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Faith Kaplan


by Faith Kaplan, January 23, 2012

The mission of the Global Day Of Jewish learning held a couple of months ago in November, 2011 was to bring the Jewish people together once a year to celebrate our foundational Jewish texts through community based learning.  In the spirit of Rabbi Steinsaltz's call, "Let my people know,"  this year's Global Day will focus on the unity of the Jewish people as seen through Shema Yisrael a text of theJewish people.

I spent my formative years at Talmud Torah and Camp Massad, and have been able to recite the Shema from heart since I was a child. Shoshanah Friman, my grade six Hebrew teacher, reviewed it with us in detail, explaining its significance and meaning, and reminding us to cover our eyes as we said the words out loud during our daily prayers. Frankly, I haven't really thought about it much since 1973, though I recite it whenever I am at synagogue services. I had the opportunity to revisit and reconsider the Shema at the Global Day of Jewish Learning held on Sunday at the Asper Campus. This year's event featured group learning sessions led by Dr. Ashrafi, Rabbi Ellis, Rabbi Green, and Rabbi Pinsker, each focusing on the Shema. I attended Rabbi Ellis's session. 


According to Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Shema is the oldest and greatest of our prayers, going back to Temple times. Its opening line - Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad -  is among the first words taught to a Jewish child, and among the last words spoken by those who were killed because they were Jews. The Shema is considered the supreme declaration of Jewish faith, and through it God speaks to us through the Torah. Reciting the Shema is an act of faith-as-listening:  to the voice that brought the universe into being, created us in love and guides us through our lives.  We reviewed the text in English, and I was reminded how incomplete the translation is compared to the original Hebrew.  


We are connected through time and history to Mt. Sinai, when Moses brought down the Ten Commandments, announcing "Listen, Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One". Three paragraphs follow and we are expected to recite them twice daily, when we lie down and when we rise. Much discussion ensued about the parameters of when exactly that is. Not bed time, and not when one awakes. In fact, the rabbis who created the Mishnah debated this at length and determined that the first recitation can occur anytime from when evening begins until the first pillar of dawn, and the second recitation should take place within three hours of dawn. Why does the first recitation occur in the evening? Because a Jewish day begins in the evening. 


We are committed to love the Lord with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might. What exactly does love mean in this context? Revere, emulate, honour? Torah study will give us insight into the character and behaviour we should model, and that will make us appreciate our good fortune to have been given the Torah as a blueprint for living a meaningful life.   


Paragraph two offers incentive. If you love the Lord your God and worship Him with all your heart and soul you will be rewarded with rain, crops, and healthy livestock. If you go astray and worship other gods then there will be no rain and all will perish. As a reminder, we put up mezuzot on our doorways and wear tfillin, both of which contain the Shema. Paragraph three reminds us to wear tassels on the corners of our garments- tsitsit - as a reminder that we live in a community and so our collective fate relies on our collective faith. Seeing tsitsit will remind us of the commandments, which we are bound to observe because God brought us out of Egypt. 


The daily recital of the Shema is so significant that it has top billing as the first Mishnah. It creates the reference points for reconciling different rabbis' interpretations, presumes baseline Torah knowledge, and includes references to Temple service practices. This is a fascinating reminder of how the rabbis who compiled the Mishnah effectively transitioned Judaism to a prayer based religion from a land and sacrifice based religion in the time after the Roman conquest and exile. 


The Day of Global Learning offered me a chance to reconsider this prayer and its relevance in 21st century Canada. I imagine the other seventy or so people in attendance had a similar experience in their learning groups. 

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