Weekly Q&A: What is the Shema?

Religious Jews recite the Shema twice daily, in the morning and in the evening. It receives its name from the first word of Deuteronomy 6:4—Hear (in Hebrew, Shema). The Shema consists of three portions from the Pentateuch—Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; and Numbers 15:37-41. They are read in this order.

While Deuteronomy 6:4-9 commands the Israelites to speak of God’s commandments upon rising and lying down, as well as walking along the way and sitting in your homes, we do not have evidence of the practice of reciting the Shema in the period of the Old Testament. The first century Jewish historian, Josephus, mentions Jews reciting the Shema once or twice a day within their homes. Jewish tradition also mentions the priests in the Temple reciting the Shema as part of the daily offerings. With it, they recited the Ten Commandments.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 commanded the Israelites to “bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.” Deuteronomy did not specify how exactly one did this, but by the first century, Jewish men wore tefillin on their forehead, between their eyes, in adherence to this command.

Archaeologists uncovered tefillin at the site of Qumran, on the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, where most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. These leather cases contained pieces of written parchment. The writings do not correspond to the biblical text required in later rabbinic tradition, but it does include Deuteronomy 6:1-9. Tefillin fragments were also discovered in Wadi Murabba’at from the second century A.D.

One of Jesus’ contemporaries claimed, whenever one recites the Shema, he accepts upon himself the kingdom of Heaven (the reign of God). Jesus identified the “Great Commandment” as Deuteronomy 6:5, which is part of the Shema. The Shema affirms God’s oneness and His kingship. By reciting it, it places the individual in submission to His rule and reign, an obedient servant.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 also commanded the Israelites to write these commands “upon their doorposts.” The word for “doorpost” in Hebrew is mezuzah. By the third century A.D., Jews interpreted this command by fixing boxes containing parchments inscribed with Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 upon the doorposts of their houses. Jewish homes to this day will have mezuzot on the doorposts of their homes, and religious Jewish men will don the tefillin on the hands and foreheads for certain times of prayer.

Jews inscribed jewelry with the Shema to serve as amulets and sources of protection. A silver armband from Egypt, dating from the mid-sixth to mid-seventh century A.D., bears the inscription of the Shema and Psalm 91:1—a verse used to protect Jews from evil.

The Shema provides the doxology of Judaism. It is central to Jewish faith and daily practice. Jewish worship and the home are centered on the Shema.

Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.

Facebook: @witbuniversity
Podcast: Windows into the Bible Podcast


  1. REPLY
    Bettie says

    Wish the Shema was written out here to read.

  2. REPLY
    Carrie Ann Tucker says

    Watch CNN. Love Israel.thank you for supporting Israel

Post a comment