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Shema Yisrael

Shema Yisrael is the initial verse of a section of the Hebrew Bible that is used as a centerpiece of all Jewish prayer services.

Originally, the Shema consisted only of the one verse, Deut. 6:4 (see Talmud Sukkot 42a; Berachot 13b). The reciation of the Shema in the liturgy, however, consists of three portions: Deut. vi. 4-9, xi. 13-21, and Num. xv. 37-41.

The first verse, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord," has ever been regarded as the confession of belief in the One God. The first of the three portions of the "Shema'" contains the command to love God with heart, soul, and might; to remember all commandments and instruct the children therein; to recite the words of God when retiring or rising; to bind those words on the arm and the head, and to inscribe them on the door-posts and on the city gates. The second portion contains the promise of reward for the fulfilment of the laws, and the threat of punishment for their transgression, with a repetition of the contents of the first portion. The third portion 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. The commandment to read the Shema, twice daily is ascribed by Josephus to Moses ("Ant." iv. 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. vi. 7).

Accompanying benedictions

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. The composition of the Shema itself developed gradually.

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. xxxiii. 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" (Ber. ii. 5). Judah ha-Nasi, being preoccupied with his studies, put his hand over his eyes and repeated the first verse in silence (Ber. 13a).

The first verse of the Shema is recited aloud, first by the hazzan and then by the congregation, which responds with "Baruk Shem" in silence. Only on Yom Kippur is this response said aloud. The remainder of the "Shema'" is read in silence. It is the Ashkenazic custom; but the Sephardim recite aloud the whole of the Shema except the "Baruk Shem." Pronouncing the evening Shema, however, is not obligatory, though it is meritorious. The evening Shema is based on the verse "Commune with your own heart upon your bed" (Ps. iv. 4). R. Isaac said: "Whoever reads the 'Shema on his couch is as one that defends himself with a two-edged sword." "Let them sing aloud upon their beds . . . a two-edged sword in their hand" (Ps. cxlix. 5-6). Rabina said: "Though one that is affrighted [in the night-time] sees nothing himself, his star ("guardian angel") sees the apparition; his recourse is to read the 'Shema" (Meg. 3a).

The Shema was the battle-cry of the priest in calling Israel to arms against an enemy (Deut. xx. 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. R. 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 (Ber. 61b).

During every persecution and massacre, from the time of the Inquisition to the slaughter of Kishinef, "Shema' Yisrael" have been the last words on the lips of the dying. "Shema' Yisrael" is the password by which one Jew recognizes another in every part of the world.

Reference in the Christian Gospel

In the Gospel according to Mark 12:29, the Shema was formulated by Jesus as the beginning exhortation of the first of his two Greatest Commandments: 'And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, "Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord."' (KJV)

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