For thousands of years, every morning and evening, Jewish people have prayed these well-known words as a way of expressing their devotion to God, they’re called the Shema.
“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 of your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”1
Now the first word of the Shema is “hear,” or “listen,” which in Hebrew is pronounced shema. That’s where the prayer gets its name.
To Listen [00:26-01:10]
Now shema is a really common word in the Hebrew Bible, and it’s obvious why. Hearing is a very universal activity. It’s usually connected with the ear, as in Proverbs 20:12. “Ears that shema and eyes that see, the Lord has made them both.”2
Now that seems basic enough, but if you look at the other ways that Hebrew authors can use the word shema, they use it to mean more than just “let sound waves enter your ear.”
In Hebrew, shema can also mean “pay attention to,” or “focus on.” So when Leah, who wasn’t loved by her husband Jacob, she has a son and she names him Simon, or in Hebrew, Shim’on. Because, she says, “The Lord has shema that I am unloved.”3
To Respond [01:11-03:05]
So shema means to hear and to pay attention to. And even more, it can also mean responding to what you hear.
This is why so many of the cries for help in the book of Psalms begin with a call that God listen. Psalm 27:7: “Shema my voice, when I call O Lord, be merciful, answer me.” So asking God to shema is at the same time asking God to act, to do something.
It’s similar to when God asks people to listen. Like when the people of Israel come to Mount Sinai, God says, “If you shema me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession.”4.
Now there’s a couple interesting things about this verse in Exodus. In Hebrew the word shema is repeated twice in this sentence to give it emphasis, “if you shemashema,” meaning, “listen closely.”
But also notice that from God’s point of view, listening is basically the same as keeping the covenant. So when God asks the people to shema, what he means is that they listen and obey.
And that’s the last fascinating thing about shema. In ancient Hebrew, there is no separate word for obey, meaning to carry out the wishes of someone who knows better than you or is an authority over you. So in the Bible, if you want to say, “I will listen and do what you say,” you use the single word shema. In Hebrew, listening and doing are two sides of the same coin.
This is why, later in Israel’s history when the people were breaking their covenant promises to God, the Hebrew prophets would say things like, “They have ears, but they’re not listening.”5. The Israelites of course could hear just fine, but they weren’t actually listening, or else they would act differently.
And so in the end, listening in the Bible is about giving respect to the one speaking to you and doing what they say. Real listening takes effort and action. And that’s the Hebrew word shema.