The first verse of “shema,” “Hear (shema) O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one,” contains the main principles of Jewish faith, and to utter it with concentration and intention is to “accept the yoke of Heaven.”
When this verse is written in Torah scrolls, two of the letters appear large: the “ayin” of “shema“and the “daled” of “echad.” Allegorical interpretations of the Torah point out that when these two letters are put together in the order of their appearance, they make up the word “ed” (witness), namely, the Israelites’ testimony to God’s kingship (as it says in Isaiah 43:10: “You are my witnesses, says the Lord”); and when read in the opposite direction, they make up the word “da”(know), as it says in Chronicles I 28:9, “Know the God of your father, and serve Him with a perfect heart.”
This verse, which (in Hebrew) has only six words, is divided into three parts, each of which contains an important message.
“Shema Yisrael – “Hear O Israel” – is Moses’ call to the entire Jewish people, and to every individual Jew, to hear these things. This “hearing” is not merely with the ears, but rather it means listening, and beyond that, understanding and acceptance. These words assume an additional meaning when shema is being recited, for then they serve as a declaration: Let the entire people of Israel hear the things which I, who utter them, proclaim and make known to all. And for a person who recites shema by himself it is as if he were calling upon himself, saying: “Hear and listen, you who are a member of the people of Israel.”
The next two words, “Hashem Elokaynu” – “the Lord our God” – are the essence of the “acceptance of the yoke of Heaven” by declaring that the Lord is our God, that we accept Him and are willing to take His rule upon us.
And in the last two words, “Hashem Echad” – “the Lord is One” – we state the main principles of the faith in God: His unity and His uniqueness. In the words “The Lord is One” there are all the meanings of the term “One.” “One” does not only stand as against dualism (or trinity, or any other kind of plurality of gods): it also includes God’s one-and-onlyness (in the sense of “there is none else besides Him” – Deut. 4:35), and the sense that, compared with the “truth of His existence,” no other reality counts.
The word “One” also contains the idea that the One God is all-inclusive. The Rishonim (Ancient commentators) say that when uttering these words during the recitation of shema one should intend to mean that God is One in the seven heavens and on earth. (This is connected with thegimmatriya, the numerical value of the letters of the word “echad,” one: Aleph=1, which stands for God’s oneness; Chet=8, which stands for the seven heavens and earth; and Daled=4, which stands for the four corners of the earth.) Therefore the Halacha says that one should prolong the uttering of the word “echad“, “One,” so that he can think of all the meanings of God’s unity.
In the name of the Holy ARI it is said that when saying this verse, one should identify with its message completely, namely that the praying person should think and feel that he is willing to give his very life and suffer anything rather than swerve from this declaration that “The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
After uttering the first verse of shema, it is an ancient custom to say “Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le’olam va’ed” -May the Name of the glory of His kingship be blessed for ever and ever. But since this sentence is not written in the Torah, it is said in a whisper and not aloud, like the rest of the recitation (see Tractate Pesahim 56a).
A simple explanation for this is that after the grand recitation of Shema Israel, we add words of praise and thanks for being permitted, and able, to say this. Viewed from a different angle, this sentence is the inner completion of shema Yisrael. The first verse of shema speaks of God’s unity in a way that negates the world’s existence, for “there is none else beside Him.” In order to complement this, we add Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le’olam va’ed: His glory fills all of reality, in place and time. The very idiom shem kevod malkhuto – “the name of the glory of His kingship” – expresses a feeling of awe, for it is not God Himself that is mentioned here but rather His inspiration which fills the world, and even the mere “name of the glory of His kingship” is blessed for ever and ever. It is as if we leave behind the perception of the sublime Unity to define God’s kingship within the world. And the reason why these words are uttered in a whisper is that we are not always sure that we are indeed worthy of being the bearers of “the glory of His kingship.” Only on Yom Kippur, when the Jews are like the ministering angels, do we say this sentence aloud.
At this point, we continue reciting the Torah portion of shema, which is the conclusion arising from the declaration “Hear Israel”: that we should adhere to God in emotion – “You shall love”, in words – “[you] shall talk of [these things]”, and in deed – “you shall bind them… you shall write them.”
The inner feeling is one of perfect attachment and devotion: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” “With all your heart” means not as a partial emotion, with reservation and hesitation, but with the full heart. Our Sages said that this recognition should be present in the whole of man’s emotional makeup, even in the inclinations which are not good.
“With all your soul” is interpreted to mean “even if He takes your soul” – namely, a love of God which reaches the degree of actual self-sacrifice for His holiness. “And with all your might” means that this love should be great and strong, even greater and stronger than the former statement – namely, even in things which man perceives as more difficult than death. Therefore our Sages state that this may mean “with all of your money”; man should be prepared not only for a one-time sacrifice, but for a life of sacrifice, even if it is a life of continuous poverty and suffering. For this is the essence of me’od (might): beyond all measure, beyond all boundaries.
“And these words, which I command you today, shall be upon your heart”: These things are not a matter for one-time acceptance and consent, but should be in one’s consciousness (“upon your heart”) always. “And you shall teach and repeat them to your children” is the obligation to transmit this awareness to the next generation; and the first step towards doing it is by repetition, by making these things as clear as possible, and by repeating them until they are internalized.
“And you shall talk of them” -everyone should engage in Torah in general, and in this portion in particular, so that it will be in his mouth in the form of explicit statements at all times: “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way” when one is at his own home, he cannot rely on his inner awareness alone; he is obliged to engage in the words of Torah and say them. And when he leaves his private domain, it is incumbent upon him to speak up and make these things known, wherever he is.
“And when you lie down, and when you rise up” – the simple meaning is that one should say these verses at all times, be it when one goes to sleep or when one awakens from sleep, and most certainly when one is awake and active. However, this verse is also the basis for the halachic injunction about the set times for reciting shema. Shema should be recited at the times which are stated explicitly in this verse: at night, when it is time for lying down, and in the morning, when it is time to rise.
The verse “And you shall bind them for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” is a practical expression of attachment, in the action of putting on tefillin, which contain parchments with this and a few other Torah portions. The tefillin are tied onto the arm as a symbol of attachment and acceptance of yoke, and on the head – as a crown of glory.
Another practical expression of the attachment to God is “You shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and on your gates” – namely, by writing these Torah portions on mezuzah parchments and placing them on the doorposts of the houses and the city gates.
Yet just as these verses teach us about the literal way of implementation (tefillin, mezuzah), they are also meant to teach us about the way of life in general, namely, that the words of Torah must be bonded and intertwined with man, in all things that are attached to his own self and in every way that makes the words of Torah known to others.
The recitation of shema is defined in Jewish tradition (Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Commandment #10) as a Torah commandment (as opposed to a Rabbinic injunction). The details of how to fulfill this commandment are to be found in Maimonides’ Mishne Torah, “Laws of Reciting Shema,” and in Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 58-55). When recited fully, it includes the following verses: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Ibid., 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41, and there are blessings which are to be recited both before and after it.
In any case, shema should be recited in a clean place, fully clothed and with a covered head.