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Question

Hello, I am new to the board. I think it is a wonderful site. I am a Christian and I have a question for the rabbi. Could you explain the Shema, and its origin? Is it scriptural or oral tradition?

Answer

Shalom!

The Shema is a section of verses that is commanded to be recited twice a day, as it is stated explicitly in the Torah, "speak of them... when you retire and when you arise" (Deuteronomy 6:5-9).

The Shema, which begins with the famous verse "Listen Israel, The Lord is G-d, the Lord is One!" is not a prayer. It is the Jewish Pledge of Allegiance, a testimony to His Oneness. In fact, if you look at the Hebrew, you will notice that the letters "Ayin" and "Daled" are enlarged since they spell out the Hebrew word for "witness," to enforce the idea that one is giving testimony. Knowing that G-d is One is of primary importance, since the entire religion is based on this principle.

The world does not give the impression that He is One. One day we wake up and everything goes well with us. The next day we wake up and everything goes poorly. What happened?! Is it possible that the same G-d who gave us so much goodness on one day, could make everything go wrong the next? It would appear "No! My G-d is good, how could he have caused me so much pain? Must've been just bad luck." But there's no such thing as luck. The same G-d that caused the good was the same One that caused the bad. The Shema is a declaration that all the events that happen to us are from the One, the only One. At the and of days we will come to understood how even how the "bad" was actually for the "good," even though now it is hard to tell.

Another way of understanding G-d's oneness is to imagine one light shining through a prism. Even though we are able to see a MANY colors, the colors of the spectrum, they really only come from ONE light. So too, even though it seems that certain events in the world were not caused by G-d, rather by some other force or bad luck, they aren't. They all come from the One, G-d.

The chance to say the Shema twice a day, once in the morning prayers and once in the evening prayers, is a way for us to engrain this belief upon us, to keep this idea, so to speak, on our fingertips. Having this belief readily at hand helps a person fulfill another verse from the Shema: "And
you shall LOVE the Lord your G-d, with all YOUR HEART, with all YOUR SOUL, and with all your resources."

How can one be commanded to LOVE?! Maimonides suggests that if we just looked into nature and contemplated his wondrous creation, we would be filled for love of Him.

What does it mean to love him with ALL YOUR HEART? The Talmud explains that the word "heart" is metaphorical for "desires." Even today we colloquially use the word "heart" this way, such as when people say "I love chocolate," it can't be that they "love" chocolate, chocolate is inhuman! What they mean to say is that they desire chocolate. What the Shema means when it says "Love G-d with all your heart," it means with "ALL YOUR DESIRES." But not just your desire for chocolate and other treats. Even your desires for
necessities like bread and water should be eaten for the sake heaven, to make your body stronger to learn and do G-d's Torah! 

Finally, if you were wondering what it means to love G-d with ALL YOUR SOUL, you're in good company. So did the great Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Akiva loved G-d so much, that he even taught His Torah despite that Rome had outlawed it. When the Romans caught him teaching, they sentenced him to a painful death. They took a large iron comb and began to scrape off his flesh. At that time, he realized that the time to say Shema had arrived, and so he began to say it. As his students looked on in horror, Rabbi Akiva told them, "All my life I never was able to fulfill the commandment to 'love G-d with ALL YOUR SOUL,' until now." As he said the word "One," of "Listen Israel! The Lord is G-d the Lord is One," he extended it. When he finished saying that word he died. (Brochot 61a)

Of course, the Sages did not command us to die to fulfil the verse 'to love G-d with all YOUR SOUL!' But what the Sages did have in mind was that one should love G-d so much, that he would even be willing to give up his life for G-d. Perhaps this is why Jews are accustomed to saying this verse at
the time they die.

To learn more, go to http://aish.com/spirituality/prayer/Prayer_6_-_Hear_O_Israel_Part_1.asp

By the way, did you know that the Torah contains many beautiful ideas for Gentiles? Why don't you check out : http://www.fastlane.net/~bneinoah/.  Also contact a good friend of Aish HaTorah by the name of Frances who runs
many email lists for non-Jews like yourself, who have an interest in studying the Jewish Bible. You can contact her at fan@ihug.com.au and tell her that I suggested you write her an email. You can also visit her website at http://www.geocities.com/rachav/.

There is also an excellent book on the topic: "The Path of the Righteous Gentile" by Chaim Clorfene and Yakov Rogalsky. You can read it free at http://www.chabad.org/gopher/outlook/7laws/index.html.

With blessings from Jerusalem,

Rabbi Shraga Simmons
Aish.com

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