Initial word of the verse, or chapter, recited as the confession of the Jewish faith. Originally, the "Shema'" consisted only of the one verse, Deut. vi. 4 (see Suk. 42a; Ber. 13b); the regular "Shema'" in the liturgy, however, consists of three portions: Deut. vi. 4-9, xi. 13-21, and Num. xv. 37-41. The first verse, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord," has ever been regarded as the confession of belief in the One God. The first of the three portions of the "Shema'" contains the command to love God with heart, soul, and might; to remember all commandments and instruct the children therein; to recite the words of God when retiring or rising; to bind those words on the arm and the head, and to inscribe them on the door-posts and on the city gates. The second portion contains the promise of reward for the fulfilment of the laws, and the threat of punishment for their transgression, with a repetition of the contents of the first portion. The third portion contains the law concerning the ẓiẓit, as a reminder that all the laws of God are to be obeyed, as a warning against following the evil inclinations of the heart, and, finally, in remembrance of the exodus from Egypt. The commandment to read the "Shema'", twice daily is ascribed by Josephus to Moses ("Ant." iv. 8), and it has always been regarded as a divine commandment (see, however, Sifre, Deut. 31 [ed. Friedmann. p. 72b. note 17]).
The reading of the "Shema'" morning, and evening is spoken of in the Mishnah (Ber. i. 1-2) as a matter of course, and rests upon the interpretation of ("when thou liest down, and when thou risest up"; Deut. vi. 7). The school of Shammai takes it literally, saying that the evening "Shema'" shall be read in a reclining or resting posture, and that the morning "Shema'" shall be read standing; the school of Hillel asserts that it refers not to the posture, but to the times of reclining and rising. The time for reading the evening "Shema'" begins with twilight and ends four hours after, according to R. Eliezer, or at midnight, according to the "ḥakamim" (the majority of rabbis); or it lasts till the rise of the morning star, according to R. Gamaliel (Ber. i. 1-3). This difference of opinion, rests on the interpretation of "lying down," as to whether it means the regular or the latest hour of retiring, or the whole time during which people usually sleep—that is, all night. Similarly, the time of reading the morning "Shema'" is fixed by the ḥakamim to begin at daybreak, when there is sufficient light to distinguish between purple and white, or to recognize a person, after a short acquaintance, at a distance of four ells, and to last until the sun's rays are seen. R. Joshua, however, extends the time until three hours of daylight have passed, because princes and men of leisure do not rise till then (ib.). Queen Helen of Adiabene fixed a gold candelabrum in front of the Temple, which reflected the first rays of the sun and thus indicated the time of reciting the "Shema'" (Yoma 37b).
The Benedictions preceding and following the Shema'" (Ber. i. 4) are credited to the members of the Great Assembly. They are of Essene origin (see Rapoport in his biography of Ḳalir), and were first instituted in the Temple liturgy (comp. Tamid v. 1). The composition of the "Shema'" itself developed gradually. R. Judah b. Zabida, in explaining why the portion regarding ẓiẓit was incorporated, says that the Rabbis had proposed to add the chapter of Balak (referring especially to Num. xxiii. 18-24), but that they finally decided not to do so, because they thought the "Shema'" already sufficiently long, and they did not care to overburden the congregation (Ber. 12b).
According to the Talmud, the reading of the "Shema'" morning and evening fulfils the commandment "Thou shalt meditate therein day and night" (Josh. i. 8; Men. 99b). As soon as a child begins to speak his father is directed to teach him the verse "Moses commanded us a law, even the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob" (Deut. xxxiii. 4), and teach him to read the "Shema'" (Suk. 42a). The reciting of the first verse of the "Shema'" is called the acceptance of the yoke of the kingship of God" (Ber. ii. 5). Judah ha-Nasi, being preoccupied with his studies, put his hand over his eyes and repeated the first verse in silence (Ber. 13a).
The response "Baruk Shem" ("Praised be the name of His glorified kingdom forever and ever") is ascribed to the patriarch Jacob by R. Joshua b. Levi, who says: "Jacob, just before he died, was about to reveal the 'end of days' to his children, when the Shekinah suddenly turned away from him. Jacob feared that perhaps some one of his children was unworthy. But they all exclaimed, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One,' by which they meant, 'In God we are all one'; whereuponJacob responded, 'Baruk Shem'" (Pes. 56a; comp. Gen. R. xcviii.).
The first verse of the "Shema'" is recited aloud, first by the ḥazzan and then by the congregation, which responds with "Baruk Shem" in silence. Only on Yom Kippur is this response said aloud (comp. Zohar, Terumah, p. 133b). The remainder of the "Shema'" is read in silence. This custom was approved by R. Hai Gaon and R. Solomon b. Adret (Moses b. Isaac Alashkar, Responsa, No. 10, Sabbionetta, 1553); it is the Ashkenazic custom; but the Sephardim recite aloud the whole of the "Shema'" except the "Baruk Shem." Pronouncing the evening "Shema'," however, is not obligatory, though it is meritorious. The evening "Shema'" is based on the verse "Commune with your own heart upon your bed" (Ps. iv. 4). R. Isaac said: "Whoever reads the 'Shema'' on his couch is as one that defends himself with a two-edged sword." "Let them sing aloud upon their beds . . . a two-edged sword in their hand" (Ps. cxlix. 5-6). Rabina said: "Though one that is affrighted [in the night-time] sees nothing himself, his star [guardian angel] sees the apparition; his recourse is to read the 'Shema''" (Meg. 3a).
The Zohar, with reference to Num. xxviii. 24, says, "One shall, before lying down, sanctify the High Name with the 'Shema' Yisrael'" (Zohar, Balaḳ, p. 211a). R. Simeon b. Yoḥai said the "Shema'" preserves Israel from a foe. It was the battle-cry of the priest in calling Israel to arms against an enemy (Deut. xx. 3; Soṭah 42a). It is the last word of the dying in his confession of faith. It was on the lips of those who suffered and were tortured for the sake of the Law. R. Akiba patiently endured while his flesh was being torn with iron combs, and died reciting the "Shema'." He pronounced the last word of the sentence, "Eḥad" (one) with his last breath (Ber. 61b). During every persecution and massacre, from the time of the Inquisition to the slaughter of Kishinef, "Shema' Yisrael" have been the last words on the lips of the dying. "Shema' Yisrael" is the password by which one Jew recognizes another in every part of the world. Eldad the Danite, in describing the wars which his tribe had waged with its Gentile neighbors, said that on the flag of the tribe was inscribed the words "Shema' Yisrael" (Jellinek, "B. H." iii. 9; A. Epstein, "Eldad ha-Dani," pp. 26, 27, Presburg, 1891). See Prayer.