James Edward Johnson

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Posts Tagged ‘shema

This Shabbat in Iowa City … The Torah portion – Va-ethannan (1 of 3)

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A mezuzah, which is affixed to the door posts of Jewish homes, contains a scroll with the Hebrew words of the Shema.

This is part one of a three part series. – Read Part 1 – The Torah portion – Va-ethannan Part 2 – Getting a minyan and Part 3 – The importance of egalitarianism in the Jewish hinterland.

On every Shabbat morning, Jews read a part of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, at morning services.  On the Jewish calendar, we read a section of the Torah each week such that we read the entire Torah every year.  This week, we read Va-ethannan, which is the second portion of Deuteronomy, or in transliterated Hebrew, Devarim.

This portion is unusually significant.  It contains two passages that are of major importance.  The first, which is recognizable to Jews and Christians alike, is that the portion contains one of the recitations of the Ten Commandments.

While Jews have 613 commandments in the Torah, there is no doubt that these ten are of elevated importance.  They appear in Jewish iconography and, as tablets, were the material representation of the entire Torah covenant between God and the Jewish people.    While today synagogues have arks to hold their Torah scrolls, the original ark in the Tabernacle and later in the First Temple contained these tablets.

Hearing the Ten Commandments read aloud in the synagogue in Hebrew is an important experience that happens only twice a year.  They are read first in Exodus, or in transliterated Hebrew, Shemot.  This week was their second reading.

The other passage of tremendous importance this week was the recitation of the Shema.  In English it reads, “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”  In transliterated Hebrew, it reads, “Shema, Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad.”  This is the only time it is recited in the Torah and if there is a single passage of Hebrew that a Jew knows, it is this one.  Observant Jews recite it every morning and every night and at every service.  According to the command following this verse, they bind the words in little boxes on their arms and forehead each morning, and affix them in little containers to their door posts.  If able, Jews should try to make these their last words.  Even very non-observant Jews do some of these.  There is no other verse that receives even remotely this level of attention.

In short, if one is compelled to come to services based on the content of the portion, this week was uniquely compelling.  It is interesting, therefore, that in Iowa City, there was a risk that we would be unable to read it.  And, indeed, in many Iowa towns, they probably did not read it.  That will be the subject of the next part.


Written by JamesEJ

Saturday, July 24, 2010 at 8:45 pm

Posted in judaism, other

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