Why is the Shema so important?

November 8, 2021 by J-Wire
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Ask the rabbi…

Rabbi Raymond Apple


The sidra ends with the words, “And he (Jacob) called the name of that place Machanayim” (Gen. 33:3). The name means “a double camp”.

Rashi’s explanation of the name is that two bands of angels met there: the angels of the Diaspora who had accompanied Jacob until now, and the angels of the Holy Land.

Some of the other commentators see it as the meeting place of two worlds, the world of the angels and the world of human beings.

The Rashi view hints at the duality that makes up Jewish life – the Diaspora and the Land of Israel. Each of the two centres has its own nature and essence. Each one needs the other.

David Ben Gurion, for his part, was adamant that Israel was the only place to be a Jew and that the Diaspora meant the kiss of death to Jewish life and tradition.

Actually there are places in the Diaspora where Judaism is flourishing and places in Israel where it is threadbare, and the best approach is to see the two centres as partners that can and must fructify each other.

The second explanation of the name also asserts that there are two centres, one being heaven and the other the earth.

If we look for a lesson for day to day human life it is that there is God in each place, and there is a constant challenge to bring God down to earth to accompany His human creatures on all their paths, with another challenge to elevate human beings and let them taste the blessings of spirituality.

In the sages’ view, the Grace After Meals suggests that the unique moment to attain this height is on Shabbat, which is “me-ein olam ha-ba” – a foretaste of heaven, and heaven is “yom shekullo Shabbat”, the day which is an unending Sabbath.

HOW MANY STONES?On his way into exile, Jacob slept with his head on a stone in place of a pillow (Gen. 28:11).

How many stones were there? Verse 18 says there was only one.

Rashi explains on the basis of the Gemara (Chullin 9b) that the episode started off with a number of stones but then they quarrelled with each other, each one wanting Jacob to choose it to rest his head. So God stepped in and merged the stones, putting them together so that there was now only one stone. The story is an example of the Jewish aversion to squabbles and conflicts.

Amongst the rabbinic commentators there is an additional view (also noted by Rashi) that the issue was not a substitute pillow but the problem of security; Jacob formed a ring of stones around his head to protect him from wild animals.


Why did the children of Laban criticise their cousin Jacob, who had come to live with the family (Gen. 31:1)?

Sforno says they were jealous of him. The Torah explains why. It says that he had become a wealthy man and the Laban family accused him of stealing some of their father’s possessions.

Laban himself had changed his formerly friendly attitude to Jacob and, according to D’varim 26:5, no longer wanted to be kind to the young man.

The passage in D’varim says “Arami Oved Avi”, which can mean, “My father was a wandering Aramean”: but the alternative translation favoured by Rashi fits into the narrative of our sidra, so that the Torah could be saying, “An Aramean (Laban) sought to kill my father”.


A sentence in this week’s Torah reading gives us a lead-in to the Shema.

Jacob says, “If I come home safely, then HaShem will be my God” (Gen. 28:21). He is proclaiming that if he comes home in peace, that will show that HaShem was with him.

The words, “HaShem will be my God” are taken up years later when the Shema says, “Hear, O Israel (Jacob’s other name), HaShem is our God”.

Why is the Shema so important? These are the nine things it says:

1. HaShem is the only reality.
2. We call upon the people of Israel (and mankind) to acclaim Him.
3. He is, and His existence is the great axiom.
4. He is our God, the Maker, the Ruler, the Giver of Meaning.
5. He is One – incomparable and unique.
6. As He loves us, we must love Him with all that we are and all that we have.
7. We must take Him to heart, i.e. seriously.
8. We must speak about Him at all times and places.
9. We must align our will with His.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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