April 21, 2024
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The Password: שמע ישראל

Sotah 42b

“It was toward the end of the war,” recounted my father, Dayan Grunfeld. “An Inter-Faith Hospitality Committee brought children from Europe to England for a short stay of recuperation. Protestant and Catholic priests were sent to the childrens’ camp to tend to the religious needs of the thousands that had arrived. When I enquired whether there were any Jewish children among them we were told that there were none in the camp. This sounded strange to me. So we decided to go to the camp. As we walked through the ranks of the children the idea struck us to recite the שמע ישראל, Shema Yisrael. The effect was indescribable. Like a flash from another world, these holy words went through the souls of a number of children who bore the Christian names of their foster parents. Childhood memories were awakened and with a desperate cry of “Mamme, Mamme” they ran to us and shouted, “We are Jewish children; take us back to our Mamme.”

And so the prayer of Shema Yisrael, which the Torah commands us to recite twice a day, has been the password to Judaism and often the password of Jewish martyrs to the world beyond.

Shema consists of three parts. The first paragraph commences with the words: שמע ישראל ה’ אלקינו ה’ אחד, Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem echad, “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” and ends with the words, וכתבתם על מזזות ביתך ובשעריך, “Uketavtam al mezuzot beteicha u’visharecha, write these words on parchments affixed to the doorposts of your houses and gates.”

By reciting the first paragraph of the Shema, the Jew accepts upon himself קבלת עול מלכות שמים, kabbalat ol Malchut Shamayim, the divine rule of God and His law. This is a personal reaffirmation each day that we are prepared to lead our lives according to the wishes and precepts of God. It is similar to the refrain of, נעשה ונשמע, “Na’aseh v’nishmah, we shall do and understand,” offered by the Jews before they received the Torah at Sinai. The first paragraph of the Shema is written in the singular and constitutes a dialogue between the individual and God. More than anything, it is a declaration of love, ואהבת את ה’ אלקיך, “V’ahavta et Hashem Elokechah, you should love God.” Obedience to His mitzvot is just another expression of that love.

The second paragraph of the Shema is national in character insofar as it is addressed in the plural to the nation of Israel in the Land of Israel. Love is a personal sentiment and it is difficult to command an entire nation to love. Nations are better incentivized by the economics of reward and punishment. והיה אם שמע תשמעו אל מצותי, “V’hayah im shamo’ah tishmeu el mitzvotei, and if you listen to my commandments, then I will provide rain for your land in its proper time … But if you turn aside and serve the gods of others then He will restrain the heavens and there will be no rain.”

The third paragraph of the Shema commencing with the words ויאמר ה’ אל משה לאמר, “Vayomer Hashem el Moshe lemor, and God spoke to Moses,” and ending with the words, אני ה’ אלקיכם, “Ani Hashem Elokeichem, I am the Lord your God,” is there to remind us of the Exodus from Egypt without which there could be no covenant between God and the Jews. Indeed, the first commandment, of which the Shema is an echo, says, אנכי ה’ אלקיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים, “Anochi Hashem Elokecha asher hotzeitichah me’Eretz Mitzrayim, I am God who has taken you out of Egypt.” The experience of slavery was a precondition to the giving of the Torah because only those who have suffered human oppression understand the freedom of the rule of God. The third paragraph also mentions the commandment of ציצת, tzizit, fringes, which reminds us of all the commandments of God. This is because the five knots of the tzitzit represent the five books of the Torah.

The Torah commands us to observe 248 positive commandments, which correspond to the 240 of a person’s body. It is as if in order to survive the dangers of the day, we need to cover all of our limbs with the protective armor of God’s מצות, mitzvot, commandments. More than we keep God’s mitzvot, His mitzvot keep us. And so the Shema talks about the importance of those mitzvot in which we wrap our entire bodies, like the mitzvot of, טלית, tallit, the prayer shawl, and תפלין, tefillin, phylacteries. Indeed, together with the words ה’ אלוקיכם אמת,Hashem Elocheichem emet, Hashem your God is One,” repeated by the reader at the end, there are248 words in the Shema. For those who recite the Shema at home and who, therefore, do not repeat the words Hashem Elokeichem Emet, reciting the words קל מלך נאמן, “Kel Melech ne’eman, God is the true King,” at the beginning of the Shema, makes up the number of 248.

We are told that on his deathbed, Jacob wanted to reveal to his 12 sons the secrets of the end of time and when and how the Messiah would come. But God did not want him to do this and so the horizons of the future closed and Jacob was no longer able to see them. Suspecting that his sons were perhaps non-believers and therefore not worthy of the vision, he questioned their faith. They answered him, “Hear O Israel, (referring to Jacob) the Lord our God He is One.” When Jacob heard that, he responded with the words ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד, “Baruch Shem kevod malchutoh le’olam va’ed, may God’s name be blessed forever.” Jacob understood that the mission of a father is not to prophesy the future for his children but to attempt to pass on to them the belief in One God. If a father succeeds in that mission, the future will take care of itself. These are the origins of the words Baruch Shem kevod malchutoh le’olam va’ed that we recite immediately following the Shema.

The Midrash relates that during Moses’ 40 day visit to the mountain of God, he overheard and memorized the angels’ secret prayer, “Baruch Shem kevod malchutoh le’olam va’ed.” When Moses returned to earth, he taught the prayer to the Jews but cautioned them to utter it under their breath so that the angels would not detect the infringement. On Yom Kippur, however, when we most closely resemble angels, we are asked to recite this prayer out loud.

The last letter of the word שמע, Shema, the letter ע and the last letter of the word אחד, echad, the letter ד are written in large bold type. Together they make up the word עד, eid, which means a witness. By reciting the Shema twice a day, we bear testimony to the existence of God in this world.


Raphael Grunfeld, a partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, received Semichah in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Harav Haga’on Dovid Feinstein, Zt”l. This article is an extract from Raphael’s book “Ner Eyal: A Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zerai’m” available for purchase at www.amazon.com/dp/057816731X or by emailing Raphael at [email protected].

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