Basic Judaism

What Does ‘Shema Yisrael’ Mean? Why is it so Central in Judaism?


  1. The heritage our forefather Jacob left us is implanted in us, his descendants. This heritage took on special meaning in Jacob’s last few hours before his leaving this world. The verse says about that time: “Gather and listen, children of Jacob, and listen to Israel your father.” The Midrash says on this verse: “From this they merited the reading of Shema. At the time our forefather Jacob was leaving the world he called over his 12 sons. He told them: “Listen to Israel in the heavens your father. Perhaps you have in your hearts a dispute with G-d?” And they answered him: “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad-Hear o Israel the Lord is our G-d the Lord is one. Just as you have no dispute with G-d in your heart, we too do not have any dispute with G-d in our hearts rather “The Lord is our G-d the Lord is one”.  
  2. The lofty time of our Forefather Jacob’s passing gave us this short sentence that became the motto of our nation ever since for all generations. It was first said by the children of Jacob and it expresses their total devotion to G-d. This verse has since become the core of our faith that even the most estranged Jews utter in times of need.
  3. The Malbim explains this verse in the following manner: The faith in ‘G-d is one’ is the recognition that all the world’s happenings, good and not good come from one source; G-dliness. He says: “G-d of the universe is one with no other and He is the source of all things that exist and the creator of all worlds the things we consider good and those we consider bad. We must believe there really is no bad in creation for from good (G-d) can’t come bad, rather what we imagine is bad is really totally good and kindness…all bad coming to the world is the epitome of good and on this was said “the lord is our G-d the Lord is one”. Hashem is G-d’s characteristic of compassion  the doer of good and ‘Elokim’ connotates G-d’s trait of judgement that metes out punishment (G-d who has both these traits) is one, all good that does just good and kindness and that is why the name Hashem is repeated to show everything is united in a complete unity.” 
  4. Our forefather Jacob realized this in his life. Jacob’s character trait is truth as the verse says “truth to Jacob” and this recognition penetrated his very essence from which he came to recognize the absolute unity of ‘Hashem Elokeinu Hashem echad’.
  5. The Chiddushei Harim explains the verse: “And Jacob lived in Egypt” tells us that the strength of Jacob’s character trait which was truth enabled him even to live in Egypt. The trait of truth can reveal the inner look that delves to depths that even in the most difficult situations he could rise above them.
  6. This was Jacob’s trait used when instituting the evening prayer. He taught us that even in hard times we should cleave to the divine presence and through that closeness you will find that all   G-d’s hiddenness is only superficial and in the internal reality, G-d’s goodness is always there.
  7. Our sages say that “our forefather Jacob didn’t die”. His power stays alive in the hearts of his children for all generations and with this strength we must strengthen our recognition that “Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad”. Things that presently cause pain and discomfort will turn out to a blessing and good and the trouble itself will turn into the source of salvation.

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