THE MEANING AND CHANT OF SHEMA YISROEL
All of Judaism, and in many ways, all of Western tradition can be summed up in one sentence: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One. The emphasis of this statement is: Oneness. Kabbalah teaches that this sentence summarizes the entire Torah and all of Western mysticism. This is the essential culmination of non-duality. It is not referring to the number one, for that would suggest that there are other numbers, or that there are no numbers (the idea of zero). This oneness is inclusive—transcending numbers—embracing all ideas, it holds within it nothingness as well as infinity. It is without limit. Kabbalah refers to this oneness as Ein Sof, which means “without end.” I usually refer to this as Boundlessness.
It is of utmost importance for the student to deeply understand this teaching. This is the precise meeting place of Eastern and Western mysticism. Most mystical traditions agree on this point of non-duality.
The statement of the Shema can be interpreted as follows:
Hear, not with your ears but from the innermost place of truth, that place within that is attuned to the still, small voice
O Israel, the part of us that yearns to go straight (yashar) to its source (El)
the Lord, the transcendent source beyond infinity
our God, those divine sparks that compose every particle of the universe, the God-force in everything that is manifest
the Lord, that aspect of the Divine that is unknown and unknowable, that both includes and transcends the entire universe, a force beyond conception
is One, the transcendent and unknowable force is one and identical with everything that we see and hear and know as reality; nothing and all things are the same!
In Tibetan Buddhist teachings, all of existence is “one taste,” everything arises from and returns to its source, and never really has a separate identity.
The teaching of the Shema, while it lies at the crux of the most essential of many spiritual traditions, is very difficult to grasp intellectually. Our ordinary minds function in a dualistic realm, our thought processes are dependent upon distinctions, comparisons, judgments, relationships and rational analysis, all of which is in contradiction to the idea of non-duality. We cannot “think” about non-duality, we cannot “express” it directly, we cannot “transmit” it with words and ideas, we cannot “grasp” it, even as a concept.
Yet there is a kind of “knowing” that transcends intellect, imagination and even experience. It is the kind of knowing that at times arises when we enter a room full of strangers and realize at first glance, before communicating, someone who is in mystical alignment with us in a strange way. It is a kind of love at first sight, most often not a sexual love, but a love of deep connectivity on a soul realm. Sometimes we never get to speak to this person, but their image stays with us forever. Sometimes we meet, but it works out that their “outer” personality does not match something else that we “know” is hidden within them. And, of course, sometimes we do in fact connect on a level that feels as if we have known this person our entire lives.
This is a soul-knowing, inexplicable and yet as clear as the noonday sun; a deep wisdom connecting the nature of things with the nature of our own minds. The way we access this level of knowing is through spiritual practice, often in silence or on retreat. When our minds release old constructs and fixations, the wisdom of the soul becomes more accessible.
The Shema lends itself to powerful practices that open the gateways to our natural reservoir of inner wisdom.
The Shema prayer is repeated twice a day, every day, in the Jewish tradition. Each time it is said is a period of introspection. The one praying traditionally sits down, covers his or her eyes so as not to be distracted, and the entire prayer is said quietly, usually from memory. The sentence beginning with “Hear, O Israel…,” which can be said in a few seconds, is the central focus of the prayer. However, a number of additional paragraphs expand its theme, and the practitioner can spend a number of minutes twice a day in deep reflection. So the idea is to remind ourselves every day of the essential truth of oneness.
SHEMA: The Inner Sounds
Each letter of the shema (shin, mem and ayin) has a unique sound. As we know, some words sound like what they actually mean, like tinkle, buzz, or zip. These are called onomatopoeic words. Kabbalists pay great attention to the sounds of the letters in each word and what they represent.
The letter shin traditionally represents “fire.” (The actual word for fire in Hebrew is aleph-shin, pronounced Aish.) The actual pronunciation of the letter shin is “shhhhhh…”
1. Make the sound “shhhhh…” and feel inside what this sound does to you. Notice at first that you bring a concept to the sound; it seems to have the meaning of telling people to quiet down. Make the sound again and try not to associate it with any particular meaning. Simply feel the sound in your heart or solar plexus—or even better, feel it in your kishkes (a Yiddish word that means “guts.”)
Notice that the “shhhhh…” does something inexplicable; it pulls us out of our normal reality into another realm. Let yourself go for a couple of minutes into this world of “shhhhh…” Repeat the sound of shin and let it extend as long as you wish. Be in this world and feel its effect. When you are ready, continue.
The second letter of the Shema is mem. This letter traditionally represents “water.” (The Hebrew word for water is pronounced “my-em,” spelled with two mem’s.) Notice once again a repetitive theme here in blending fire (shin) and water (mem), two incompatible opposites.
The pronunciation of mem is the same as “m” in English.
2. Make the sound “mmmmm…” in your throat, like humming one musical note at any pitch of your choice, but hold one pitch for a full exhalation without making a tune. Again, notice what this sound does to you. If you tend to make concepts, such as “mmmm… this is nice,” or whatever, once again try to drop any thoughts or ideas about meaning. Simply rest in the sound. Do this for a few minutes. When you are ready, continue.
The third letter of the Shema is ayin. Two words in Hebrew are pronounced ayin, but spelled differently (like bee, be, and “b,” the letter). When spelled with an aleph (aleph-yod-nun), ayin means “eye;” and when spelled with the letter ayin (ayin-yod-nun), it means “nothingness.” Of the twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet, two actually have no intrinsic sound: aleph and ayin. Aleph is completely soundless; it simply takes the vowel sound connected in that word. Ayin has its own quality in a kind of constriction of the throat, which can be quite distinctive. It is more associated with a cluck than a sound made with the vocal chords.
Thus, there is no pronunciation of the ayin sound, but we can make an approximation by contracting the throat and exhaling, sounding an “ahhhhhh…” noise with the air passing the throat—being careful not to use the vocal chords in any way.
3. Exhale the sound of “ahhhhh…” without using your voice. Allow your entire body to relax as you release the lungs. Once again, notice that conceptual thinking may be triggered when you make this breathing gesture. It may be connected with a sigh or it may be associated with a purposeful release of tension. Notice if the mind is engaged, and if so, try to let it go and simply be in this realm of “ahhhhh…”
Stay in this sound realm for a few minutes, relaxed. When you are ready, continue.
4a. Now we put the sounds together in the Shema. Breathing slowly, taking a big inhalation, allow the “shhhhh…” to begin just as you start to exhale, and allow it to continue throughout the entire exhalation.
4b. Take another big inhalation, and allow the “mmmmm…” to begin just as you start to exhale, and allow it to continue throughout the entire exhalation.
4c. Take another big inhalation, and allow the “ahhhhh…” to begin just as you start to exhale, and allow it to continue throughout the entire exhalation.
4d. Repeat the sequence, allowing the breath to find its own natural rhythm so that you are completely relaxed in the sounds. When you notice yourself thinking about anything, gently come back to the sound vibrations and the feelings of the body. Try to do five rounds (4a,b,c is considered one round) with a clear mind, no distracted thinking, using your fingers to keep count. When you finish the tenth round, become quiet and fully relaxed. Sit quietly for about ten minutes, letting thoughts go whenever they arise.