Praying the Sh’ma

Sh’ma Yisrael! Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad!

Listen, Israel! The Eternal* is our God, the Eternal is One!

The Sh’ma is the first prayer a Jewish child learns and often the last prayer on the lips of a dying Jew.

A teacher once gave me an exercise that I still find useful:

1. Find a quiet place to sit.

2. Say the first word of the Sh’ma: “Sh’ma.” Say it aloud, and listen to it.

3. Think about what that word means. Let your mind flow to other possibilities than the usual “Hear.” Or let your mind linger on the sound of the word. It’s up to you. (You can do this either in Hebrew or in English. Do what is comfortable for you.) Let your mind play with it until it is ready for something new.

4. Take a moment to be completely silent. Then take the next word, “Yisrael.” Say it aloud. Listen to it. Think about what all the various things the word means to you. Let your mind linger on it for a while.

When you are ready, proceed through the rest of the Sh’ma, one word at a time.

Sh’ma. Yisrael. Adonai. Eloheinu. Adonai. Echad.

Listen. Israel. Name of God. Our God. Name of God. One.

Now here’s my question: What does the Sh’ma mean to you? 

*The actual word in Hebrew is the Name of God, which Jews do not pronounce. You may fill in with “Adonai,” “HaShem,” “The Eternal,” “Lord” or whatever works for you. Or you may simply be silent.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

5 thoughts on “Praying the Sh’ma”

  1. Ever since conversion a few years ago, the Shma is on my mind a lot. It stirs me every time I say it, hear it, or read it. So powerful are these words. I taught our synagogue youth to say it slower as well. To take in each word on its own and to breath between each. It really changes things.

    To me the Shma is a call. A unifying reminder. It is empowering and strong. It is triumphant in its declaration, comforting in its truth, and humbling in its reminder. I love this so much. I was inspired by the Shma and recorded a song about it that we’ve worked into our Acoustic Shabbat services, just before we all stand to say it.

    What a beautiful thing to rise in the morning and sleep at night with the words of Torah. I taught my son to say this when he can’t sleep or when he has a bad dream.

    And since you are the Coffee Shop Rabbi, I’ll say that It’s the best part of waking up.

  2. The Sh’ma is paramount to me: as a human being, and as a Jew ; but, asking me to think of it, makes me a more faithful believer, more discussing too…
    Though I’m deep into Rabbi Nachman Meuman, I stick to Reform!
    Well, aren’t we Jews from all walks of life?
    Don’t we pray the Name to enlighten us? Don’t we have the same siddurs? (well, more or less!)
    Kippur coming close, two months anyway..! I do feel the same as my orthodox counterparts!

    To you,


  3. So – my problem with the Shema, well the first line of it, and the second commandment, is this. I am married to a Pagan. And I have lots of religious friends and family who are truly spiritual people, who do not connect with (for want of a better phrase) the Jewish G-d. What I actually believe is that there is a force, that is so much bigger than us that we cannot possibly have a true understanding of it, and that we all relate to this force in different ways. The Jewish way is the Jewish G-d, my husband connects to the Lord and Lady, I have friends who connect with various gods and goddesses, I have Christian friends who connect with a holy trinity. Whenever I say the Shema, I worry that I’m saying that my way is better than their way, that I’m right and they are wrong. I don’t believe that’s true at all – I believe that Judaism is the right way for me to connect with religion, but – it’s not necessarily going to be the right way for everyone else… the rest of it I have no problem with!

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