What Is the Shema Prayer?

Hebrew Torah written on a scroll, what language did Jesus speak?

What Is the Shema Prayer?

While Christians may not recite the Shema Prayer with as much frequency as those in the Jewish faith, there is great strength and beauty in it for all believers.

Many believers are familiar with The Lord’s Prayer and several have heard of the Nicean Creed that summarizes the basic Christian beliefs. But what is the Shema Prayer? 

In short, the Shema Prayer is the most important prayer to the Jewish people. It serves as their pledge of allegiance and hymn of praise. It’s written in their Torah and included in every prayer book. Taken from three passages in the Bible's Old Testament, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41, it declares faith in one God and affirms the person’s witness and commitment to love Him with all that they are. The middle of the prayer describes the rewards God promises if they follow Him and the consequences if they don’t. It ends by urging them to wear tassels as a way to help them remember and obey God’s Commands. 

The Shema prayer is so significant to the Jews that they begin and end every day with it. It’s also the first prayer they learn as children. 

But does it have any relevance to Christians?

What Is the Jewish Context of the Shema Prayer?

Although most of the contents of the Shema Prayer are taken from passages in the Old Testament, the Bible doesn’t mention when it entered Jewish tradition. The earliest reference to this prayer is found in the Mishnah (written in 200 A.D.) which refers to it being recited during the Second Temple Period. This means the prayer was likely said during the days of Jesus.

What Is the Biblical Context of the Shema Prayer?

The Shema Prayer is divided into three sections which are each taken from a different passage in the Old Testament respectively: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41.

Deuteronomy takes place at the end of the Israelites’ 40 years of desert wandering. The generation who didn’t believe God’s promises and rebelled against God by refusing to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 13-14) has died. Gathered at the border of this land, the new generation stands ready to follow God in faith and take hold of the territory He provided. Moses, due to an act of disobedience (Numbers 20), won’t be accompanying them into this new era. Before he hands off leadership to Joshua, he reminds the new generation of who God is, what He has done, what He will do if they obey Him, and what will happen if they don’t.

The third passage in the Shema takes place shortly after the first generation of Israelites embarked upon their wilderness wandering. In these verses, God instructs His people to create a physical reminder of God’s commandments to help them obey.

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/VladimirZapletin

Hebrew language

What Is the Meaning of the Shema Prayer?

In Hebrew, the first word of the prayer is shema, which means ‘to hear.’ It also carries the more in-depth idea of paying attention, listening carefully, and responding. In the first line, God calls His people to pay close attention to what He is about to say. The rest of the prayer can be summarized as follows.

Part 1: Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (and liturgical addition)

V. 4: The Lord alone is our God and He is one God.

  • Liturgical Addition: The Jewish version of the prayer includes the line, “Blessed is the name of His Glorious Majesty forever and ever.” It was originally said as a congregational response after the Priest recited the first line. Now it’s whispered to indicate that it isn’t part of the biblical passage.

V. 5: We should love the Lord with everything we are.

  • New Testament Correlation: Jesus referenced this part of the prayer in Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27. In Old Testament times, the heart was considered the location of the thoughts and emotions, but by the time Jesus came, the mind was viewed as taking on the thinking role. This is probably why Jesus added ‘mind’ when he referenced this passage.

V. 6: Because of who God is and out of our love for Him, we should remember and obey His words.

V. 7: We should make it a priority to teach God’s ways to our children.

V. 8-9: We should let God’s word guide our vision for life, our plans, and everything we do.

Part 2: Deuteronomy 11:13-21

V. 13-15: If you follow God, He will reward you.

  • New Testament Correlation: Several passages in the New Testament reaffirm that God will reward those who faithfully serve Him. A few key passages include John 6, Hebrews 11:6, and Revelation 11:18.

V. 16-17: If you rebel against God, He will discipline you. 

  • Old Testament Context: Throughout the Old Testament and especially in the books of the prophets, God states that when His people rebel, He brings hardships to them to return to Him. In other words, God uses hardships to discipline His people and lead them to repentance.
  • New Testament Correlation: God’s discipline is described in Hebrews 12:4-12.

V. 18-21: Therefore, do everything you can to remember and follow God.

Part 3: Numbers 15:37-41

Make and wear tassels as a physical reminder of God’s words to help you follow God’s commands.

  • Old Testament Context: Many parts of the Mosaic law were physical practices established to teach the Israelites about who God is, help them remember His commands, and convict them of their sins so that they might repent and do what was right.
  • New Testament Correlation: According to John 14-16, the Holy Spirit now takes on the role of teaching, reminding, and convicting us of sin.
  • Present Day Comparison: Like the tassels on the clothes, some Christians wear crosses or other faith symbols to remind them of God’s love.

The Shema Prayer In Summary

While Christians may not recite the Shema Prayer with as much frequency as those in the Jewish faith, there is great strength and beauty in it for all believers. It reminds and calls us to declare in our hearts and minds that the Lord alone is our God. As we love Him with every part of our being, we also desire to serve Him and walk in His ways. We can have confidence that God sees our hearts and deeds and that, whether in this life or the next, He will reward and honor our dedication to Him.

God hasn’t left us alone in our faith journey. Instead, He sent the Holy Spirit to help us remember His teachings and walk in His ways. And so, may we love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength.

References:

The Shema Through The Ages: A Pre-Modern History Of Its Interpretation

Photo Credit: © iStock/Getty Images Plus/asafta

Jenny Fulton is a wife, mother, Wholly Loved Ministries team member, and writer who enjoys studying God’s Word and sharing what she has learned with others. She is the author of Princess Lillian and Grandpa’s Goodbye, Lil Kingdom Sisters Guide to the Alphabet (to be released Fall 2021), and an upcoming Bible Study on 1 Corinthians. An enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, Jenny developed an early interest in language and cultures. In 2007, she graduated from Grace University with a B.S. in Bible, a B.S. in elementary education, and an endorsement in K-12 ESL. For the next seven years, she worked as a teacher in a variety of cultural and educational settings, both abroad and in the United States. Her days are now spent raising her three young daughters and writing as much as time and opportunity allows. You can find more of her writings on her website at heart-soul-mind.org


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