkan Hanefesh introduces Shema with a sort of kavanah or intention.

We accept God’s sovereignty in reverence,

treating others with love, devoting ourselves to Torah.

May this be our will as we witness…

The machzor (High Holiday prayer book) then provides a commentary on the bottom of the page explaining that in this central affirmation of Jewish faith we address each other rather than God. In doing so it notes that we bear witness to God’s existence, that there is only one God, and the God is not only singular but also unique. With this statement, we also bear witness and acknowledge our responsibility to love, study and teach God’s words, a duty that vahavtah, the paragraph which follows Shema expands upon. Finally, Mishkan HaNefesh notes that the Hebrew letters eyin and dalet are enlarged here just as they are enlarged in the biblical text. These two letter form the word eid which means witness as another reminder of the awesome task with which we are charged.

In their wisdom, with their use of these commentaries, the editors of Mishkan Hanefesh guide us in a central theme of these High Holidays. They remind us of the opportunity pursue a new path in the year ahead and envision our lives differently. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur call us to look deep inside ourselves and focus on all aspects of our lives. This work begins with introspection and self-examination and continues as we seek to turn away from past missteps and reshape our lives in keeping with the highest values of our tradition.

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