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שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה' אֶלֹהֵינוּ ה' אֶחָד

 

Deuteronomy 6:4 “Listen, Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai alone!”

 

According to tradition, this line was uttered by Rabbi Akiva, a victim of torture by the Roman authorities, at the instant of his death. It thus became the motto of Jews at all times and in all places. It is recited twice each day during the morning service, once during the evening service, and just before going to sleep at night. It is also uttered by (or on behalf of) Jews at the moment of their death. 

As a sign of respect יהוה, the actual name of God, is never pronounced aloud. Instead, we pronounce it Adonai which literally means “the Lord.” The root of יהוה is הוה, “to be.” In Exodus 3:14, God is reported to have told Moses that when the Israelites asked his name, Moses should tell them אהיה אשר אהיה “I shall be what I shall be.” 

Orthodox Jews refrain from pronouncing even the word Adonai unless they are doing so in the context of prayer. If they are saying יהוה in any other context, they pronounce it Hashem, i.e., “the Name [of God].”

In the written Torah (and in some editions of the sidur), the Shema appears with an oversized ע at the end of שמע and an oversized ד at the end of אחד. These letters combine to form the word עד ed, “witness.”  When we recite the שמע   we become witnesses to the oneness of the Eternal One. 

Rabbi Milton Steinberg used to say that asserting the oneness of the God became, at various times in our history, the Jewish way of denying that God was two (as in the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism), or three (as in the concept of the Trinity) or many (as in Greco-Roman polytheism). In today’s world, he continued, it has become our way of denying that God is none (as in atheism).

It’s customary to cover our eyes with our hands (or with the טלית talit, the prayer shawl) while reciting the שמע. This gesture shuts out the rest of the world and heightens our sense of personal communication with the Eternal One.

 

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