What does Shema in the Bible mean?

The Shema is one of the most important prayers in Judaism. It proclaims the unity and oneness of God. The name “Shema” comes from the first Hebrew word of the prayer, which means “hear” or “listen”. The Shema is found in Deuteronomy 6:4 which states “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This verse affirms the monotheistic faith of Judaism – that there is only one God.

The Shema Prayer

The full Shema prayer is comprised of three biblical passages:

  • Deuteronomy 6:4-9
  • Deuteronomy 11:13-21
  • Numbers 15:37-41

Together, these passages emphasize the commandment to love God with all your heart and soul. They instruct Jews to keep the words of the Shema in their hearts, to teach them to their children, and to bind them as a sign on their hands and foreheads. The third passage invokes the commandment of wearing tzitzit (fringes or tassels) on the corners of one’s garments to remind Jews of God’s commandments.

In its entirety, a common translation of the Shema prayer is:

Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
That you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the Lord your God.
True and firm, established and enduring, right and faithful, beloved and cherished, good and pleasant, awesome and mighty is this word to us forever. True it is that You are the Lord our God, and the God of our fathers; our King [You are] from eternity to eternity; and there is none besides You. True it is that You are the first and You are the last, and beside You we have no King, redeemer, or savior. You redeemed us from Egypt and freed us from the house of bondage; Your might many times have You wielded for us; Your miracles and Your wonders toward the house of Israel every day they have been wrought. At the sea You split in sunder; hard rocks You made flow with waters; proud and stubborn enemies You hurled into the deep. With loving-kindness You have led the people You redeemed; with strength You have guided them to Your holy habitation. We have sinned and provoked You; You it is who is righteous; we and our fathers have erred. With a full heart, the throne of Your glory, the prophets, Your loyal servants, yearned for Your grace upon us. Turn to us, for we wait for You. How long must we long and hope for Your salvation every day?

And You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your possessions. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart.
And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and speak of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise.
And you shall bind them for a sign upon your arm and as frontlets between your eyes.

And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.
That you may remember and perform all My commandments, and be holy to your God.
I am the Lord your God, Who brought you forth from the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord your God.
True it is that the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.
Blessed be His Name, Whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever.

Origin and History

The Shema originates from the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. The earliest source is Deuteronomy 6:4-9 which may have been composed in the 8th-7th centuries BCE. Deuteronomy emphasizes the love of God and the Oneness of God.

The next section, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, echoes the call to love God and expounds on the rewards for obeying God’s commandments. This portion is thought to have been composed later, in the 7th century BCE.

The third passage, Numbers 15:37-41, describes the commandment to wear tzitzit and avoid sin. This section likely originated around the 5th century BCE.

Together, these three biblical passages were combined into a unified prayer sometime before the 1st century CE. The Mishnah records the obligation to recite the Shema twice daily, in the evening and in the morning. This custom continues to be practiced in modern Judaism.

The next major development occurred in the 2nd century CE, when Rabbi Akiva declared that the recitation of the Shema was most important. He considered it an affirmation of the core belief in one God.

Around the year 500 CE, the Jewish sages added Baruch Shem (“Blessed be the Name”) to the verse following the Shema. This addition proclaimed the importance of both the revealed name of God as well as God’s mystical name.

In the medieval period, Jewish mystics expanded the Shema by adding verses before and after the biblical passages. These additions emphasized God’s redemption of Israel and the hope for the messianic age.

Today, the Shema is recited morning and evening in traditional Jewish liturgy and prayerbooks. It remains one of the central statements of Jewish belief and practice.

Symbolism and Significance

As the most important prayer in Judaism, the Shema expresses the quintessential idea of Jewish monotheism: that there is only one God. It calls upon Jews to love God with their entire being.

The three sections of the Shema highlight three interrelated themes:

  • God’s unity – expressed through the words “the Lord is one”
  • Love of God – Jews must love God with all their heart and soul
  • Remembrance of God – God’s words must be bound as a sign and taught to children

Together, these ideas emphasize an all-encompassing love and devotion to one God. By reciting the Shema, Jews affirm their covenantal relationship with God.

In addition, the physical rituals associated with the Shema symbolize this commitment to God’s oneness:

  • Closing the eyes while reciting the first verse represents removing any distraction or illusion of multiple deities. One focuses purely on the Oneness of God.
  • Covering the eyes with the right hand while reciting the first verse represents being fully willing to serve God and do God’s will.
  • Placing the tefillin (phylacteries) on one’s arm and forehead fulfills the commandment to bind God’s words as symbols.

Therefore, through its recitation and rituals, the Shema expresses the core monotheistic beliefs of Judaism.

Usage in Jewish Liturgy

The Shema is recited at two key times of day in Jewish liturgy:

  • Evening: It is read in evening prayers including Maariv (or Arvith). This affirms one’s faith before nighttime.
  • Morning: It is recited during Shacharit prayers. Reciting it in the morning fulfills the commandment to “speak of them…when you rise up.”

In both instances, the first verse of the Shema is recited aloud while covering the eyes. The subsequent verses are read quietly.

In addition, there are other times when the Shema is recited:

  • Just before retiring to sleep
  • As part of the deathbed confessional
  • Yom Kippur liturgy at the conclusion of Ne’ilah

It also may be included in grace after meals and other sections of daily prayer.

Importance for Children

There is a strong emphasis in the Shema passages about parents teaching these words to their children. As it states in Deuteronomy 11:19 – “Teach them to your children, speaking about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”

Therefore, it is important for Jewish parents to teach the Shema to children beginning at an early age. Traditionally, it is taught as part of a young child’s education at ages 2-6.

By reciting the Shema, children affirm the core tenet of Jewish monotheism. They carry forward the central covenant and legacy of Judaism.

Differing Practices Between Groups

There are some variations in how the Shema is recited among different Jewish groups:

  • Conservative Judaism: Usually recites the entire Shema including Baruch Shem in a normal voice
  • Orthodox Judaism: Whispers the phrase Baruch Shem so as not to pronounce God’s mystical name
  • Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism: Tend to omit Baruch Shem as it was a late addition

Sephardic and Ashkenazi customs also differ slightly in rituals associated with the Shema, such as placing the arm over the eyes.

Overall, though, the essential components and significance of the Shema prayer are highly consistent across diverse Jewish practices.


For over two millennia, the Shema has served as one of the core expressions of Jewish faith. This short prayer powerfully encapsulates Judaism’s emphasis on loving God with an undivided heart. When recited twice daily, it anchors Jewish liturgy and identity. The Shema’s call to remember God’s unity and oneness continues to resound through the ages.

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