When I recited the Sh’ma as a child, the words evoked another world. It was my rabbit hole, my looking glass, my wardrobe. When I said the Sh’ma, I pictured the large block Hebrew letters as the ultimate portal to God.
Sh’ma Yisrael. Hear O Israel. That was Moses’ rallying cry to the Israelites. But before Moses uttered the words of the Sh’ma, Jacob’s sons said them as a promise to their father that not only would they not give in to idolatry but they also would remain steadfast monotheists.
Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai, Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. “Hear O Israel, The Lord is God. The Lord is one.” Listen closely. Hear the words. Heed the words. And then after the command to hear comes the injunction to love. “You shall love the Lord with all of your heart, with all of your soul and with all of your might.” Those were potent words when I was a little girl. I said them alone in my bed, feeling like a speck of starlight in a large, dark universe.
But to love the Lord with all of my heart and soul, I needed to hear God’s voice pierce through the darkness. I gave up on hearing God’s voice and saying the Sh’ma when I was a teenager. I replaced the lilting melody of the Sh’ma with crackly Top 40 coming from the transistor radio under my pillow.
With deep love comes deep listening. When my daughter, Anna, turned 2, the Sh’ma came back into my life like an old song on the radio. Hear O’ Israel. Funny words and strange syntax for a toddler. But the words had a soothing effect on Anna. The “shhhh” sound that began the Sh’ma cleared space for the moment of silence that precedes prayer. You speak, and I listen. I hear your words. I discern them like a palate distinguishes taste. My amen to your prayer is the soft coda that comes after intense yearning. My amen is a signal to you that there is no one else in the world to whom I would rather listen.
Anna was ready to give up the Sh’ma when she was 5. She wanted prayers that were more to the point. “God, please give me a puppy. God, please make me an only child.” She purposely mispronounced the words of the Sh’ma or said them in silly accents. At the time, neither of us knew that there is a talmudic loophole for this. The Sh’ma, the central prayer in Judaism, can be said in 70 languages. It is important for the Sh’ma to be understood by every Jew so that Anna can say it in her made-up language.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the rabbis’ wisdom when it comes to living in translation. Living in translation is the plight of the Diaspora Jew. To be truly inclusive, the rabbis knew not to hang a “Hebrew Only” sign when a Jew approached the Sh’ma.
When I recently read about a fast-food restaurant in Philadelphia that demanded people order in English only, I was outraged as a Jew and then as a Latina. If God is willing to hear the Sh’ma in 70 languages, why can’t someone in Philadelphia order a cheese steak in Spanish? God should have the ultimate word in the immigration debate.
Prayer requires a lot of practice before it feels spontaneous. I appreciated this the year I said Kaddish for my father. During my year of mourning, I attended the Ma’ariv service almost every night and noticed that much of the nighttime liturgy spins out of the Sh’ma. When I first attended minyan, the Sh’ma was the only prayer I knew by heart. I said it tentatively. My fluency in Hebrew prayer was seriously compromised after years of dormancy.
When my son, Adam, was in kindergarten, the Sh’ma was a rallying cry for 18 5-year-olds; those were the best words to communicate with God effectively. Those words fulfilled the promise of Jacob’s sons. The children sat in a circle, their left hands over their eyes forming the three-pronged Hebrew letter — the shin — the first letter of the Sh’ma.
The next part of the Sh’ma is a single line. “Praised be his glorious Majesty’s name for all eternity.” This is said silently, a vestige from the days when the Romans had their own immigration xenophobia and forbade the public recitation of the Sh’ma. The blessing is in small type in the prayer book so as not to intrude on the biblical passages that follow. Adam and his classmates emphasized the silence of praising God’s majesty by reciting it in a stage whisper.
The first few months that I went to the evening minyan as a mourner, I declared that there was only one God in Hebrew. But I recited the rest of the Sh’ma in English, hoping that if I understood the words that I read, I would recognize a portal to God when I saw it. And maybe this time I would walk through it.
*Judy Bolton-Fasman is at work on a memoir about the year she said Kaddish. She is a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. *