Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad (“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”) (Deuteronomy 6:4) are the first words of the Jewish prayer known as the Shema Yisrael. The most famous of all Jewish sayings, no other prayer defines the essence of Judaism more than the Shema.
It is the first prayer that a Jewish child is taught to say and the last words a Jew says prior to death. In between, it is said twice daily, once in the morning and again at night. We recite Shema before reading the Torah on Sabbaths and festivals. Shema is contained in the mezuzah we attach to our homes, and in the tefillin that we put on our arm and head. Throughout history, the cry of Shema has symbolized the ultimate declaration of faith in the darkest moments of exile. Why are these words so central to Jewish belief?
When we say God is “One”, we are really declaring that the apparent separation between the Creator and the created physical world is only an illusion. God’s omnipresence is actually hidden within every aspect of the universe, so in reality nothing has a true independent existence except for God himself. (In fact, in Hebrew, “Elokim” has the same numerical value as the word for “nature”!) So, practically speaking, the Shema is a declaration that everything that happens has One source above, even if with our limited perception we can’t see it. Similar to light shining through a prism, even though we perceive the separated colors of the spectrum, they really emanate from one white light.
So when a Jew says Shema, it is really a moment of enlightenment, of expanded consciousness, and so it is customary to cover one’s eyes. Just as at the end of life, while our eyes will be closed, it is only then when we will perceive this Oneness, that everything that happened had its source in a benevolent Creator. By saying the Shema, we strive for that level of belief and understanding in the here and now.