Personally Connecting to the Shema and V'Ahavta

The Shema “on one foot”:

The “Shema” can refer to Deut. 6:4, or Deut. 6:4-9 (including “the V’Ahavta”), or Deut. 6:4-9 and Deut. 11:13-21 (the “V’haya Im Shamo’a”) and Num. 15:37-41 (the “Vayomer”). It is said in the morning and evening service (Mishnah Brachot 1:3), as well as when one lies down to sleep and when one gets up from sleep (per what it says in Deut. 6:7), as well as when you are about to die (just Deut. 6:4). The Shema was originally put together not as a prayer but as a "recitation" ("kriya") of key Torah passages that expressed basic Jewish dogma, such as there only being one god and that love of G-d was the best motivator for serving G-d. This happened during the period of the Second Temple and was in place by 1 BCE, because Hillel and Shammai discuss it (Mishnah Brachot 1:3; Mishnah Tamid 5:1)

A Jewish Joke

It's 1933 in Germany. A Jew has been dismissed from his job because he is Jewish. He worries how he's going to help feed his family when he sees an advertisement for a circus coming to town. He goes and convinces them to let him dress up in a lion suit and fight wild animals. He figures that if he gets paid in advance, at least he'll send home one more paycheck before he dies.

His first day comes and he bounds into the ring in his lion suit. A fierce tiger comes roaring at him and he knows this is his end. He starts to say Shema Yisrael, and he hears the tiger finish it for him. "What? You think you're the only Jew trying to make a living?

Why Do We Cover Our Eyes?

בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁמַּעֲבִיר יָדָיו עַל פָּנָיו, מְקַבֵּל עָלָיו עוֹל מַלְכוּת שָׁמַיִם.

When Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi passed his hands over his face in the study hall in the middle of his lesson, he accepted the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven upon himself, as his Shema was comprised of a single verse.

Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Masechet (Tractate) Brachot, which is about blessings and prayers. This text is part of a discussion about whether "Taking the yoke of the Divine Sovereignty" happens from the first verse ("the Shema") or if it also requires the entire first paragraph ("the V'Ahavta"). From this text we learn that when Rabbi Judah haNasi was teaching and he wanted to say the morning Shema, he paused, put his hand over his eyes to concentrate, and said the first line. His students presumably said, "Ah! So that's how you do it!" and a new custom was born. It was codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 1:5).

Note that when the Romans forbade the Jews from saying the Shema, the Jews hid it in other parts of the service. That is why the Shema can be found in Birchot haShachar, the Torah Service, the Musaf Kedushah, and Tachanun (broken up in "Shomer Yisrael"). This is also why we don't cover our eyes at those points. (Kippa tip to Cantor Neil Schwartz for this)

From this origin, other ideas have been layered on to derive meaning from this custom. For instance, seeing emphasizes that which is external, while hearing emphasizes that which is internal, and we are asked to internalize our experience of G-d. Alternatively, our god is invisible, so we reduce what we can see at this point.

It is customary to use our dominant hand to cover our eyes. Some simply shield their eyes, while others completely cover them. This choice of hand may be connected to the fact that the non-dominant hand was used for wiping in the bathroom in the ancient world.

The Text with Questions

(ד) שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד׃

(4) Hear, O Israel! יהוה is our God, יהוה is one.

This is Deuteronomy 6:4.


Hear / Listen / Pay attention

This command to pay attention can have different audiences. Moses was speaking to the Israelites. When we say it, we might be speaking to others, showing to them that we are witnesses to G-d's existence (that could be why the "ayin" in "Shema" and the "daled" in "echad" are larger in the Torah -- they spell the word "Eid", meaning "witness". Alternatively, it could be because if you spell "Shema" with an "aleph" it means "perhaps", and if you spell "echad" with a "resh" it means "other".) We could also be speaking to ourselves, reminding us to listen to this idea of G-d's unity which we are saying, or just to listen in general to the words that others are saying.

It can be hard to give somebody our full attention when there are so many ways to multi-task (like with devices). Who's somebody you can make sure to give your full attention to?


