Originally published in the Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 14 (1972), pp. 1370-4.
SHEMA, READING OF, the twice daily recitation of the declaration of God’s unity, called the Shema (“Hear”) after the first word in Deuteronomy 6: 4; also called Keri’at Shema (“the reading of the Shema”). As it had developed by at least as early as the second century C.E. the Shema consisted of three portions of the Pentateuch―Deuteronomy 4: 4-9; Deuteronomy 11: 13-21; and Numbers 15: 37-41, in this order―together with the benedictions of the Shema, two to be recited before the Shema and one after, in the morning, and two before and two after, in the evening (Ber. 1: 1-5, 2: 2). The morning benedictions before the Shema are “Who formest light and creates darkness . . .” (Yozer Or, Hertz, Prayer, 108-14) and “With abounding love . . .” (Ahavah Rabbah, ibid., 114-6), and “True and firm . . .” (Emet Ve-Yaziv, ibid., 126-8), after it (see Shaharit). The evening benedictions before the Shema are “Who at Thy word bringest on the evening twilight . . .” (Ma’ariv Aravim, ibid., 304), and “With everlasting love . . .” (Ahavat Olam, ibid., 306), and “True and trustworthy . . .” (Emet ve-Emunah, ibid., 310-2), and “Cause us to lie down in peace . . .” (Hashkivenu, ibid., 312), after the Shema (see Arvit).
Development of the Practice. It is difficult to determine the stages through which this development took place. At a very early period the Deuteronomic injunction “And these words which I command thee this day . . . and thou shalt talk of them” (6: 6-7 and 11: 19) were understood as a commandment to read the Shema, perhaps in response to the challenge of Zoroastrian dualism, though as late as the third century C.E. some held the view that the duty of reciting the Shema is rabbinic and the verses refer not specifically to the Shema but to the “words of Torah” in general (Ber. 2 la). The Nash papyrus, dating from the Hasmonean period, contains the Ten Commandments and the first portion of the Shema. The Mishnah (Tam. 5: 1) records that in the Temple all three portions of the Shema were recited together with the Ten Commandments, and explicit reference is made here to the benediction after the Shema, Emet ve-Yaziv, and to another benediction before the Shema, which is identified at a later period (Ber. 11b) with Ahavah Rabbah. At a later period, too, there are indications that special significance was attached to the first verse of the Shema (Ber. 13b; Suk. 42a). It is not implausible, therefore, to see the successive stages as; (1) the reading of the first verse; (2) the reading of the first portion; (3) the reading of all three portions, together with Emet ve-Yaziv and Ahavah Rabbah; (4) the addition of the other benedictions.
In any event, it was a long established practice at the beginning of the present era to read the Shema in the evening and morning as can be seen from the fact that the schools of Hillel and Shammai (see Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai) debated as to how it should be read. The school of Shammai took the words “when you lie down and when you get up” literally, and ruled that the evening Shema should be recited while reclining and the morning Shema while standing upright. The school of Hillel ruled that “when you lie down . . .” refers to the times of reading, i.e., in the evening and in the morning, but that no special posture is required. The ruling followed is that of the school of Hillel (Ber. 1: 3).
There was much debate in the tannaitic period as to the times of reciting the Shema. The eventual ruling is that the evening Shema can be recited from nightfall until dawn, though ideally it should be recited before midnight; the morning Shema can be recited from the first traces of the dawn until a quarter of the day (Ber. 1: 1-2; Ber. 2a-3a, 9b).
INCLUSION OF THE BARUKH SHEM. After the first verse of the Shema it has been customary from rabbinic times to recite under the breath the doxology, uttered as a response in the Temple, “Blessed be the name of His glorious Kingdom for ever and ever” (Barukh Shem). The midrashic explanation is that this was recited by the patriarch Jacob on his deathbed when his sons declared their loyalty by reciting the Shema. Since Jacob said it, we too repeat it, but since Moses did not say it we recite it sotto voce (Pes. 56a). Another midrashic explanation is that when Moses went up on high he heard the ministering angels saying Barukh Shem, and he brought it down for Israel to use. Since it was stolen from the angels, Israel recites it silently, but on the Day of Atonement, when Israel is as pure as the angels, it is recited in a loud voice (Deut. R. 2: 36).
