sign language

Pay Attention, Israel!

Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!

Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One!

When I served Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Southern California, I worked to learn how to say my prayers in ASL, American Sign Language. As is always the case with translation, there were some tricky bits about making the words of the prayers truly available to the congregation.  The first word of the Shema, the central prayer of Judaism, is usually translated “hear.” The problem is that to say that word to a group of Deaf people would lose the very essence of the prayer, because it immediately excluded them.

This dilemma is handled in various ways in various Deaf Jewish communities, but at TBS, they use the sign for “understand” to translate “Shema.” It is a gesture that begins with a closed fist at the forehead, palm toward the face. Then the index finger pops up, thus:

(I am saying “understand” here because that is what the sign means in standard ASL.)

It can be very disturbing when a prayer is translated differently, or when we sing it to a new tune. I originally found this translation of the Shema to be very troubling, because I was accustomed to “Hear.” I still think that had it been my decision, I’d have gone with “Pay attention!” However, the unfamiliar translation made me start thinking: what best communicates the spirit of the Shema?

Now, when I say the Shema, I listen to it in Hebrew, in English, and yes, in ASL. Every new translation possibility has enriched my understanding of the raw Hebrew. Every possibility of meaning collapses back into

Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!

What does “Shema” mean to you?

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

7 thoughts on “Pay Attention, Israel!”

  1. “Pay attention” is a very nice way to describe the word “Sh’ma!’, and “understand” is more what it means when the Israelites said “Na’asse v’nish’ma” when they received the commandments.

    As someone who loves language, and have studied them as a college student, I know that translation is never an “exact” correspondance in any language. Each language influences our vision of the world. Using a word in one language is not the same description of the same experience in another language. That is why a translation is always an approximation (something that comes close, but not necessarily overlaps it all) and your post is the perfect example.

    I have seen several versions of the Sh’ma in sign language and think it is beautiful and significant, whatever the sign is translating in, and that is for me what counts in fact. If there is a sign that says “Be open”, that is what I would probably be using (I do not know how to sign).


  2. I think “understand” is a pretty good approximation of what we really mean by “Sh’ma.” Just hearing alone isn’t enough, if the message bounces right off you and doesn’t sink in. We have to hear the message, and absorb it, and then take action that might be different from what we would have done had we not gotten it. That sounds like a reasonable description of what it means to understand something.


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