Secrets of Shema

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, we find the Shema and its first paragraph. The Shema is undoubtedly the most important text recited by Jews. It sets out the fundamental creed and purpose of Judaism. It is the first thing that a Jewish child should be taught (Sukkah 42a). According to one opinion, reciting the Shema is what distinguishes a person from being an ‘am aretz—one of the unlearned masses (Berakhot 47a). The Midrash states that one who properly recites the Shema is like one who fulfils all Ten Commandments! (See Otzar Midrashim, pg. 489.)

That last statement is particularly significant since there was a time when the Ten Commandments were recited together with the Shema (Berakhot 12a). The Sages eventually removed the Ten Commandments and replaced it with the current third paragraph which discusses the mitzvah of tzitzit. This was done because of the growing Christian movement that had abandoned essentially all of the mitzvot and focused only on the Ten Commandments (with Shabbat moved to Sunday). The Sages instituted the new third paragraph to lessen the emphasis on the Ten Commandments and to make it clear that we are obligated to keep all of God’s commandments, as the third paragraph states explicitly.

The Shema’s importance cannot be overstated. It is the very first topic discussed in the Talmud. It is the last verse to emerge from the lips of a dying Jew. Kabbalistic texts speak at length about the Shema and its power, the endless meditations and intentions associated with it, and the incredible secrets buried within it. The following is a tiny sample of some of those mysteries.

Greater Than Angels

The Midrash states that Israel is more beloved to God than even His angels, and proves it based on what God commanded each to recite. The angels praise God by reciting “Holy, Holy, Holy is Hashem Tzvaot…” (Isaiah 6:3) while Israel praises God by reciting “Shema Israel, Hashem Eloheinu…” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The former mention God’s name after three words, while the latter after just two words, suggesting that Israel is more beloved to God. (Otzar Midrashim, pg. 487.) This Midrash may seem trivial, but there is more to it than meets the eye. The introductory word that the angels use before God’s Name is “Holy”, Kadosh (קדוש), which has a gematria of 410. The introductory word that Israel uses before God’s Name is Shema (שמע), which also has a gematria of 410! Mathematically, it is the same formula, but Israel reaches God’s Name faster.

The Wheel of 231 Gates, with lines connecting every combination of letters.

Indeed, as we’ve mentioned before multiple times, Israel (ישראל) is a fusion of Yashar El (ישר-אל), literally “straight to God”. We have a direct and personal channel to Hashem. In fact, the Kabbalists speak of 231 channels to God. One of the most ancient Jewish mystical texts, Sefer Yetzirah, explains that these channels, or Heavenly “gates”, originate from the Hebrew alphabet (through which God created and encoded His universe). The alphabet has 22 letters, and each combination of two letters makes up a unique Heavenly gate. So, first there’s the א״ב gate, then the א״ג gate, then א״ד, and so forth. When all the alephs are done we go to the beits, and since we already had the א״ב combo we go to ב״ג, then ב״ד and so forth. Continuing until the end of the alphabet, we get a total of 231 such gates. Israel is able to access all of these gates, and this too is alluded to in Israel’s name, as it is an anagram of יש רל״א, literally “there are 231 [gates]”.

Therefore, when someone is reciting Shema they have the power to reach up to, and open, all 231 Heavenly gates. These gates are the channels through which God bestows His goodness upon us. God’s goodness is referred to simply as tov, “good”, precisely what God stated when He created the universe and saw that each creation was “good”. The gematria of tov (טוב) is 17. When we combine the 231 gates with the 17 of the goodness that flows through them we get 248. That number is significant because it is the total number of words in Shema.

To be more precise, the Shema has a total of 245 words, so in order to meditate upon that special number of 248, the Sages instituted that three words be added in the recitation. This is why we repeat “Adonai Eloheichem Emet” at the end of the Shema, or add “El Melekh Ne’eman” at the beginning of Shema. Of course, 248 is also the number of positive commandments in the Torah, and the number of bones and major organs in the human body. The Shema is the quintessential positive mitzvah of the Torah, and therefore hints to all the others. The Kabbalists add that because each word of Shema corresponds to one body part, it has a tremendous power to heal—all the more reason to be as careful as possible with the recitation of each and every word.

One God, or God is One?

The foundation of Judaism is the idea that all is One. Judaism is not just monotheistic, and it is not pantheistic, it is panentheistic, meaning that God not only created this universe but fills every inch of it, and is also everything that lies beyond this universe. Nothing is separate from God, or removed from Him, or outside of His control. The Arizal explained in great detail the concept of tzimtzum, that this universe lies within a space “constricted” inside of God’s Infinity. The idea is to understand that everything is really one. All separations and distinctions are illusions. The mystic sees how all things are interconnected. As the Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 1787-1859) famously said: “One who does not see God everywhere does not see Him anywhere.”

And this is the essence of Shema. It isn’t just that there is one God out there, but that all is One. This is why we say Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. First we invoke God’s Ineffable Name, the Tetragrammaton (יהוה), which represents his infinity and eternity. The reason we do not pronounce the Name to begin with is because it is impossible to contain infinity within a finite word. We say “Adonai” instead. Then we invoke the second Name of God, Elohim. This Name is the one used throughout the account of Creation because it is associated with this universe. Strangely, the Name itself is plural, but always used in the singular. The plurality refers to all the various forces of Nature; the singularity to remind us that all the disparate forces in Nature are really one. It has often been pointed out that the gematria of Elohim (אלהים) is 86, equal to הטבע which literally means “The Nature”.

