Shema (1) – Listen and Love

This translation of the first paragraph of the Sh’ma intersperses close reading of the original Hebrew with meditative interpolations to expand on multiple meanings and ambiguities in the Hebrew, as well as in the translation itself. The reader is invited to use this as a starting point for personal meditation on the deep power and beauty of the Sh’ma.

Alexander Massey, Apr-Jul 2010


Let the whisper2 of the Infinite3
Enter the secret chamber of your heart.
Yearning is a gift –
From within, it pierces
The shell4 you build
Around who you truly are.
Wrestle5 with the Infinite!
Limbs entwined,
Skin on skin,
Breath on breath,
You and the Great Mystery can meet –
Can meet yourselves6
Touch, dissolve,
Become One7.
There is no other,
No otherness8;
All that has been, all that is, and all that shall be9,
All comes from One10 and all11 is One.
Life12 is our13 joint inheritance, and makes us KIN14.


Fount16 of all blessings,
And home18,
We kneel19
In the cup of Your hand20.


Fire and water21
In a single22 Name23
Essence and honour24
Flow from heaven25.


Eyes look down as hearts reach up26,
We see your back, but not your face27.
Our minds cannot fathom glory above
In glory below28.


You are King and we Your kingdom29
Shekhinah, Queen and Bride
Who dwells within30,
Come lie with us31.

L’olam va’ed

Sustaining gaze32
Through space and time33
Ground34 of being, beyond before35,
No end, no end, no end, no end.36

The mystical command37,
Embrace everything38,
Is also a loving invitation.
Direct your whole awareness39
Only40 to love41.
Offer nothing less than your very life42
And all that you possess43 44.
Today45 is when you begin.
Let these words rest on46 your heart,
And guide you when you speak47.
They are your legacy48
To sharpen mind and purpose49.
Breathe50 them into all you create51,
Your children52 and the generations that follow you53.
Let them be on your lips54
In your private moments
And when you are with others55,
When you stand in the Flame, and when you are shattered into many sparks56,
At the end of your days
And at the beginning of your days57.
Lullaby and wake-up call in one,
They simultaneously console and challenge.
Let them guide your hands
And your awareness58,
And your deeds and your very being59
Will be an inspiration and light to others60.
May these words find a place in your home61,
And a home in your innermost heart62.


[1] One way to think of the word shema is as shem (name, as in The Name, ie God), and the letter ayin, which can also signify the eyes, and kabbalistically, our awareness. So shema could be used as a single word reminder to keep ‘the Name’ in our ‘awareness’ constantly. [Following an ancient custom, many people cover their eyes when reciting the first line of the Shema so as to eliminate any possible distractions and concentrate intensely on the words.] So part of the reason for choosing the word ‘hear’ in my translation was to find a similar play on an English word: the sound of ‘H’ can represent the ruach or neshamah, the breath of God (both words also mean soul), and the ‘ear’ part of the word can represent our constantly listening to this Divine breath, so we can keep awareness of the Name, and listen constantly for the breath of God in all things. Speaking this translation, I would stress the ‘breathiness’ of the first letter and word. Of course, in the Hebrew, we could stress the ‘sh’ sound (both a breath sound, and a noise to indicate the need to be quiet and listen!). Maimonides (Yad, Hilchot Keri’at Shema 2:1) declared, “One who recites the shema without concentrating on the meaning of the verse, which is ‘Hear, O Israel’, has not fulfilled his obligation.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Convenant and Conversation), makes the point that while the ancient Greeks were masters of visual form, and put great store by it, the Jews were a ‘listening culture’. “Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.” (Deut. 4: 12) Sacks explains that there is no word in ancient Hebrew meaning ‘obey’; which means that the ‘commands’ of God had to be listened to with critical faculties, heart and conscience, weighed and considered before being acted upon. Judaism is not a tradition of blind obedience, but critical and willing engagement in a dialogue with God. Sacks puts it this way: “In Judaism faith is a form of listening: to the song creation sings to its Creator, and to the message history delivers to those who strive to understand it. That is what Moses says, time and again in Deuteronomy. Stop looking: listen. Stop speaking: listen. Create a silence in the soul. Still the clamour of instinct, desire, fear, anger. Strive to listen to the still, small voice beneath the noise. Then you will know that the universe is the work of the One beyond the furthest star yet closer to you than you are to yourself – and then you will love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, all your soul and all your might. In G-d’s unity you will find unity – within yourself and between yourself and the world – and you will no longer fear the unknown.” Beautiful.