O Israel

The Midrash picks up on the fact that "Israel" is also one of the names for Jacob. It imagines that when Jacob was on his deathbed in Egypt, he was worried that his children would soon start worshipping the many Egyptian gods. According to this midrash, the Shema was first said by Jacob's children to him, assuring him that they would stay faithful to G-d and only to G-d. Jacob's response was "Baruch shem k'vod malchuto l'olam va-ed", "Praised be the name of the One whose glorious sovereignty is forever and ever". (Devarim Rabba 2:35; also versions in Sifrei Devarim 31:7 and Tanchuma Vayechi 8:2)

What's a key thought from your life that you want to make sure is passed on?

יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ

הוה is our God

This part of the Shema can be construed as a statement of allegiance to G-d, or "accepting the yoke of the sovereignty of Heaven", as the Talmud puts it (Mishnah Brachot 2:2). We are committing to do what G-d asks of us.

How did G-d become your god?

יְהֹוָ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד׃

יהוה is one

The idea of "G-d is one" has been described as "G-d is unique" (as in "G-d is in a category without anyone else in it"), "G-d is one and not three" (or G-d is one and not all the many gods of the ancient world), "G-d has many aspects but they are all united", "G-d is everywhere and all is bound up in G-d" (from Brachot 13b), "G-d has no partner or consort" (like neighboring cultures believed), and "G-d is within each of us and we need to hear this message of our common humanity", just to name a few interpretations. Whatever it originally meant or can be interpreted to mean today, it is a statement of monotheism.

Note that some have the custom to prolong the word "echad", either to give them time to ponder the oneness of G-d (per the Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 13b) or to make sure that they are emphasizing the "daled" so it's clear they aren't saying "acher" ("other").

Can you describe the G-d you believe in? Can you describe the G-d you don't believe in?

(ג) בלחש - בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוד מַלְכוּתו לְעולָם וָעֶד:

Praised be the name of the One whose glorious sovereignty is forever and ever.

Context: This interruption in the Biblical text is a quote from Mishnah Yoma 3:8 (tweaked from Psalm 72:19), where it is the response that the Israelites would make when hearing the name of G-d pronounced properly by the High Priest once a year on Yom Kippur. Although it was once said out loud every time, because it is not in the Biblical text, we now say it in a whisper except on Yom Kippur. The change happened when the Romans forbade the saying of the Shema, and it seemed odd to say this line out loud when the Shema had not just been proclaimed, Moses-style, by the leader.

In Pirkei Avot it is said that there are 3 crowns -- the crowns of Torah, priesthood, and royalty -- but the crown of a good name surpasses them all (4:13 or 4:17, depending on your version). Who would you say has "the crown of a good name", and why?

(ה) וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכׇל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכׇל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכׇל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃

(5) You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

Judaism is a religion of love. The Torah isn't legislating emotion here, but rather commanding us to act in a way that shows love, such as with empathy, care, and kindness. We are to show that we are acting in ways that are pleasing to G-d. This is also true when the Torah says to "Love your neighbor as yourself", and "Love the foreigner, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt".

The Hebrew word for "heart" is "lev". The word here for "your heart" is "l'vavcha", with a second letter "vet". This has been said to mean that we should use both the good inclination (yetzer hatov) and bad inclination (yetzer hara) in our hearts to love G-d.

"With all of your soul" could mean "all parts of your soul", and it can also mean "all the days of your soul on this earth". When Rabbi Akiba was being martyred by the Romans, he seemed almost happy. When his students asked him about this, he said that for many years he had wondered when he would get to fulfill this part of the V'ahavta, and now he finally could. He died as he finished saying the Shema. (Brachot 61b). Even if we don't get martyred, we can still love and serve G-d all the days of our life.

The word "me'odecha" can mean "your might", but it can also mean "your very-ness" (kippa tip to Adam Schwartz). What is "your very-ness" and how can you use it to serve G-d?

(ו) וְהָי֞וּ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃

(6) These words with which I charge you today shall be on your heart.

"These words" could refer to everything that Moses was saying that day, or the first line of the Shema, or the idea of loving G-d.

