Updated: Apr 17, 2019
What is the Shema?
For thousands of years, Jewish people have daily prayed the "Shema." It's a prayer that calls God's people to respond to the divine love with faithfulness and devotion. Traditionally the Jewish people prayed the Shema 3 times a day. We can even see references to the Shema in the lives of early Christians, who carried over this practice, as we will explore in this study.
The Shema is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Deuteronomy 6:4-5
Most American Christians no longer practice praying the same prayer multiple times a day. This type of activity can seem impersonal and legalistic. We understand these feelings and also believe that the Shema is deeply rooted in the Bible, Jewish tradition, and packs a lot of Biblical wisdom into the span of a few words.
Shema means listen. We will explore the Hebrew word Shema in the next lesson. For now let's take a closer look at what the first century church thought of prayer and the Shema for a better understanding.
What does it mean to you to identify as a Christian? In a nation that is filled with people who predominantly identify with the Christian tradition, many of our identifiers as Christians have long been pushed into our society's culture. We can compare culture to the water that fish live in. They don't really see the water, though it pervades everything around them. In this way, we are at a disadvantage to recognizing some of the important markers that would have identified and clearly separated Jews and Christians from a pluralistic world.
As our society becomes more pluralistic, we will need to bring back some of those identifiers. One of those markers was (and still is for many) the daily, rhythmic prayer of the Shema.
The Shema itself provides evidence as to why we believe Jews and Christians would practice daily, rhythmic prayer:
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Each one of the underlined statements above is an indicator that God wants his people to keep God's laws, commandments, and instructions upon their hearts at all times. God commanded the Jews in their covenant to put up physical reminders throughout their house and wear them on their body to keep this instruction ever present for them [see picture to right].
OLD TESTAMENT EXAMPLE
We also know from the famous account of Daniel in the Lion's den that it was Daniel's practice to go to his room and pray three times a day:
10 Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. Daniel 6:10
Daniel also faced Jerusalem, which historically seems to be a common practice amongst the Jews. They would face toward the temple mount to offer their prayers to where the presence of God overlapped the Earth (the mercy seat at the ark of the covenant).
There are a lot more references to this type of prayer in the Old Testament.
From the next examples, we will see that it was a 1st Century Jewish and Christian practice to pray at the third, sixth and ninth hours of the day (~9am, 12pm, & 3pm):
This first reference is probably the most clear indicator in the New Testament that it was a Jewish practice to go to the Temple (or face the temple, if you were not in Jerusalem/could not get to the Temple) and pray regularly throughout the day:
1 One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. Acts 3:1
THE LORD'S PRAYER
Here is the Lord's Prayer. Note the reference to this being part of a daily habit.
9b "'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.' Matthew 6:9b-13
It is very possible that Jesus was teaching his disciples a 'replacement prayer' for the Shema. Jesus' prayer is rooted deeply in the Gospel and Kingdom tradition of the OT and the new way he showed us to live.
Why does it matter? What's this got to do with us?
In our current day and age, we often feel that subscribing to a regular prayer habit of the same prayer might be insincere or displeasing to God. It is our opinion, however, that by establishing your own daily prayer habits, you might grow closer to our God and bring him daily into your life.
It is clear that the apostles and New Testament writers wanted us to "pray without ceasing", but most of us don't even come close. Our challenge to you is to approach this practice (which may be new to you) with an open mind. Learn why the Jews prayed this prayer and what the different Hebrew words in the Shema mean and how they could shape your daily prayer life. If you don't have a regular prayer habit, then we hope this study can be a resource for you to change that.
How can living in a "Christian Culture" change the way we think about being a Christian?
Why would God include commands in the Shema to bring his instructions and laws into the Israelites homes daily?
What intrigues or challenges you about this daily practice of prayer?
If prayer is communication, what role does it play in our relationship with God?
How often do you communicate with the people you are in relationship with?
What kind of relationship do you have if you rarely or never communicate?
Hebrew is written from right to left, so Shema word looks like this and the pronunciations are below the word:
שָׁ מַ ע
(uh) (m) (sh)
Notice there isn't actually a vowel between the "sh" and the "m"; the word is often written "Sh'ma". But we didn't want to write that a thousand times in this study, so we are using "Shema" as a decent transliteration.
Take a few minutes to watch this video from The Bible Project on the word Shema:
One of the best things about the Bible is that it is an incredibly complex and intricate piece of literary art. It has been called the world's first hyperlinked document. The reason it is called this is because of how it was written. Each story builds on the narratives before it and actually uses Hebrew words and phrases as cross references (hyperlinks) to past stories.
Additionally, through the Holy Spirit's inspiration, these talented writers were actually able to build on stories that were already written; stories that come later can actually shed new meaning and nuances to the older accounts.
This is a picture of 63,779 identified cross references in the Bible:
As the video mentioned, 'listen' is a fairly common word and experience and is commanded of the Israelites over and over again in the Bible. It is brought into the new covenant as well. Let's examine a few different nuances of the word:
In its most literal sense, Shema means to hear. To use your ears and listen to the vibrations that travel across the air in what we can sense as sound.
This may seem fundamental, but consider how little our culture and society actually listen to anyone or anything. In conversations, do people really listen to one another, or are they more often waiting for their chance to talk?
Do you feel heard at work? At home? At church? Do you listen to people at work? At home? At church?
Let's take a moment to look at a Biblical character who listened to God:
6 And the Lord called again, "Samuel!" and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again." 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 And the Lord came and stood, calling as at other times, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant hears." 1 Samuel 3:1-10
Now at the beginning of the story, God spoke and Samuel was listening, but not to the correct person. This begins Samuel's long and difficult ministry to the Israelites who begin to demand a human king for Israel.
This theme is further played on by the author when the people demand a king from Samuel:
4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah 5 and said to him, "Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations." 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, "Give us a king to judge us." And Samuel prayed to the Lord. 7 And the Lord said to Samuel, "Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. 9 Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them." 1 Samuel 8:4-9
This is the same Hebrew word, but it is used here to show that Samuel will first listen to God, and only obey the Israelites when God has told him to hear/listen/obey them.
In your prayer life do you spend any time listening? Be cognizant that the first word in Israel's prayer to God is the command from God to listen!
So often we pile request after request onto our prayer list and never take time to read and listen to God's word. To think about how we should change our actions in obedience and deference to God.
If we do listen and hear are we then listening in obedience? Or do we hear what God tells us, but then ignore it in favor of our own desires or the advice of friends and family?
Take a moment to consider what your prayer life consists of. Could you work in more time to stop and listen and then make a plan to obey?
In our culture, what does it mean to hear someone? Do most people think hearing is different than listening? How would the Biblical authors agree and disagree?
Describe a situation where you heard or understood what God wanted you to do in a situation, but had trouble obeying him.
What would it look like if you trained a pet or animal to obey your voice, but they wouldn't carry out your commands?
Would it be frustrating to know that they heard your voice, but didn't listen?
What can children and animals who fail to listen teach us about our own responsibility to God?