[2] As in the story of Elijah, the call of the Divine is not necessarily in the wind, earthquake or fire, but in the ‘small, gentle voice’. The shema itself needs to be heard ‘inwardly’, so that it seeps into every part of us. “Every day a voice calls out from Sinai” (Pirkei Avot, 6:2). “If you will listen to the voice of God your God…” (Deut 28:1) The opening words, shema Yisrael, are a call to attention, for us to listen. God yearns for us. And as we listen, we reach back to God who is reaching for us. This is our yearning.

[3] Ein Sof is one of the terms used to refer to God, meaning ‘without end’ or ‘infinite’. God calls to us from beyond linear time. The shema is God’s eternal call to us. Our daily repetition of it down the ages, and teaching it to those who come after us, is our contribution to perpetuating it to infinity.

[4] My poetic allusion is to the kabbalastic concept of kellipot, shells that represent ‘evil’, evil being any separation from God. The creation of these shells (‘evil’), is integral to the Divine plan, as their creation also enables human free choice, our ability to move towards God and redemption or to move away. It makes us partners in the completion and healing of the world. Our yearning is also created to help us find God. As Zalman Shachter-Shalomi says, we are ‘theotropic’, we “naturally grow towards God” (JwF p30). Just as a sunflower heliotropically turns to find the sun, so do we turn to find God (the principle of teshuvah). (With reference to separation, seeking God, and maintaining connection, see also note 48)

[5] ‘Yisrael’ means one who wrestles with God, like Jacob with the angel; it was because Jacob wrestled that he said he had ‘seen the face of God’, ie ‘met’ God intimately (and called the place Peniel). The relationship is one of engagement and tension.

[6] In meeting you, God also meets Godself.

[7] The myth of God creating Adam is that we are all descended from him, and therefore all related, all ‘one’ family.

[8] The Shema always has the final letter of the first and last word (shema ‘Hear’ with ayin and echad ‘one’ with dalet) written larger than the others. Aleph (instead of ayin, which it could mistakenly ‘sound’ like) at the end of shema would make it mean ‘maybe’, introducing doubt in the place of faith. And reish ר (instead of dalet ד, which looks very similar) would make echad into echar, meaning ‘other’ – ‘maybe’ there are ‘other’ gods. So we pronounce the Ayin and Dalet clearly to assert the Oneness of God. (See also note 13)

[9] The foundational belief, expressed that God is One, means that not only everything that currently exists is internconnected, and a single expression of the Godhead, bit that all that was created and has yet to come into being – past, present and future are indivisible in timelessness that is God.

[10] The point here is not just that there is one God – of course there is! But also, that there is nothing else but God – everything is God. Aryeh Kaplan, the writer on kabbalah, and author of Inner Space, wrote: “If God is One, then His purposes must also be One. If a person has a deep realization of this, then the forces of evil have no power over him.”

[11] Elohim (meaning God) is a plural, referring to the many ‘powers’ and levels of the sefirot through which the creating energy of god passes downwards until it becomes manifest Creation. YHVH, the other word for God used in this line, refers to the Oneness. So the mystery of ‘many’ and ‘oneness’ is expressed here.

[12] Life, life-force and God are synonymous. Without God there would be no life. Our common origin, source, is what connects us to each other and makes us One.

[13] Each of us is included in this prayer, hence the word ‘we’.

[14] The ayin and dalet (see note 8) spell ed, meaning ‘witness’. This structure is reflected in the meditation, to form a play on words making ‘hearken’, to listen and hear deeply.

[15] This line, which is not in the Torah has been interpolated for centuries. After the shema line which is about one-ness, this line is about the paradox of how we experience reality as duality. It is an extraordinarily deep affirmation, and this expanded meditative translation should be savoured slowly. The Talmud teaches: “One should not toss a bracha [blessing] from one’s mouth.” And Rashi’s commentary on this states: “A bracha should be said slowly and deliberately. Don’t rush through as if you are carrying a heavy burden and cannot wait to be free of it!”

[16] The root of the Hebrew word baruch is beit-reish-kaf. This is the same root as breicha, meaning a fountain or pool.

