Thoughts on the Sh’ma

Twice a day during prayers, once in the morning and once in the evening, a Jew is required to say the Sh’ma. The first six words, loosely translated (in old English) as “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One” are a centerpiece of a Jew’s confirmation of monotheism.

Although books upon books have been written explaining the meaning of the Sh’ma, I’d like to discuss the introductory prayers before the evening Sh’ma (the Sh’ma is both preceded and followed by prayers). The first prayer before the evening Sh’ma aptly speaks about G-d as being the one who “brings on the evenings”. To properly understand this one must be aware of the fact that the Hebrew word for evening, “erev“, has the same meaning as “being mixed together”. In other words, although during the nighttime everything is blurry and unclear and seemingly mixed together as a result of the lack of sunlight, it is G-d who has determined that this is what is needed for the benefit of mankind. Moreover, the same G-d who brings the confusion of the night also brings the clarity of the day. Living in a modern world with electricity and late-night restaurants this may not appear to be such a novel idea. However, in the ancient world when no one dared venture out of his home after sundown partly because of a fear of the demons who supposedly ruled the night, this idea was revolutionary.

That’s the simple meaning of the prayer. However, in a deeper sense I believe it is talking about the dark times, both past and present, in the historical life of the Jewish people. Thus, during periods of confusion and trouble when it’s hard to believe that there is a purpose to all the trials and tribulations and daily struggles, and it even appears that G-d has receded from history or doesn’t exist at all, the prayer is telling us that we must hold fast to the belief that G-d has not disappeared and that He is guiding history in such a manner for some specific and beneficial purpose. Although it may be difficult to fathom this, especially in the face of the seeming lack of justice in the world, nevertheless we must try.

It is interesting to note, especially for those of us who live in Israel, that “erev” is also the same word for “Arab”. Once again the meaning, although difficult, should be clear. In other words, it’s not by coincidence that there are seemingly endless difficulties with the Arabs since it is G-d who is “bringing on the Arabs”. What this means is that the Arabs are G-d’s emissaries, as it were, whose purpose is to give the Jewish people enough knocks on the head until we finally wake up and “get our act together” – we have to relearn who we are, what our true purpose in the world is and how this purpose is intrinsically related to the Jewish people having complete sovereignty over the Land of Israel. Unfortunately I’m afraid that until this happens the Arabs will simply continue to fulfill their role.

After such a difficult opening prayer the following prayer seemingly changes direction and talks about G-d’s never-ending love for the Jewish people. However, in my opinion this is not a zigzag but rather a confirmation of the fact that although it is G-d who brings on all the “evenings” of history, including the Arabs in our time, there is no need to worry since G-d has not left us for a moment and His love for the Jewish people remains intact. Moreover, just as the clarity of the sunny morning washes away the confusion of the dark night, in the end, after all the difficulties, frustrations and setbacks, everything will work out and the light of history will shine once more.

Only after such a deep realization is a Jew properly ready to recite the nighttime Sh’ma.

The quicker we understand all of this and in doing so start reconnecting to our real selves, the quicker the suffering, both for the Jewish people and ultimately for the rest of humanity, will end.

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8 Responses to Thoughts on the Sh’ma

  1. Steve Acre says:

    Hi, In response to your eloquent dissertation about the S’hma, I am bewildered as to how do you bring the evening and the Arab in the same word. The three letters of the word Erev in Hebrew does NOT have the same vowels as the work Arab. One has kamets and the other has Patach….You can also see in the English language that one word is written with an E and the other with A…
    Many words in the Hebrew language has different meanings only because of the vowels, and it always intrigued me how come the Torah does not have any vowels? Do they want us to try and find our own interpretation of the sentence?
    Steve Acre

    • Ruth says:

      In the plural, the vowels are the same.

    • Yoel Meltzer says:

      Hi Steve,

      True, they have different vowels but the connection is by the three letter root which is the same. Many words in Hebrew are connected by their roots and many commentaries are written based upon the roots.

      Yoel

  2. Ruth says:

    Perhaps Hashem also brings on the confused ones of Israel who can’t see in the dark and don’t understand very much, the ones who have discouraged your optimism about man-made political solutions. I say this as a joke, but we both know it’s true, too. Our lives are too short to understand the ways of G-d.

    Ruth

    • Yoel Meltzer says:

      Hi Ruth,

      Although you say this jokingly, I’m sure you’re right. After a long, long exile which reduced the understanding of Judaism to something very simplistic which in turn caused it to nearly fall apart over the last two hundred years in the face of modernity, I’m certain that the confusion is part of the process. Only thus will people be ready to achieve a more profound and meaningful understanding, something which is vital for changing the situation (on a personal level, a national level, and ultimatley a global level). Regarding the ways of G-d, ultimately we can’t fathom them. Nevertheless, we can try as much as possible.

      Be well.

      Yoel

      • Ruth says:

        Did “Arab” come from a location to the west of something?

        • Yoel Meltzer says:

          Hi Ruth,

          I’m not sure although the word “Arab” is certainly related to the word “west” (ma’arav in Hebrew). The eastern most region of North Africa is known as the Maghreb which is probably from the same root. The sun also sets in the west, which would be linked to the original idea of confusion and lack of clarity.

          Yoel

          • Ruth says:

            They’ve always called themselves Arabs, I think. Maybe in antiquity they were the western branch of a family.

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