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Prayer #8: Hear O Israel: Part 3 - Jewish Unity

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Pinchas Winston

Embodied in the first verse of the Sh'ma, and its accompanying praise of God's kingdom, is a profound allusion to the unity of the Jewish people.

Sh'ma Israel, Adonai Elohainu, Adonai Ehad. "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."

Even though the verse of the Sh'ma, in the Torah, consists of only six words, the actual daily commandment of saying the Sh'ma includes two verses, the second one being, "Blessed is the glorious name of His kingdom forever."

Why does the second verse have only twenty-four letters?

In the Hebrew, like the Sh'ma itself, this verse consists of only six words. However, unlike the Sh'ma -- which has twenty-five letters -- this verse only has twenty-four.

The Zohar says that there should have actually been twenty-five letters in this verse as well. Why then does it only have twenty-four?

To answer this question, we have to know the origin of this verse as it is related in the Talmud:

Jacob, upon his deathbed, tried to reveal to his sons the date of the "End of Days." However, the prophecy left him at that specific moment, and he felt certain that it was due to the unworthiness of some of the recipients present. Therefore, Jacob (Israel) asked his sons: "Perhaps, God forbid, someone here is unworthy?"

His sons answered, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Just as in your heart only [God is] One, so, too, in our hearts, there is only One."

At that moment, Jacob said, "Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever!" (Pesachim 56a)

Hence, the Sh'ma and its accompanying verse not only express the unity of God, but, also, the desired unity of the Jewish people, something which had been the problem with the tribes from the beginning.

This is why the final Jewish redemption is viewed in terms of the reconciliation of the Twelve Tribes:

The word of God came to me to say: "You, Son of Man, take one piece of wood and write on it, 'For Judah and the Children of Israel, his friends.' And another piece of wood and write on it, 'For Joseph, the wood of Ephraim and the entire House of Israel, his friends.' Bring them together, each to the other, to become one piece of wood, and they will become one in your hands. When they say to you, your people, 'What does this mean?' Tell them, so says God, 'Behold, I will take the wood of Joseph which is in the hand of Ephraim and the tribes of Israel, his friends, and I will put on them the wood of Judah and make them one wood, and they will become one in My hand...'" (Ezekiel 37:1)


So, why then did Jacob compose a verse of only twenty-four letters, and not twenty-five? After all, twenty-five is the number we previously identified (See: "Hear O Israel, Part One] as representing the special light that God made on the first day of creation, and subsequently hid for usage by righteous people only.

This is what it means to be a "light unto nations."

It is this light that the Jewish people are supposed to reveal to the world through their belief in God and Torah, and through the sincere fulfillment of the commandments. This is what it means to be a "light unto nations," and thus, it would have made sense to compose a prayer of twenty-five letters, and not twenty-four, as Jacob did.

The Zohar, though, quite mystically answers this question:

Jacob wanted to establish the "Mystery of Unity" below [on earth], and composed the twenty-four letters of, "Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever." He didn't make it twenty-five letters since the Tabernacle had yet to be built. Once the Tabernacle was built, the first word was completed ... With regard to this it says, "God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying ..." (Leviticus 1:1), which has twenty-five letters. (Zohar 2:139b)

What does this mean?

The "Mystery of Unity" refers to the supernatural state of existence when all negative traits disappear -- traits that lead to division among people, such as hatred, jealousy, anger, and so on. This will be the "state of union" in the Messianic time, when the human inclination to do evil will be removed permanently.

The Tabernacle represented the potential fulfillment of the unity that Jacob wanted to draw upon way back in history, a unity that had begun to take hold once Joseph and his brothers made peace with one another. It was built in the desert following God's command to Moses: "They shall make for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst."

Though the existence of the Tabernacle did not automatically usher in the Messianic time, it had tremendous potential to do so. The building of the Tabernacle, represented a tremendous rectification of creation, and the potential to unify all existence.

Thus, the verse from Leviticus to which the Zohar refers alludes to the potential perfection that the Tabernacle could bring about.


All mysticism aside, the Zohar is indicating that, until the Jewish people get their act together, resolve all inner conflict, and return to God, history will not have achieved perfection. We have tasted temporary moments of such perfection, as in the time the Tabernacle was first completed. However, like the two Temples that followed it, such moments were short-lived and they no longer exist, like the peace and tranquility they once facilitated.

The total number of Hebrew letters of each group was twenty-five, just like the two verses of the Sh'ma.

It should be pointed out that the High Priest, as part of his Temple clothing, wore two shoulder plates upon which were written the names of all twelve tribes -- six on the right shoulder, and six on the left shoulder. Furthermore, the total number of Hebrew letters of each group of six was twenty-five, just like the two verses of the Sh'ma themselves, for a total of fifty.

In fact, the High Priest, whose role it was to preserve peace among the Jews and between God and His children below, was called a kohen. The word itself is actually spelled: chof-heh-nun. The first two letters have the combined numerical value of twenty-five, whereas the last represents the number fifty.

Hence, embodied in the first verse of the Sh'ma, and its accompanying praise of God's kingdom, is a profound allusion to the mission of the Jewish nation -- to be a light unto nations -- and the perfected state of the Jewish people, unified around the banner of Torah.

I'm not sure if anyone can remember all of this while saying the Sh'ma twice a day, especially without getting lost in introspective thought. However, at the very least, this explanation provides a glimpse into the beauty and detail of such a simple, but profound prayer.


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