[17] The beit of baruch represents bereishit, the first word of the Torah, ‘in the beginning’.

[18] The letter beit also stands for beit meaning a home. God is both where we come from, and where we go back to. As the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott famously wrote: “Home is where we start from”.

[19] The root letters of baruch spell berech, a knee. The essence of a bracha (blessing) is to give thanks, pay homage, in humility.

[20] The kaf of baruch represents cupped hands. The whole word baruch speaks of containment: the beit is home, its gematria of 2 is expanded to “container-ness” with the reish whose gematria is 20, and the gematria of the ‘cup’ of kaf (200) completes this. (Rabbi Marcia Prager, The Path of Blessing)

[21] Shem is made of shin and mem. Shin represents aish, fire, and mem represents mayim, water(s). (See also note 24)

[22] The singularity of God is expressed here, embedded in the paradox of the duality that we perceive (God and us).

[23] Shem means ‘name’.

[24] The translation of shem as ‘name’ does little to convey what this word really means. Shem really refers to the essence of something, its essential nature. Shem also means name as in reputation, honour, or standing.

[25] Shem is related to shamayim, meaning heaven. This is where fire (letter shin) and water (letter mem), that oppose each other in the earthly realm, can co-exist harmoniously. (See also note 20)

[26] The Talmud teaches one should pray with “eyes directed below and heart directed above” (Yeb. 105b). Covering our eyes keeps away distractions so that we can concentrate our hearts and minds on the prayer.

[27] The mystery of God and Creation is that God is Creation, and yet our human perspective is one of duality. God has contracted (tzimtzum) to ‘make space’ for Creation. This poetic translation expands on the idea that God is paradoxically both hidden and revealed, an invisible and visible glory. The text is an allusion to Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 33:23 “You will see My back, but My face cannot be seen”. This second line of the shema, in six words, expresses the vast infinity that God is, and that God has poured into Creation.

[28] The Sages refer to the first line of the shema as the ‘Upper Unity’, and this second line as the ‘Lower Unity’ – the one-ness of ‘above’ and the apparent duality of below, ie how we perceive reality.

[29] Malkhut, the lowest of the 10 sefirot in the kabbalistic Tree of Life, is the aspect of God that we are closest to. This line affirms the sovereignty and omnipotence of God.

[30] While malkhut holds the masculine, the Shekhinah is the feminine aspect of God, the alternative name for this sefira. In Jewish traditions, she is also referred to as the Queen, and the bride (kallah).

[31] The imagery in this translation pays homage to the sensuality of the Song of Songs.

[32] The last two words express the eternal nature of God. The translation emphasises our total dependence on God to sustain us. It is said that if God were to relax attention for even an instant not only would we cease to exist, but it would be as if Creation had never happened.

[33] Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – p101 Jewish with Feeling

[34] L’olam means both the world / universe (or ‘ground’ ie physical reality) and eternity. ‘Ground of being’ plays on this ambiguity.

[35] God is not bounded by time, either by having an end or a start point.

[36] A great teacher of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, echoed this sense of wonder, the spark that ignites our religious and spiritual sensibility, in his writings on what he called ‘radical amazement’: “We may doubt anything, except that we are struck with amazement. When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question. Doubts may be resolved, radical amazement can never be erased. There is no answer in the world to [our] radical wonder. Under the running sea of our theories and scientific explanations lies the aboriginal abyss of radical amazement.” (Man Is Not Alone – a philosophy of religion, 1951, p.13)

[37] The whole of the shema is constructed as an instruction, a commandment for what we must do. A mitzvah is both a commanded act, and a good deed done joyously. Duty and love combine in perfect harmony. The root word of mitzvah, tzivah, is made of the 3 letters tzaddi, vav, and hei. Kabbalistically, the tzadi represents the righteous person (tzaddik), the vav (the ‘hook’ letter) is the connector between God and human, and the hei with its 3 strokes represents the 3 ‘holy garments’ of thought, word and deed, the means by which we can fulfil a mitzvah. This new translation poetically introduces and combines command and invitation. With God, there is no dichotomy here. Why introduce the word command at all in this translation? For the same reason it is included at the start of the Torah portion Tzav. It is not always automatic or easy for us to do good or what is right – being Divinely commanded to say these words, and follow them, makes this non-negotiable!

[38] Since God is everything, the command to ‘love the Lord your God’ must mean that we must love everything. This is deep and challenging. If God loves all his Creation, who are we not to do the same?

