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Expressing Oneness: The Shema Prayer

Expressing Oneness: The Shema Prayer


The most famous of Jewish prayers is the Shema.

It is a mitzvah to make the declaration of the Shema both morning and evening. It also appears a few other times in the prayer book. Thus, apart from the Shema in the evening Prayer, there is also the reciting of the Shema before going to sleep at night. It is one of the first Jewish texts taught to a young child -- and it is also said when a person finally takes leave of the world.

The key statement in the first line of the Shema is that "G-d is One." The Talmud speaks about "lengthening" the way one says the word "One": Echad. "Anyone who lengthens Echad has his days and years lengthened."1 Chassidic teachings explain that this means thinking about, or meditating on, the inner meaning of the word.

The idea that "G-d is One" means not only that there is one G-d, but that G-d and the whole of creation are only oneness. There is nothing apart from G-d. Nothing exists outside of Him; everything that we perceive, every particle of existence, is nothing but a veiled manifestation of G-d.

For this reason everything in the universe is totally dependent on G-d at every moment. G-d created the universe a long time ago, but He also continuously keeps it in existence. The Sages speak of a stream of energy emanating from the infinite essence of G-d, making the universe exist. Were He to remove this life-giving force from the world, it would no longer be there.2 As Maimonides puts it: G-d can exist without the world, but the world cannot exist without G-d.3

With this idea in mind, one declares the Shema with all one's being.


Hebrew letters have numerical values, which help us understand the meaning of the Torah and the prayers.

The word "one" in the Shema, echad, is made up of three letters: Aleph, Chet and Daled. Aleph, which has the numerical value "one," refers to G-d Himself. Chet, numerical value "eight," signifies the seven heavens and the earth, ie: 'up' and 'down', the vertical plane, including all spiritual dimensions. The third letter is Daled, numerical value "four," which denotes the four directions of the horizontal plane: north, south, east, west.

Now we can understand what the Talmud means by "lengthening" the way we say "echad." It means spending time thinking about the meaning of the word: that the world in all its dimensions--the spiritual and the physical, and throughout the world and the entire physical universe--is really an expression of the infinite oneness of G-d.

The Jewish people is itself described as echad, "One nation in the world."4 This implies not only that we are unique in the world, but that we are the nation which communicates to all humanity the concept of the oneness of G-d. Further, by keeping G-d's commands in our daily lives, we draw the Divine Oneness into the world, into every detail of our physical existence. And as the Talmud says, G-d rewards us by granting us long and fulfilling days and years.5

1. Talmud, Berachot 13b.
2. See Rabbi Shneur Zalman's Tanya, Part 2, chapter 1.
3. Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Foundation of the Torah 1:2-3.
4. Amidah for the afternoon prayer on Shabbat.
5. See Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn's discourse in Sefer Hamaamarim Kuntreisim Vol. 1, p. 203 ff.
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Discussion (5)
December 10, 2013
Shema the Name
It seems to me that the purpose is to declare His Name to the world and yet this is what has been removed! Even the Aramaic translation uses 'Shema' in place of the name ?? HEAR O Yisrael HEAR our G -d HEAR is one ? When translated literally? Our Elohim gave us His Name and we are not to forget it. This is what has happened because I t is not being declared.
Hear, O Yisrael YHVH our Elohiym YHVH is One!!
Lisa H
New Braunfels
June 24, 2009
RE: Shema
Yes, the Alter Rebbe does bring this practice in the name of the Rosh (Shulchan Aruch 61:6).
Menachem Posner for
June 23, 2009
are we supposed to point our head in different directions when we say shema?
miami, fl
September 22, 2007
the word echad
In Islam, we say kul ho wa'lla ho A-had....this is part of a 3 line chapter at the end of the Koran, meaning"say, there is only one G-d, He is Independent of all and all are dependent on Him. neither is He the offspring of anyone nor does He have any offspring. Truly he is the One G-d".It is said during the 5 daily prayers repeatedly. It is noted that the word A-had in arabic is only ever used when mentioning g-d, never in the everyday sense of the number one, wa-hid. Its good to know that both faiths treat His Oneness with the utmost respect. thanks for an eye opening and informative website!
July 25, 2007
Well explained
The Shema was indeed the very first prayer I learned as a tiny child. I still remember those days now, with my grandparents at my beside, helping me through the words.

Thank you for explaining the significance of the worn "One" so simply. This was well written.
Kelly Rae
Sydney, Australia
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