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Drash Shin Mem Ayin Shema

Shin, Mem, Ayin: “Shema”

Drash, December 2000 by Mark L. Berch

The Krias Shema, the recitation of the Shema, begins with the word Shema, which means “hear.”  It is among the most familiar of all Hebrew words.  Indeed, the next time you hear someone say, “I don’t know a word of Hebrew”, ask if he knows the meaning of the word “Shema”.  The root for this is shin, mem, ayin, and it can be in our ear at other times. Its not just the Jews who are to hear; the nations of the world are to hear as well. The Psalm of the Sea, which appears in the early part of the service (Siddur Sim Shalom, page 92) says “shawm-oo Ameem Yer-gaw-zoon “the peoples hear and tremble” Even God is asked to hear. In one of the paragraphs of the weekday Shmonah Esray, the root appears four times beginning with (page 114) “Shema Kolaynu”, “hear our voice”, and ending, “Blessed are You, Lord, “show-may-ah T’filah”, “who harkens unto prayer.” Such pleas for God to hear also appear elsewhere in the Siddur, such as in Psalm 30 and 130. The word “Shema”, with or without the “Yisroel” also means the prayer itself, and it is used that way in the liturgy.  Thus, in the Musaf Kedushah (page 432) the recitation of the Shema is proceeded by the phrase, “B’ahavah Shema om-reem”, “with love recite the Shema.” In Tachanun, not recited in Shabbos, there is a reference (page 192) to Jews as “ha-omrim Shema Yisroel”, “those whose proclaim ‘Shema Yisroel’” On page 284, there is included below the line an ancient brakha for the recitation of the Shema, including “vitzeevanu al mitzvas Shema”, “who gave us the Mitzvah of reciting Krias Shema”.


Psalm 150 (page 88), the one with all the musical instruments, has “Haliluhu B’tzeel-tzlay Shaw-mah”, “Praise God with clashing cymbals”.


The root shin, mem, ayin can be heard in today’s Torah readings as well.  It’s use is explicated by the matriarch Leah, who names her second son “Shi-moan” explaining (Genesis 29:33) “Shaw-mah Adonai key snu-ah anokhi”, “God has heard that I am unloved.”   Thus, the meaning of the word is self-evident, or as the commentators would say “p’shuto kemashma’o” i.e. “it means what it says.” Ishmael's name is also explained as coming from the idea of God’s hearing.


But the root shin, mem, ayin has other meanings, particularly “understand” and “obey”. The second paragraph after the recitation of the Shema begins with the root doubled for emphasis, “V’hawyaw eem shaw-mo-ah  teesh-m’oo”, “if you earnestly obey”.  The word for discipline is meeshma’as. Truly, the root has more than one mashma’oos, more than one meaning --- mashma’oos also comes from this root.  These multiple meanings of the root can lead to some ambiguity.  Perhaps the best example of this is in one of the most famous places where the root appears in the Bible.  After Moses writes down the Book of the Covenant, the people say (Exodus 24:7) “Na-aseh v’nishma” “Na-aseh” means “we will do”, but what does “nishma” , nun, shin, mem, ayin mean? Translations are all over the place.  The most common is “obey” or “be obedient”, but  Rabbi Plaut (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, UAHC) suggests it’s literally “listen” and Rabbi Pesach Goldberg (The Linear Chumash, Shemot, Feldheim Publishers) renders  it as “hear”.  Joseph Lowen, who writes a column on Hebrew (Hadassah, 5/96) renders “nishma” as “understand”, Fox (THE FIVE BOOKS OF MOSES (THE SCHOCKEN BIBLE, VOLUME I).  NY: Schocken Books, 1995) gives “hearken” and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (Jersusalem Post, 2/12/99) suggests “internalize.”


Finally, also derived from the root shin, mem, ayin is shmee-aw, the noun for hearing.  The word for tidings or rumor is shmu-aw; the plural, rumors, is shmu-aws. If that word for rumors, shmu-aws, sounds vaguely familiar, it should. For rumors, shmu-aws, is the basis of that wildly popular yiddish-american word, “schmooze”.  So the next time you hear or use the word schmooze, and that probably won’t take very long, you will I’m sure recall that the Hebrew root of “schmooze” is shin, mem, ayin, and from that you will be certainly be reminded of the daily obligation of Krias Shema, the recitation of the Shema.


Given at Tifereth Israel, December 2000.