What is the Shema?

For people of faith, the practice of passing down famous and important prayers is an old one. Our minds may immediately turn to the Lord’s Prayer or the Serenity Prayer—time-honored prayers like these help to give structure to our prayer lives and remind us of important truths about God.

One of the oldest and most important prayers is known as the Shema. Taking its name from the Hebrew word for "listen" or "hear" (the prayer’s first word), the Shema prayer is at the heart of daily Jewish liturgy. In addition to its prominence within the Jewish faith, this prayer also carries much spiritual weight for Christians. 

We invite you to reflect on the Shema more closely—at what it is and how it is understood. May the words of this prayer move you and help to encourage and guide you on your journey of faith.

Background on the Shema

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The Shema is comprised of the three passages from the Hebrew Bible (Jewish scripture) and the corresponding texts in the Old Testament. These three passages are Deuteronomy 6:4–9, Deuteronomy 11:13–21, and Numbers 15:37–41. In Hebrew, the first phrase of the prayer is שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד׃‎ (transliterated as Sh'ma Yisra'el, YHWH 'eloheinu, YHWH 'eḥad) where the first word, Sh’ma, means “listen” or “hear and do”. 

Let’s take a look at each of the three passages that form this prayer.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

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“4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”

This first passage from Deuteronomy is perhaps the broadly known portion of the Shema prayer. It opens with an essential declaration about the nature of God and encourages us to place our faith (and God most of all) at the very center of our lives.

Deuteronomy 11:13-21

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“13 So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— 14 then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. 15 I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

16 Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. 17 Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you. 18 Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.” 

The second section of the Shema reiterates the directive to follow God and keep faith at the heart of our lives. Additionally, these verses outline the flourishing that accompanies a life lived as God intends and warn of the dangers in going our own way.

Numbers 15:37-41

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“37 The Lord said to Moses, 38 ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: “Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. 39 You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. 40 Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be consecrated to your God. 41 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord your God.”’”

Finally, the Shema closes with a passage detailing the origins of a ritual garment worn by many orthodox Jewish men at all times as a part of Jewish tradition. These tassels are intended to serve as a reminder of God’s presence—a physical manifestation of the command to keep the Shema’s words always on our minds.

The Shema in Practice

Within Jewish tradition, praying the Shema is a key part of the morning and evening prayer services undertaken each day. It is therefore considered by many to be the most important prayer of the faith. In addition to their fixture within daily prayers, some Jewish people also offer the Shema as their last words before they pass away, and it is the final prayer offered on the high holiday, Yom Kippur. 

New Testament References to the Shema

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The Shema continues to be a significant and cherished prayer for the Christian faith as well. The verses that form the Shema are referenced and quoted in several key places within the New Testament. 

Perhaps most famously, Jesus answered the question, “What is the greatest of all the commandments?” with a reference to the Shema. Mark 12:28-31 reads, “29 ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” 31 The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.’” 

In Jesus' reply we understand the direct link between the call to love God and to love others. When our relationship with God is at the center of our lives, it will impact and shape every other area as well.

The author of Revelation also invokes the Shema in Revelation 22:4, where the followers of Jesus are described to have God’s name written on their foreheads. The impact of the Shema cannot be overstated.

Final Thoughts

One of the oldest and most important prayers, the Shema aims to keep our eyes fixed upon God. The primary purpose of this prayer is to move us to live out of love—our love of God, and the knowledge of God’s unconditional love for us. When we place these things at the core of our lives, we are enabled to also live out the addition Jesus gave, to love our neighbors as ourselves.

To learn more about the Shema and scripture as a whole, consider the complete collection, available from Alabaster.