Various suggestions have been made to account historically for the insertion of Barukh Shem. Thus it may have been introduced by the Pharisaic opponents of Herod and the Sadducean priesthood in order to emphasize the belief in the sole sovereignty of God as against the aristocratic tendency to admit the sovereignty of the caesars (see Abrahams, Companion, iii); or as a response at a time when the Shema was read verse by verse led by the reader (Elbogen, Gottesdienst, 26); or as a substitute for the Temple response after the destruction of the Temple (H. Albeck (ed.), Shishah Sidrei Mishnah, Zera’im (1958), 328), which might explain why the later custom is to recite Barukh Shem in a loud voice on the Day of Atonement, since this was the day on which it was especially recited in Temple times(Yoma 3: 8, 4: 1, 6: 2).
RECITATION OF SHEMA BEFORE RETIRING. In addition to the twice daily reading of the Shema as part of the morning and evening prayers the practice was introduced in the amoraic period of reciting the first section before retiring (Keri’at Shema al ha-Mittah). The source in the Talmud (Ber. 4b) is the saying of R. Joshua b. Levi: “Though a man has recited the Shema in the synagogue, it is meritorious to recite it again on his bed.” The proof text was given as: “Tremble and sin not; commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah” (Ps. 4: 5). Later on in the same passage (Ber. 5a) the practice is connected with the fear of demons, whom it is said to drive away, but it is uncertain whether this was the true origin of the custom. Maimonides (Yad, Tefillah, 7: 2), as usual in such circumstances, makes no mention of the demon motif but simply records the duty of reciting the first paragraph of the Shema, and he takes “on the bed” literally.
OTHER RITUAL USES OF THE SHEMA. The first verse of the Shema is also recited in the early morning (Hertz, Prayer, 30); when the Torah scroll is taken from the ark on Sabbaths and festivals (ibid., 480): during the Kedushah in the Musaf on Sabbaths and festivals (ibid., 530, 816, etc.); and on the deathbed (ibid., 1064). The first verse of the Shema is recited once, and Barukh Shem, three times, at the conclusion of the services on the Day of Atonement. The portions of the Shema from Deuteronomy 6: 4-9; 11: 13-21 are included in the parchments enclosed in the mezuzah and tefillin. The remains of tefillin for the head found in Qumran (XQ Phyl. 1-4) were acquired by Y. Yadin in 1969 and proved to contain, among additional biblical texts, Deuteronomy 6: 4-9. It is presumed that the original fourth scroll from these remains, which is now lost, contained Deuteronomy 11: 13-21.
The Laws of the Shema. The Shema should be recited with full concentration on the meaning of the words; if, however, it was recited without concentration it is unnecessary to repeat it, provided the first verse was recited with concentration. If the Shema is recited while walking, it is necessary to stand still for the recitation of the first verse. It is customary to place the right hand over the eyes while reciting the first verse as an aid to concentration, and, for the same reason, the first verse should be recited in a loud voice. One should not wink or gesticulate while reading the Shema but should recite it in fear and trembling. The Shema should be recited sufficiently loudly for it to be heard by the ear, since it is said: “Hear, O Israel.” Care must be taken to enunciate the words clearly, and this applies especially to two consecutive words the first of which ends and the second of which begins with the same letter. The Shema can be recited in any language but with the same clarity of enunciation one is expected to use for the Hebrew. If one is in doubt as to whether he has recited the Shema, it is necessary to recite it in order to make sure. It is forbidden to interrupt the recitation of the Shema. It is forbidden to recite the Shema in a place that is not scrupulously clean, or in front of the naked body. Women (who are exempt from carrying out precepts dependent on a given time) and little children have no obligation to recite the Shema but may do so if they wish. It is customary for women, nonetheless, to recite the Shema.
The total of the words of the Shema together with Barukh Shem is 245. It is customary for the reader to repeat the last two words of the Shema and the first word of the following benediction thus bringing the total up to 248, corresponding to the limbs of the body and the number of positive precepts. When the Shema is recited in private the total is made up by reciting before the Shema the three words el melekh ne’eman (“God, faithful King!”). The usual translation of the first verse of the Shema is “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Other translations are “The Lord our God is one Lord” (AV); “The Eternal, the Eternal alone, is our God” (Moffatt); “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (new Jewish translation, JPSA (1962), following Ibn Ezra).
