Shema Yisrael: the Heart of the Jewish Faith

The Shema Yisrael refers to three things: a Jewish prayer, the first two words of a section of the Torah, and the title of a prayer that serves as the focal point of both the morning and the evening prayer service of the Jewish faith. Shema Yisrael is considered the most vital part of the prayer service for observant Jews. When you read this article, you can learn:

  • The Importance of the Shema
  • The History of the Shema
  • The Core of the Shema
  • How Jews Show Their Faith in Their Clothing
  • The Two Holiest Days for Jews

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהֹוָה אֶחָד:

(בלחש:) בָּרוּךְ, שֵּׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ, לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד:

The Importance of the Shema

Originally, it consisted of just one verse. Reciting this prayer shows a worshiper’s affirmation of God’s rule and the worshiper’s own personal connection to God. Now, the Shema has three sections, also called paragraphs, each relating to the central beliefs of the Jewish faith. Because of its profound importance to Jews, young children are taught to say the Shema as one of their first prayers, reciting this prayer before they go to sleep each night. Traditionally, the Shema is said as a person’s last words before death.

The History of the Shema

The Shema is the oldest daily prayer in Judaism. Is it part of the Torah and expresses the monotheistic core of Judaism. The words, Shema Yisrael, translate to “hear, O Israel,” the call to the attention of all worshipers. The Shema is the daily declaration of faith which is recited twice a day, once in the morning, and then again at night. Because it is the most essential prayer of Judaism, it is the central prayer in the Siddur, a daily prayer book. Traditionally, it is recited with the right hand over the eyes.

The Core of the Shema

There are three main passages of the Shema, which are generally referred to as paragraphs. Each of the paragraphs is based on biblical passages. The first of the paragraphs is taken from Deuteronomy. It is based on the central belief of monotheism. Worshipers recite this portion to affirm God’s rule and their personal connection to God. This section commands worshipers to love God whole-heartedly and to teach these words to the younger generations. This section also commands the worshiper to recite this prayer both when you wake up and when you lay down to sleep. This verse is recited at the end of Yom Kippur, a Jewish high holy day observed on the 10th day of the month of Tishri. The second of the paragraphs, also from Deuteronomy, emphasizes the rewards for following the commandments and consequences for not following the commandments. If followed, there will be an abundance of food, rain according to the seasons, and plenty of grain for the cattle. However, if the commandments are not followed one will not receive these bounties. The third and final paragraph of the Shema is derived from the book of Numbers. It commands that a worshiper provide a visible and physical reminder of God’s commandments. One way the faithful show their commitment is by wearing a tzitzit as a reminder of God’s presence. The tzitzit are the fringes or tassels worn either at the corners of the outer garment or on the four corners of the tallit, a prayer shawl. In orthodox Judaism, women are only required to pray once a day. Although women are not required to recite the Shema daily, most women use the Shema to fulfill their daily prayer requirements.

How Jews Show Their Faith in Their Clothing

Like all faiths, Jews wear unique clothing to communicate their religious identification, their emotional state, their social status, and their relation to the outside world. Rabbis in ancient Egypt taught worshipers that their distinct clothing was one of the reasons they deserved being rescued. That history still influences clothing today. During services, men wear prayer shawls and cover their heads with a Kippot. While outside of the synagogue most Jews dress similarly to non-Jews. Orthodox Jews have more distinct clothing reflecting tradition, modesty or ritualistic reasons. Specifically, Orthodox men cover their heads with a Kippot, which is worn all day. It is a sign of respect to not only cover your head in Synagogue but throughout the day as well. Some men may even cover the kippot with a shtreimel, a large fur hat. Many Orthodox men wear black suits in the style that mimics that of the Polish nobility during the 18th century; the time when Hasidic Judaism began. Men also wear a rectangular garment with fringes, called tzitzit, on the four corners. The fringes are a reminder to follow the commandments. Orthodox Jewish women dress according to traditions and choices which vary from one Jewish community to another. Many women choose to dress modestly and cover most of their bodies. How much they cover depends on the community they are a part of. Most women choose to wear dresses and skirts over slacks.

The Two Holiest Days for Jews

The Jewish calendar is based on both solar and lunar. It consists of 12 months which begins on Rosh Hashanah and ends just before the next Rosh Hashana. All holidays begin at sundown and end at sundown. Passover is one of the most sacred and most widely celebrated Jewish holidays. It is a weeklong festival that commemorates the Israelite’s exodus from ancient Egypt. Rosh Hashanah falls during September or October. It is one of the holiest days marking the new year. The holiday is the beginning of a 10 day period of repentance and introspection. This period ends on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On this day, each person’s fate is decided by God. The holiday is marked by a 25-hour fast as well as a religious service. Together Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah are Judaism’s “High Holy Days.”

Conclusion

Like many people of different religions, the Jewish faith teaches traditions and values, passing them down from generation to generation. Their core beliefs guide their prayers, such as the Shema Yisrael, and celebrations such as Yom Kippur. The Jewish faith is rich in history and enriches all who learn and participate in it. Meta: What do all Jews consider the most important part of their prayers? Read on to learn about the Shema Yisrael.

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