Putting it all together, in the Shema we are affirming that Hashem—the Infinite, Ineffable, Eternal One that fills this universe and everything beyond and is completely ungraspable—is the One and Same God as Elohim, the God that we see within Nature, and within every iota of this universe. In other words, everything is One. And this is the deeper reason for why we close our eyes when we recite Shema: our eyes lead us astray in showing us an illusory world composed of all kinds of distinct entities. It is only when we close our eyes that everything becomes one—a singular monotonous “light” behind our eyelids. This is what Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi intended on a mystical level when he closed his eyes during Shema (the practice originated with him over 1800 years ago) in order to take upon himself “the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven” (Berakhot 13b).

Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh points out something even more amazing. The gematria of the Tetragrammaton is 26 and the gematria of Elohim is 86. The first and lowest common multiple between these two numbers is 1118. This just happens to be the gematria of the whole Shema verse! In other words, the Shema is where 26 and 86 first meet. From every angle, we are being reminded that all is One. And our job when reciting Shema is to bear witness to this fact. This is why within the Shema verse, the way it is written in the Torah, two letters are written larger than all the others: ‘ayin and dalet. They combine to spell ‘ed (עד), “witness”. Each of us, when reciting the Shema, is a witness to God’s Infinite Oneness.

The first paragraph of Shema, with the letters ‘ayin and dalet enlarged.

Another of God’s names is Shaddai, literally “The Sufficient One”, the only One necessary, the only One that brings the universe to life. The gematria of Shaddai is 314, alluding to π (3.14) representing the perfect circle. It is a number that denotes wholeness and completion. More specifically, it represents that circular tzimtzum of Creation. The Talmud (Chagigah 12a) states that the Name stands for mi sh’amar dai l’olamo (מי שאמר די לעולמו), “He Who told His Universe to stop”, alluding to the process of tzimtzum, where God began to vacate a circular (or spherical) space that expanded ever-rapidly until He told it to stop.

The Name Shaddai is found upon the mezuzah, and embedded within the tefillin boxes and straps. Traditionally, when Sephardic Jews cover their eyes for Shema they do so in a way that also demonstrates Shaddai. The three middle fingers are placed above the eyes on the forehead, in the shape of a letter shin; the thumb is bent to form the shape of a dalet, and placed over the right eye; the small pinky over the left eye resembles the small yud. Together, they spell Shaddai. Whichever way it is that one covers their eyes, there is yet a deeper secret behind the practice: It has been beautifully pointed out that the gematrias for the names of the five fingers of the hand add up to 1118, the value of the Shema:

Family of Israel

According to Jewish tradition, the first person to recite Shema was the forefather Jacob. Of course, it couldn’t really have been anyone before him, since it was Jacob who was renamed “Israel”. When he saw Joseph after all those years Jacob said the Shema. And when he was about to die and his sons gathered around him, the Talmud (Pesachim 56a) says he felt the Shekhinah start to depart from him and he worried that perhaps they were unworthy, at which point they all recited the Shema in unison. (There is a hidden reference to this teaching in the words of the Torah itself, where Jacob tells his children: shimu el Israel, “Listen to Israel” [Genesis 49:2].)

Rabbi Dovid Leitner points out that the last word of the Shema, “echad”, actually hints to Jacob and his family: The first letter, aleph, stands for Jacob himself, who was called Israel. The second letter, chet, with a numerical value of 8, represents the eight sons that he had through his wife Leah (and her maid Zilpah). The last letter, dalet, with a numerical value of 4, represents the four sons that he had through his wife Rachel (and her maid Bilhah). The Shema thus wonderfully reminds us of the first family to recite this powerful verse. And it wasn’t just any family, of course, for this family gave rise to the entire nation of Israel.

The message here is that in the same way the Shema should remind us about the unity of God, it should also remind us of the unity of the Jewish people. Though it may seem that we are all so different, with so many distinct customs, cultures, and skin colours, at the end of the day we are all one family, the children of Israel.

The concluding word echad, which we are supposed to draw out when we recite it, contains more secrets within it. Its gematria is 13. What does 13 have to do with the notion of oneness? In this three-dimensional world, everything has 13 parts. Consider the most basic three-dimensional shape, a cube. The cube is composed of a total of 12 lines or edges, which naturally emerge from it being a three-dimensional shape having three axes. What is contained inside the cube is the 13th part. Similarly, all things in this three-dimensional universe can be said to have 13 parts. God, too, describes Himself as having 13 aspects. These are the Thirteen “Attributes of Mercy”, middot rachamim, which God revealed to Moses at Sinai (Exodus 34:6-7) and which we recite at various points in our prayers.

Kabbalistically, these Thirteen correspond to the Sefirot. While we generally speak of Ten Sefirot, in the furthest reaches of Kabbalah there are thirteen (still, we always say there are only ten!) Emerging out of the first and greatest sefirah, Keter, are three additional Sefirot, sometimes considered only inner states of Keter, and other times full-fledged Sefirot of their own. They are called Da’at (“Knowledge”), Ta’anug (“Pleasure”), and Emunah (“Faith”).

Altogether, the word echad at the end of Shema reminds us of God’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, and the thirteen Sefirot that emanate out of Him, and through which He programmed this entire universe. It reminds us of the 13 aspects of all things in this 3D world. And all of this is alluded to in the Magen David, which is also composed of 12 lines and an inner 13th space, like the cube.

Finally, that number 13 should remind us of that unifying force, love, ahavah (אהבה), which also has a gematria of 13. It should remind us of God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for each other, being the descendants of Jacob and his 12 sons. It should remind us that the only thing that stands in the way of the Final Redemption is love, as our Sages stated long ago that when Israel will have ahavat hinam, “free love” for one another, Mashiach will arrive immediately.

May we see it speedily and in our days.