February 12, 2014
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Why do we have to close our eyes during Shema?

Taking a peek at Shema

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Dear Cantor Matt,

What’s so special about the Shema? Why does everyone close their eyes when we sing it? Is it more important than all the other prayers?

— Sometimes I peek

Dear Peek,

I think the custom started when 80-year-old Aunt Sadie went up on the bimah wearing a dress that was way too low-cut and everyone closed their eyes so they wouldn’t have to look.

Actually, I like to think of the Shema as a special and beautiful prayer that’s hiding in plain sight. It’s become so common and so well-known that worshippers have stopped paying attention to it. How did this one single line take on such popularity? After all, the prayer book is filled with beautiful poetry and prose, expressing a wide range of emotions and plaintive pleas. What is it about the Shema that propelled it to Number One?

First, let’s look at the simple meaning of the words. Translated to English, it basically says:

“Listen up, Israel. Your God is One.”

That’s it? It hardly seems like the most profound concept to say that there’s one God. Even our non-Jewish friends and neighbors go to church and pray to one God, even though they do it pretty differently than we do. Muslims, too, go to a mosque and praise one God (whom they call Allah). Why does the Jewish religion make such a huge deal over this one fairly obvious sentence?

There are a couple of reasons.

Before the Jews came along, no one had ever said this before.

That’s right — what seems like a no-brainer to all of us Jews and non-Jews today was earth-shattering, groundbreaking territory in ancient times. Everyone used to worship lots of gods (notice the small G there) before the Jewish people came on the scene. You would have a god for rain, a god for the sun, another god for fertility, a god for your favorite sports team (OK, maybe not that one). Whenever anything bad happened, that would be the evil god’s fault, and you would look to your benevolent gods to be victorious and return your good fortune.

Then the Jews announced:

“No! There is only one, all powerful God.”

To think that one God was in charge of everything in the world, both good and bad was truly a bold statement, and something that no one had thought of before.

The Shema is the credo of the Jewish people.

One reason why almost everyone knows the Shema is that we start teaching it to little kids as soon as they’re old enough to learn. It’s a great way to teach about the entire Jewish religion in a few short words. Before you can go on and learn Torah, prayers, Jewish history, and all the other stuff that’s important, you have to know the foundation of being Jewish.

It’s become customary when reciting the Shema to close your eyes. How you do this — whether simply closing your eyes or covering them with your hand — isn’t important. In fact, it’s not even required that you close your eyes at all. Because this prayer is so fundamental to being Jewish, we try to give it an added measure of concentration, blocking out all other distractions and thinking only about the words. That’s something that both kids and adults can easily relate to.

I’ve always thought of the Shema as the mission statement of the Jewish people. It helps send all of the other prayers in the right direction.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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