[39] In rabbinical teaching the heart is where mind and intellect reside.

[40] Only derives from the word ‘one’, which is what this passage is all about. This passage of the shema opens with “v’ahavta” (“you shall love”). The gematria (numerology) of the Hebrew word ahava (love) is the same as echad (one). It is through love that we begin to understand what One-ness and universal interconnectedness are.

[41] Love is not a feeling, but action with a certain intention and ethic. Hence it is possible to choose to love, also therefore to be commanded to love.

[42] The soul is the whole self, therefore including one’s very life.

[43 A traditional translation for m’odecha (‘might’) included possessions and powers.

[44] I understand ‘all your heart, all your soul, and all your might’ as representing the ‘three holy garments’ (see note 35) of thought (machshavah), word (dibbur) and deed (ma’aseh): heart as in mind and thought (note 37), word, because our words reveal the condition of our soul, and ‘through your voice you can make the whole word holy’; deed, because our ‘might’ is revealed in the physical world of action (see note 39).

[45] The message of this whole passage is challenging, and can fill us with awe and misgiving about our capacity to follow these commandments. But, in the words of Hillel, “If not now, when?” (Pirkei Avto 1:14) And Rabbi Tarfon (Pirkei Avot 2:16), “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.”

[46] A human heart is rarely completely open, so the words rest ‘on’ the heart, ready for the moment when the last shells around the heart (kellipot, note 4) break open and the words can fall in. (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi p102 Jewish with Feeling, reports this from the teaching of Reb Mendele Kotzker)

[47] Lev can mean heart or mind, and was often synonymous with an organ of speech. For example, “The heart of the righteous man rehearses his answer, but the mouth of the wicked blurts out evil things.” (Proverbs 15:28) In Eccl. 5:1 – “Keep your mouth from being rash, and let not your throat (lev) be quick to bring forth speech before God. For God is in heaven and you are on earth; that is why your words should be few.” Rashbam understands this as meaning we should not make lengthy/wordy prayers. Kabbalists saw the highest 3 sefirot of the Tree of Life as representing the highest aspects of mind, while the lower 7 sefirot were other aspects of the self, including heart and body; these were connected and mediated through a point called da’at (knowledge), situated in the throat, when associated with the map of the human being and the archetypal Adam Kadmon. There is an interesting parallel in the ancient Indian teachings of the chakras, in which the throat chakra, the place of expression, performs the same function, connected the upper chakras with the lower, located specifically between the heart and mind chakras. I have interpreted this moment in the shema text as lev serving this function of harmony and balance between the different parts of the self; in such a context, our heart would express only what is most true, beautiful and needful – quite the opposite of lashan harah (bad speech and gossip); the rabbis taught that dibbur (speech), one of the ‘three holy garments of the soul’ could always be used to turn a conversation to higher matters if we choose. As Zalman (p140 Wrapped in a Holy Flame) writes: “A person who holds words precious and uses them as if they were the most precious coin could also influence worlds with words.” And Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”

[48] The ambiguity in this translation is deliberate. We receive the legacy, and it is also a legacy that we bequeath. ‘Teach them to your children’: we cannot teach the words / ideas unless we first learn them. The tradition flows into us, through us, and onwards from us. And we remain as children, which means we must always be ready to learn these words again.

[49] The word used here to mean ‘teach’ is v’shinantam. This comes from l’shanen, to sharpen (from the root shen, tooth). Rashi wrote: “they (the words of the Torah) should be sharp in your mouth to the point that when you are asked about them, you will be able to answer immediately without hesitation” and “review them and research their depth, so that if someone asks you, you won’t need to hesitate, rather you will be able to respond immediately”. Reviewing keeps the knowledge fresh, and researching their depth means know them from all angles, and their associations to other texts and teachings. It is in this sense that we ‘sharpen’ our minds, and stay close to the convenant and observation of the mitzvot, hence our purpose.

[50] Just as God ‘breathes’ life into Adam, and us, we pass this breath on as partners in Creation.

