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What's the Meaning of the Jewish Shema Prayer in the Bible?

Learning to Listen to and Love God

The Shema prayer is one of the most famous prayers in the Bible. It was a daily prayer for ancient Israelites and is still recited by Jewish people today. We first find this prayer in the book of Deuteronomy.

Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. And as for you, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.

Deuteronomy 6:4-5

The Shema gets its name from the first Hebrew word of the prayer—”hear” or “listen”, a translation of the Hebrew word shema. Ancient Jewish people combined lines from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 with other passages from the Torah (Deut. 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41) and prayed these words every morning and every evening. This prayer has been one of the most influential traditions in Jewish history, functioning both as the Jewish pledge of allegiance and a hymn of praise.

In the opening section of Deuteronomy where this famous prayer first appears, Moses is addressing the new generation of Israel as they prepare to enter the promised land. He is urging them to not repeat the mistakes of their parents’ generation, wanting them to experience the full blessing of the promised land. But to do so, the people must learn to listen to and love God fully, above all else. Let’s look closer at the powerful words of the Shema to understand why it was so important for Jewish people and how modern Christians can also find wisdom in this ancient prayer.

Meaning of the Shema Prayer

The opening line, “Hear, O Israel,” does not simply mean to let sound waves enter your ears. Here, the word shema means to allow the words to sink in, provide understanding, and generate a response—it’s about action. In Hebrew, hearing and doing are the same thing.

The next instruction in the prayer is to love the Lord your God. What we translate into English as “love” here is the Hebrew word ahavah. Ahavah is not about the warm, fuzzy, emotional energy we feel when we like someone. Much like listening, biblical love is about action. You ahavah someone when you act in loyalty and faithfulness. For Israel, loving means faithful obedience to the terms of their covenant relationship with Yahweh. Those terms are the laws and commands that will make up the body of the book (Deut. 12-26).

Obedience to these laws is not about legalism or trying to earn God’s favor—it’s about love and active listening. If an Israelite loves God, they can more easily listen and respond to his teachings and guidance. This is why the words “listen” and “love” are so tightly connected and repeated through these opening speeches of Deuteronomy.

This prayer is about listening to and loving God. But the prayer continues, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” In other words, the people are to love God with all of their beings. Their knowledge, their existence, everything that they are is to love God with action, obedience, and covenant faithfulness.

It’s a beautiful prayer, but why did it become so important for the ancient Israelites and Jewish people? The words of this prayer take on an even deeper meaning when we look at the context of the ancient Israelites and see how countercultural it was for them to serve one God above all else.

Translating the Shema

Bible nerds, you will find this part really interesting. There is an ancient debate on how exactly to translate and interpret the Shema prayer. The problem arises because the Hebrew scrolls contain two back-to-back sentences that lack the word “is.” There is no present-tense verb equivalent to the English verb “is” in ancient Hebrew. There is a word for “was” (Heb. hayah) and “will be” (Heb. yihyeh), but “is” doesn’t exist. Rather, two words are put next to each other, and the word “is” is inferred.

For example, in English, we would write a sentence as “The car is red.” That same sentence in ancient Hebrew would be written as “The car red.”

Ancient Israelites obviously had a concept of the verb “is,” they just didn’t use a word to express it in their language. Instead, they simply placed two words together (Hebrew grammar nerds call these nominal clauses).

So in Hebrew, the Shema prayer consists of four nouns in a row.

Hebrew Transliteration: YHWH ‘elohenu YHWH ekhad. English: Lord our God, Lord one.

As you can see, we’ve got four words. Depending on where you place the word “is,” you can end up with different sentences.

  1. The Lord our God is one Lord.
  2. The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.
  3. The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

The meaning between these options isn’t drastically different, but each one has a different emphasis. Is the point that the Lord God is one and not many (like in options 1 and 3)? Or is the emphasis on the fact that only the Lord is our God (option 2)? Does the Shema claim that Israel’s God is one being, or is it highlighting that the Lord alone is Israel’s God and not any other god?

This last meaning seems to fit the overall context of Deuteronomy much better. In other words, the Shema prayer isn’t trying to make a philosophical statement about God’s essence or being (that God is one). Rather, the Shema is a pledge of allegiance to the Lord God of Israel that excludes allegiance to any other gods.

Polytheistic Threat

All of this makes perfect sense as you read further in Deuteronomy. The Israelites have been steeped in polytheistic cultures for generations. From their roots in Canaan, to the long years in Egypt, to their traveling through Canaanite territory in the wilderness, they have been surrounded by people worshiping many different gods.

Moses believes that loyalty, obedience, and love for their one true God is the only way to life and that one of the greatest threats to Israel’s future was dividing their allegiance between many gods. So the Shema was prayed daily to remind the people that Yahweh alone was their God.

The prayer goes on from here to show the value of passing this conviction on to later generations to spare them the tragic results of idolatry to other gods.

You shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.

Deuteronomy 6:7

The Shema Prayer in the New Testament

The Shema was widely practiced in the Second Temple period. So this prayer was formative for Jesus, and he drew upon it in his teachings. When he was asked which command in the Torah was the greatest, Jesus answered, “The first of all the commandments is, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

In the book of Revelation, John references the Shema as well. But before we look at John’s reference, let’s take a closer look at a verse that follows the Shema prayer in Deuteronomy.

You shall bind these words as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as symbols between your eyes.

Deuteronomy 6:8

What does this mean? We use our eyes to see and our hands to do almost everything. So this language symbolically represents how the words of the Shema prayer were meant to guide the vision and action of every moment of life for the people. This explains why John the visionary says that in the new creation, when God’s people live in intimate proximity to God and the risen Jesus, “they will see God’s face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:4).

This way of life is in contrast to people who reject Jesus. They have given their allegiance to other powers bent on destroying them (depicted as beasts in Revelation 13). John the visionary also drew upon the Shema to depict a human life on the path of destruction.

The Beast also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads.

Revelation 13:16

For John, the choice is a stark one. You either give your allegiance to Jesus and allow it to influence how you see and act, or your allegiance will belong to destructive powers that will also govern how you see and what you do in life. One path leads to life and the other to death. These ideas and images from John’s vision come from Moses’ words in Deuteronomy, specifically from the Shema prayer.

The Shema Prayer for Christians

The Shema is a beautiful prayer. There’s a reason why God’s people have been praying these words for millennia. They are simple words with the capacity to reshape the course of an entire people. Praying the Shema can keep God’s love and loyalty in the forefront of our minds and drive us toward obedience—not out of obligation or duty but out of love. Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John echo the Shema.

The one who has my commands and keeps them, that’s the one who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and I will reveal myself to him.

John 14:21

Following Jesus is about love. And as we receive Jesus’ love, we respond with gratitude, humility, and a commitment to honor and love in return. Love generates more love, which results in faithfulness and obedience. These are truths that can transform us from the inside out. Can you imagine a better way to keep these truths at the forefront of our minds than praying the Shema daily just as the ancient Israelites did? Maybe we should start today.

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