Depending on how you punctuate this verse, it can read "These words which I charge you today, shall be on your heart" or "These words which I charge you, today shall be on your heart." If you go with the second interpretation, it can also be viewed in two different ways. The first is "These words shall be on your heart today, but not tomorrow", or "These words shall be on your heart today and don't wait until tomorrow".

What's something that your "yetzer hatov", "good inclination" tells you you should take to heart today and not wait for tomorrow?

(ז) וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ֖ בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשׇׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃

(7) Teach them to your children. Speak of them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.

"Shinantam" comes from the word "shinayim", "teeth". When you teach something, you chew it up and make it digestible to your student(s), like a mother bird chews up a worm before giving it to her offspring.

How can Judaism be relevant when you are "away"?

(ח) וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל־יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ׃
(8) Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead;

We live our lives surrounded by the Shema - morning and night, walking past it when we enter and leave our houses, and wearing it. It's a lot of reminders to listen and to act as though we love G-d.

Note that because here tefillin are described as an "ote" (sign) of our relationship with G-d, and in V'shamru, in Exodus, Shabbat is described as an "ote" of our relationship with G-d, we don't wear tefillin on Shabbat lest Shabbat seem like an insufficient sign.

How can you use your hand and head to serve G-d?

(ט) וּכְתַבְתָּ֛ם עַל־מְזֻז֥וֹת בֵּיתֶ֖ךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃ {ס}
(9) inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Context: This refers to the mezuzah. The word for “doorpost” is “mezuzah”. Over time it also became the word for the thing you put on the doorpost, similar to how Xerox and Google were first nouns before becoming verbs. Mezuzahs/mezuzot are to go on every doorway in your house except for the bathroom. They are slanted because of a disagreement about whether they should be vertical or horizontal; this was the compromise. Thus, passing a mezuzah reminds us to “Shema”, listen to each other.

Also, this verse does not refer to the gate of a house, but rather city gates. Archeology has found Near Eastern cities with the laws inscribed on the entrance to the city.

While traditionally one touches and kisses a mezuzah upon passing it, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel ruled in 2020 that this should be suspended during the Coronavirus Pandemic because preserving life is more important.

How would your life change if you received a notification every time you walked though a doorway in your home, reminding you to act as if you loved G-d?

Musical Versions of the Shema and V'Ahavta

Consider how these different versions make you feel.

This version of the Shema was composed by Hazzan Solomon Sulzer in Vienna in the 1830s. He wrote it in the popular music style of his day, the waltz.

This is the V'Ahavta, sung in Torah trope. It is being done by Cantor Brian Shamash, using Trope Trainer software which Cantor Neil Schwartz and Kinnor Software put together.

This is the Debbie Friedman version (start at 0:33). It was the very first song she wrote, at age 19 (in 1970). For more about Debbie Friedman, see this article:

This is Craig Taubman's version of Shema - it was written in 1999 and was released on his "Friday Night Live" album (as well as being part of his "Friday Night Live" service in Los Angeles).

This is Tzvika/Svika Pik's version of the Shema (start at 1:12), from 2006. It was recorded by the Cantors' Assembly, specifically by Cantor Randy Herman (top left - Chizuk Amuna of Baltimore), Cantor Steven Stoehr (top right, Beth Shalom of Northbrook, IL), Cantor Mike Stein (bottom left, Temple Aliyah of Woodland Hills, CA), and Cantor David Propis (bottom right, Shaarei Tzedek of Southfield, MI). Pik not only wrote this tune for the Shema in 1973 (צביקה-פיק-Henryk-Pick-פיק-Pick;צביקה-פיק-Svika-Pick-12-Golden-Hits-12-להיטי-זהב) but also one for the Shechiyanu ( and "Diva", which Dana International sang to win the 1998 Eurovision contest for Israel (

This is Rabbi Darby Jared Leigh, explaining his interpretation for signing the Shema.

​​​​​​​Other Thoughts on Shema

This is an introduction to the Shema, part of the Bimbam series of prayer introductions. It is written and narrated by Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann of Mishkan Chicago.

With appreciation to Siddur Lev Shalem, Siddur Or Chadash, and MyJewishLearning.