[51] The text states ‘children’. This is an important focus in Judaism. However, what of those who never have children? Gen. 6:9 “These are the offspring of Noah: Noah was righteous and honest.” According to the Midrash, this means a person’s true offspring are his or her good deeds. According to the Talmud, if a person teaches another Torah, it is as if he has given birth to that person – Abraham and Sarah ‘made souls in Charan’ ie had spiritual children because they brought them to God. This is the true meaning of “be fruitful and multiply’ (pru urvu: Gen1:28 commandment to Adam and Eve). We are not fruitful by multiplying. We are fruitful, ie productive and fulfilling mitzvot, teaching torah, and thereby multiply the effect of the Divine in the world.

[52] Literally, your ‘sons’ (l’vanecha), but long tradition has included both genders, hence ‘children’.

[53] The Hebrew is v’shinantam, meaning ‘teach’, with the root word association of ‘sharpening’ (ie sharpening the mind, or teaching incisively), and English translations of the shema sometimes read ‘impress them upon your children’. The idea is to inculcate the principles in the next generation. As I have expanded the translation of ‘children’ to all that we create, ‘teach’ wouldn’t work as a translation, hence the poetic decision to use ‘breathe’, which, I hope, conveys the depth at which these words should be taken. Shenit = again, shanat = repeat.

[54] The Hebrew means literally ‘you shall speak them’. The root word here, dibbur, means ‘thing’ as well as ‘speech’. Through the power of speech, God created the world in 10 utterances. Words have power to make things real. The same word is in the Arabic ‘abracadabra’ (“as spoken, so it was created”). Kabbalistically, one of the key features that distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation is the power of speech. By saying the shema, it becomes a tangible thing in our own world and life – it takes on substance, thing-ness. The poetic shift to the word ‘lips’ is intended to evoke the physicality, the thing-ness, of this process. It is also to convey the idea of a boundary. Earlier (note 4), I wrote about the shell between ourselves and the experience of one-ness with God. A later note (49) refers to the public and private domain. The lips are at the boundary where we can take in what sustains and nourishes us (or not), symbolising how we can allow in the toxin of evil or not; the lips also signify where we can release good or evil (through words) into the world. So we must guard our lips as well as we guard our homes and minds.

[55] ‘When you sit at home, and when you walk along the way’ is a more traditional translation. A law of shabbat is not to carry anything between the private domain reshut ha’yachid and public domain reshut ha’rabim. Kabbalah associates reshut ha’yachid (literally, the “domain of the one”) with the One Master of the Universe. Reshut ha’rabim (the “domain of the many”) represents the domain of evil. So we could also think of staying close the Shema, not just in moments of conscious communion with God (the ‘good times’), but also when we are beset by greatest adversity and challenge – the Shema remains a constant in our lives.

[56] Following on from note 49, when we are ‘at home’ we are ‘at One’ with God. But when we ‘walk along the way’ and in the public ‘domain of the many’ it can be as if we are disconnected, and in many parts. The poetic interpretation I have offered here reflects the kabbalistic teaching that, at the time of Creation, the original light of God (‘Flame’) poured into the world, “shattering the vessels”, and creating many holy sparks. This event explains the disorder and ‘evil’ in the world. ‘Evil’ can be understood as disconnectedness from our God-sense. The work of repairing the world, tikkun olam, is to raise these holy sparks back to their place in heaven. To keep our mind, soul and body connected to the Shema in the face of evil is a holy act.

[57] Meaning both on waking and going to sleep, and also throughout one’s life from birth to death.

[58] Traditional translations read “bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes”, leading to the practice of wearing the text on wrists and on the forehead. However, there is also the deeper meaning conveyed in this new translation.

[59] The deeds come from the hands, and one’s very being is awareness itself.

[60] The Hebrew says that we must wear these words ‘as a sign’ (l’ot). That sign is for ourselves (raising and maintaining our own awareness). However, such a sign would be seen by others, and therefore stand as a marker for them too. We do not need to moralise to others or proseletyze. Our actions can be a light (also a sound-play on words with l’ot) to others.

[61] These words are placed in the mezuzah (literally meaning ‘post’, but also referring to the parchment or its small container), on the doorposts of the home (between the reshut ha’yachid and reshut ha’rabim), and are also meant to be placed ‘between our eyes’. This symbolizes these principles providing spiritual protection, preventing evil from entering our home or ourselves.

[62] The Hebrew is usually translated as “on the doorposts of your house and on your gates”. People place the mezuzah on their front door, and also on doors inside the house. I have taken these two physical levels to be the two symbolic dimensions of home and heart.

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