The Shema in Jewish Thought. The Shema is in Jewish thought the supreme affirmation of the unity of God and is frequently called “’the acceptance of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.” The original meaning of the first verse may have been that, unlike the pagan gods who have different guises and localities, God is one. At first the main emphasis in the Shema was seen to be in opposition to polytheism; there is only one God, not many gods. R. Akiva is reported to have recited the Shema just before his execution by the Romans (Ber. 61b), and generally Jewish martyrs recited it as they went to their death. Perhaps from earliest times (see S. R. Driver, Deuteronomy, ICC (1902), 89-91), but certainly from later, the word ehad (“one”) was understood also to mean “unique.” God is not only one and not many, but He is totally other than what paganism means by gods. Seen in this light, the Shema is not only an affirmation that there are no other gods, but that God is the Supreme Being. God is different from anything in the universe He has created. This was the general view of the medieval Jewish philosophers and kabbalists (see e.g., Bahya ibn Paquda, Hovot ha-Levavot, 1: 9-10). In hasidic thought, the further idea is read into the Shema that there is only God, the whole universe existing in Him, as it were, and only enjoying an independent existence from the human standpoint (panentheism; see Menahem Mendel of Lubavich, Derekh Mitzvotekha (1953), 118-24). This doctrine was treated as heresy by opponents of Hasidism.
VARIOUS INTERPRETATIONS OF THE FIRST VERSE. Christian exegesis in the Middle Ages interpreted the three divine names in the first verse of the Shema as referring to the Trinity (see JE, 12 (1905), 261 and J. Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance (1961), 19). Jewish commentators were naturally at pains to contradict this, and a current interpretation was that, in fact, the Shema asserts the opposite, that there is only one God and no three persons in the Godhead (see e.g., Da’at Zekenim and Bahya ibn Asher to Deut. 6: 4 and Leon de Modena Magen va-Herev ed. S. Simonsohn (1960), 31-32). Very curious are the references in the Zohar to the three divine names in the first verse of the Shema. These represent the unity of three powers in the Godhead, that is the Sefirot of Lovingkindness, Judgment, and Beauty (Hesed, Gevurah, Tiferet), symbolized by the colors white, red, and green, or the Sefirot of Wisdom, Understanding, and Beauty (Hokhmah, Binah, Tiferet; Zohar 1: 18b; 3: 263a). The Zohar is strongly anti-Christian in intent and repeatedly stresses that all the Ten Sefirot are a unity with Ein Sof, so that it is absurd to read the Christian doctrine into it, as some of the Christian kabbalists have done. The possibility, however, that the formal zoharic interpretation was influenced by Christian exegesis of this verse cannot be ruled out (see I. Tishby, Mishnat ha-Zohar, 2 (1961), 278-80).
The word “Israel” (in “Hear, O Israel”) is understood by the Midrash as referring to the patriarch Jacob (Deut. R. 2: 35). The devout Jew addresses himself to his ancestor to declare that he has kept the faith. Abudraham understands it to mean that each Jew addresses his fellow. In hasidic thought (Dov Baer of Lubavich, Kunteres ha-Hitpa’alut, in Likkutei Be’urim (1868), 54a), the idea is put forward that each Jew addresses the “Israel” part of his soul, speaking to the highest within him. Abudraham also remarks that the letter ayin of the word Shema and the letter dalet of the ehad are traditionally written larger than the other letters in the Torah scroll so as to form the word ed (“witness”): the Jew testifies to God’s unity when he recites the Shema.
Jewish devotional manuals sometimes advise the worshiper to have in mind while reciting the Shema that if he is called upon to suffer martyrdom for the sanctification of God’s name he will do so willingly and with joy (see e.g., Alexander Suskind of Grodno, Yesod ve-Shoresh ha-Avodah (1965), 97-99). This author also advises the worshiper after he has recited the first verse of the Shema to have in mind the following:
I believe with perfect faith, pure and true, that Thou art one and unique and that Thou has created all worlds, upper and lower, without end, and Thou art in past, present and future. I make Thee King over each of my limbs that it might keep and perform the precepts of Thy holy Torah and I make Thee King over my children and children’s children to the end of time. I will, therefore command my children and grandchildren to accept the yoke of thy Kingdom, Divinity, and Lordship upon themselves, and I will command them to command their children, in turn, up to the last generation to accept, all of them, the yoke of Thy Kingdom, Divinity, and Lordship.
Bibliography: Maim., Yad, Keri’at Shema; Sh. Ar. OH, 59-88; Abrahams, Companion, 1-liv; Blau, in: REJ, 31 (1895), 179-201; Elbogen, Gottesdienst, 16-26; J. H. Hertz, Pentateuch and Haftorahs, 5 (1936), 100-11; E. Munk, The World of Prayer, 1 (1954), 88-119; L. J. Liebreich, in: REJ, 125 (1966), 151-65; Yadin, in: Erez Yisrael Mehkarim bi-Ydi’at ha-Arez ve-Attikoteha, 9 (1969), 60-83. [L.J.]