Shema Yisrael are the first two words of a section of the Hebrew Bible that is used as a centerpiece of all Jewish prayer services and closely echoes the monotheistic message of Judaism. The message of the Sh’ma is applicable to every Jew at all times, at every conscious moment. Indeed, embodied in the Sh’ma is one of the most profound and mystical concepts known to man: Yichud Hashem — the Oneness of God.
The third portion relates to the issue of redemption. Specifically, it contains the law concerning the tzitzit as a reminder that all the laws of God are to be obeyed, as a warning against following the evil inclinations of the heart, and, finally, in remembrance of the exodus from Egypt. For the prophets and Rabbis, the exodus from Egypt is paradigmatic of Jewish faith that God will redeem them from all forms of foreign domination.
The commandment to recite the
Shema , twice daily is ascribed by Josephus to Moses (“Antiquities” 6:8), and it has always been regarded as a divine commandment (see, however, Sifre, Deut. 31.)
The reading of the
Shema morning, and evening is spoken of in the Mishnah as a matter of course, and rests upon the interpretation of (“when thou liest down, and when thou risest up”; Deut. 6:7, see Talmud tractate Berachot 2a).
The Benedictions preceding and following the Shema are traditionally credited to the members of the Great Assembly. They were first instituted in the Temple liturgy.
According to the Talmud, the reading of the Shema morning and evening fulfils the commandment “You shall meditate therein day and night”. As soon as a child begins to speak his father is directed to teach him the verse “Moses commanded us a law, even the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4), and teach him to read the “Shema'” (Talmud, Sukkot 42a). The reciting of the first verse of the Shema is called the acceptance of the yoke of the kingship of God” (Mishnah Berachot 2:5). Judah ha-Nasi, being preoccupied with his studies, put his hand over his eyes and repeated the first verse in silence (Talmud Berachot 13a).
The first verse of the Shema is recited aloud, simultaneously by the hazzan and the congregation, which responds with the rabbinically instituted “Baruch Shem” in silence before continuing the rest of Shema. Only on Yom Kippur is this response said aloud. The remainder of the Shema is read in silence. Sephardim recite the whole of the Shema aloud, except the “Baruch Shem”.
Before bedtime, the first paragraph of Shema is recited. This is not a Biblically instituted mitzvah, but is derived from the verse “Commune with your own heart upon your bed” (Psalms 4:4).
The Shema was the battle-cry of the priest in calling Israel to arms against an enemy (Deuteronomy 20:3; Talmud Sotah 42a). It is the last word of the dying in his confession of faith. It was on the lips of those who suffered and were tortured for the sake of the Law.
Rabbi Akiva patiently endured while his flesh was being torn with iron combs, and died reciting the Shema. He pronounced the last word of the sentence, “Echad” (one) with his last breath (Talmud Berachot 61b). The Talmud says that when Jacob was about to reveal the end of days to his children, he was concerned that one of them might be a non-believer. His sons reassured him immediately and cried out, “Shema Yisrael.”