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prayer pings #27 the centrality of shema

The Shema is our anthem. We begin and end each day with it. We make sure that all of our children know it by heart. And in our finals moments of life, the Shema in the vidui prayer is the tefillah that escorts us out of this world and into Hashem's embrace.

How did the centrality of the Shema come to be?

Chazal famously teach that at Yaakov's deathbed he feared one of his children would not carry on his legacy of serving Hashem, and so his children said to him, שמע ישראל, 'Listen Israel [Yaakov]', ה' אלקינו ה' אחד, 'Hashem is our God, Hashem is One' (Pesachim 56a). Through this teaching, we see that the Shema began as an intimate personal reassurance between parent and child that the tradition would live on. It was a source of comfort and a commitment that the goals, values, and dreams of Yaakov [aka Yisrael] would continue to be upheld after his death.

The Shema is central to our lives because it speaks both to the individual and to the nation, for Yaakov and his children's story is all of our stories. In the Shema, we declare our personal love of Hashem, Torah, and mitzvot as well as our acceptance of על מלכות שמים [the yoke of heaven] and our willingness to give our individual lives על קדוש השם [to sanctify God's name]. It is a personal declaration stationed within a communal context: as Yaakov's children affirmed, our commitment is part of a long line of faith, devotion, and service of God. And so when we say the Shema, the word ישראל refers both to a single individual and to a people.

Historically, there were times when the Jews were persecuted and prohibited from saying the words of the Shema. In the fifth century, Yezdegerd king of Persia banned the recitation of the Shema and actually stationed guards in shuls to enforce this rule in the morning at Zman Kriat Shema. The Jews responded by inserting Shema into the Kedusha of Shabbat Musaf, after the guards had left, so that they were still able to utter these precious words.

It is certainly not surprising that anyone who wants to destroy us targets the Shema. It is our foundation and our individual and communal affirmation that we will survive and overcome whatever obstacles we encounter (whether as individuals or as a nation) in order to continue the legacy of God's Torah. As our anthem, it proclaims: We will live on. And so we begin and end each day, and each life, with it.

~Rabbanit Alissa

Wed, February 20 2019 15 Adar I 5779