A Prayer Across Time

February 15, 2024

In 1946, shortly after the end of World War II, Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, traveled to Europe in the hopes of finding Jewish children who had survived the war. He visited a large monastery that was known to have sheltered Jewish children from death at the hands of the Nazis. Rabbi Herzog sought to reunite these children with their people.

While the Reverend Mother was willing to give the children back, she was not sure how to identify which of the children among the hundreds in the monastery were, in fact, Jewish.  Rabbi Herzog asked her to gather all of the children in a large room. When they were all assembled, he cried out “Hear, O Yisrael! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

Known as the Shema, this fundamental Jewish prayer prompted an emotional reunion as dozens of children recognized the prayer and ran toward him. Though few of the children remembered much of their early lives, the sound of the Shema, the most fundamental prayer in the Jewish faith, instantly brought back memories of reciting these Hebrew words with their parents before bedtime.

This account illustrates the significance of the Shema prayer, and how deeply embedded it is within the Jewish soul. In fact, it is so fundamental that, according to Jewish law, it is one of two verses that should be taught as soon as a child learns how to speak. Why is this verse so significant?

This verse is a profound acknowledgment that God exists and asserts that He is the sole divine authority in the world. Reciting this verse daily is our way of embracing His sovereign role in our lives and accepting Him as our King.

But the phrase “God is One” goes beyond the simple affirmation of God’s singularity. It suggests a deep connection between God and the entirety of creation. This means that everything around us, from the vastness of the universe to the minutest details of life, is intrinsically linked to God. There isn’t anything in existence that stands apart from Him. Every element of the world we perceive is essentially a reflection of God, though it may not always be apparent. This perspective holds that the universe is in a constant state of reliance on God for its very existence. God didn’t just create the world and step back; He is actively involved in its continual unfolding, moment by moment. God’s energy perpetually flows into the universe, sustaining it at every turn. Should this divine energy ever be withdrawn, all of creation would cease to exist.

This concept, emphasizing God’s omnipresence and the unity between Him and creation, is of such significance that in addition to reciting it twice daily in our prayers, and again before bed, it is emphatically proclaimed on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. As the day draws to a close, this acknowledgment is made three times, reinforcing the belief in God’s enduring dominion and the fact that all existence falls under His guidance.

Since the Shema is so significant that every Jewish child is taught this phrase practically from birth, it has become a Jewish code word of sorts as we saw in the opening story with Rabbi Herzog. Similarly, Zvi Zamir, a former head of the Mossad, recounted a moving incident where, during a mission to evacuate Jews from Lebanon and Syria, the Shema reassured an elderly woman, convincing her to trust him and board an Israeli Navy ship. This phrase reassured her that she was among her people and under the protection of the State of Israel and its defense forces.

Similar expressions of trust have been necessary since the start of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas that began on October 7th. The Kalmanson brothers drove 100 kilometers on October 7th morning, from their home in Otniel to Kibbutz Be’eri, in order to help save the lives of their fellow Jews. Thinking the Kalmansons were terrorists trying to fool them into coming out of hiding, the terrified members of the kibbutz refused to open the doors of their safe rooms. Their shouts of “we’re reservists,” “we are Jews,” and even singing songs from the Jewish holidays were all met with suspicion. It was only when they proclaimed the Shema that doors opened, revealing petrified kibbutz residents who had been hiding for over 12 hours.

Similarly, on the battlefield in Gaza, soldiers needing to identify as Jewish to avoid friendly fire have also used the Shema as a sign of their identity.

This simple declaration of faith, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord alone,” has become so much more than just a phrase from the Torah or a prayer recited morning and night. The Shema is a symbol of Jewish identity, unity and survival, as well as God’s role in our lives and in the world. The Shema remains a profound declaration of faith, a reminder of the inseparable bond between God and His creation, and a rallying cry that has brought comfort and salvation to many in times of dire need.

 

Israeli soldiers are risking their lives to protect us all from Islamic terrorism. But they need our help. Sign up for Israel365 Action to receive updates on how YOU can help fight Hamas and its supporters in the United States and around the world. 

Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

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