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The Ancient Practice of Shema

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

What are some of your favorite spiritual practices that you come back to over and over again?

I enjoy learning about ancient spiritual practices because I love drawing upon the wisdom of those who have gone before me, the “great cloud of witnesses,” as the Apostle Paul talks about in Hebrews 12:1.

Participating in the same rituals and practices that Christians have followed for millennia allows me to enter this great cloud of witnesses as one of them: praying the same prayers, reading the same words from Scripture, and even singing the same hymns.

Recently, I was introduced to the ancient Jewish practice of Shema (she-mah).

The Shema is an ancient Jewish prayer, often considered to be the most important prayer in their tradition, prayed every day in the morning and in the evening. It is combined from the book of Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13–21; and Numbers 15:37–41. The word shema means “listen”; it refers to the first word in the prayer: listen, or hear:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

The prayer continues:

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Reading the second half of this prayer, I wonder: How do we keep our faith in our hearts? I think the answer lies in remembering. This prayer asks us to be relentless in our remembering, writing it down anywhere we look, even on our foreheads: basically, thinking about it all the time.

We also remember our faith when we participate in worship and in the life of the church. We remember when we pray, read the Bible and memorize those passages that mean something to us. Here is how I know it:

My grandfather was a political prisoner in the 1950s in the communist Czecho-Slovakia. He was in prison for being a Christian and he wasn’t alone; there were a lot of Christians who were imprisoned during that time. They had no Bibles, no hymnals, or written prayers in prison. How did their faith survive? From their memories—such as their favorite verses or passages of Scripture that they would recite to one another when they were allowed to be together. Hymns and prayers they used to sing and pray in church could bring them comfort and peace during a very difficult time. I heard a story that one time, they were able to smuggle one Bible into the prison and they tore it up into pieces. That may sound shocking, but this way they each had a piece of the Bible to treasure and the guards would not discover it.

Praying the Shema serves a similar purpose of remembrance: it invites the Jewish people to remember who they are and whose they are each day. Prayed faithfully like this, it is a relentless reminder of their belonging to God.

What prayer would you like to pray every day during Lent that will remind you of what your faith means to you? It could be an ancient prayer you learned as a child, such as the Lord’s Prayer; you could write your own prayer or get one from a book of prayers. Maybe you already have one you love. I invite you to pray it every day, twice a day, during the next week and remember your faith.

Similarly, you can choose a passage from Scripture that speaks to you. If you read it twice a day, chances are it will be “written on your heart” and you will remember it when you need it.

Join us next week for: Being Still

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