Beyond Translation: Changes to the Shema in Mishkan T’filah

Sermon delivered July 31, 2009, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


When folks heard that we would have a new prayerbook – in Hebrew, Siddur – one question I heard repeatedly was, “Did they change the Shema again?” Of course, “they” did not change the Shema, not in this prayerbook, not ever. Those six words, Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad, are found in this week’s Torah portion, which Hunter will read tomorrow, as they have been found in every traditional, Conservative, Reform, or Orthodox prayerbook ever published.

What people meant about “changing the Shema” was about the translation. “They” really botched it in the little gray prayerbooks we were using previously, so folks were worried about what “they” would do next. My first sermon about our new prayerbook, Mishkan T’filah, was on that very subject. The translation is the best ever produced, in my opinion: “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!” For those who don’t know Hebrew, those English words best convey the original sense of the watchword of our Jewish faith. Leaving the name of God in Hebrew was a stroke of brilliance.

A new translation, though, is not the only, or even the most significant, editorial decision about the Shema made by the framers of Mishkan T’filah. I usually don’t ask you to open the prayerbook during a sermon, but tonight I will ask you to turn to page 34. So many folks have commented on the beauty of the two-page spread, and of the stylized Hebrew, set in blue, hovering over the page like an arch. The Hebrew is a rendition of the work of scribes, who copy Torah scrolls by hand. The letters and words you see atop those pages looks very much like the words Hunter will read from the scroll itself.

The design makes clear that the Shema is entirely unlike other words in our prayerbook. No other page has a similar layout; no other words appear in scribal Hebrew.

You may notice that two of those blue Hebrew letters are larger than the others: the last letter of the first word, an ayin, and the last letter of the last work, a dalet. Mishkan T’filah’s editors did not make that decision. The millennia-old scribal tradition calls for the Shema to be written that way. The two letters, taken together, spell the word ayd, meaning “witness.” We who recite the Shema bear witness to the one God. Perhaps you’ve already read the note at the bottom of page 35, with the same explanation.

Tomorrow, with the scroll open, when Hunter reads “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad,” which is Deuteronomy 6:4, he will then continue with verse five, “V’ahavta et Adonai Eloheicha,” which you can find on page 36 in Mishkan T’filah. Perhaps you are wondering, “Is Hunter going to skip the second line? What happened to Baruch Shem K’vod, from the prayerbook’s page 35?”

Well, the line that we’ve always recited as the “second line of the Shema,” isn’t in the Torah. Instead, as you can read in the note at the bottom of that page, it’s a verse from the Mishnah, written hundreds of years after the surrounding Torah text. In a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue, and even in some more traditional Reform congregations, you will hear the first line recited aloud; but the second line is pronounced only in a whisper, if at all, lest the uneducated participant believe that the two lines enjoy equal status as words of Torah.

The editors of Mishkan T’filah have not legislated how we recite the second line of the Shema, and we have not changed our practice at Temple Beth-El. However, as we look at pages 34 and 35, we can see that the first two lines of the Shema are not of equal status. The first six words are our watchword of faith, and they take priority.

We know that, from a very early period, these two lines were recited together. We do not, however, know the original reason that the second line was inserted. Apparently, the ancient Rabbis didn’t know either, so they devised a Midrash to explain. It goes like this: Jacob is on his deathbed in Egypt. He is worried, because he is leaving his sons in a foreign land, not the land promised them by God. Jacob, also known as Israel, is concerned that his descendants will eventually worship the gods of Egypt, not the one God of Israel. Therefore, his children boldly say to him, “Shema Yisrael,” meaning, “listen up, Dad.” Then, they tell him: “Adonai is our God, and Adonai is One.” Hearing that, Jacob may die in peace. He responds, in a whisper, with the little strength he can still muster: “Baruch Shem K’vod . . .” “Well, then, if Adonai is your God, too, then I know that God’s glorious majesty will be blessed forever and ever.”

The Shema continues with the V’ahavta, on page 36, the verses that follow the first line of the Shema in the Torah. In the first paragraph on that page, so familiar to us, we are told to love Adonai through our actions, by following God’s mitzvot or commandments, and by transmitting our faith to future generations. Because we sit down, changing our position between the first two lines of the Shema and what follows, most folks think of the Shema and the V’ahavta as two completely separate prayers. They are not. Everything on pages 34 through 36 is considered to be part of the Shema itself.

In the morning service, on page 118, the editors of Mishkan T’filah offer the congregation the option of praying an additional paragraph, not previously found in Reform prayerbooks. You see, in traditional prayerbooks, the Shema is considerably longer than in any Reform publication. The paragraph from Numbers 15, at the top of the page, includes words commanding the wearing of fringes, which are to remind the pious Jew of God’s commandments. Our editors offer these words only in the morning service, because the tallit, the prayer shawl with fringes, is to be worn only in daylight hours, not at evening services, except on Yom Kippur. With so many Reform Jews wearing the tallit these days, our editors decided to provide the option to include these words of commandment. I do not know whether many congregations are reciting these words, or perhaps pausing to allow worshipers to recite them quietly, as is done in traditional synagogues. We have not changed our practice at Temple Beth-El.

Some have claimed that Mishkan T’filah is a more traditional siddur than Gates of Prayer and other Reform prayerbooks that preceded it. I disagree. The Shema is a sterling example.

The magnificent design of the Shema, with text rendered in scribal Hebrew, is an innovation – a new “reform,” we may say – taking advantage of twenty-first century publishing technology to add a new spiritual dimension to our worship. Never before have Jews thought much about the way the prayers look. New scholarship, a hallmark of Reform, has taught us that aesthetics, even the print in a book, can enhance our prayer experience.

The other “changes” to the Shema in Mishkan T’filah offer more choices. Some of those options may be termed “traditional.” One may rightly suggest that a service led from Mishkan T’filah could be designed to appear more like what one might find in a Conservative synagogue. On the other hand, offering more options provides for greater autonomy. Each of us, and each prayer community, can address God as it chooses. What could be more Reform than a breadth of selections, each permitting Reform Jewish individuals and congregations to worship as they see fit?

When life-long Reform Jews visit a Conservative or Orthodox congregation, what surprises them most tends to be the fact that these traditional Jews do not rise for the Shema. Our Reform forbears identified the Shema as being of singular importance. In an American context, the Shema felt to them like the “Jewish Pledge of Allegiance,” so they instructed us to rise to recite these sacred words. Mishkan T’filah does not tell worshipers when to sit and when to stand, anywhere in the prayerbook, leaving the matter open to local practice and evolution. At Temple Beth-El, as in most Reform congregations, we continue to rise for the Shema. I suspect that will not change any time soon. The Shema is not only a “watchword,” but a bulwark of faith, standing the test of time. We witness to the world, and we witness to ourselves, in troubled times and in triumph: Adonai is our God; Adonai is One.

Amen.