Why Do We February 2014

The Choreography Of A Service: Why Do We?

Why do we cover our eyes during the Sh’ma?

Sh’ma Yisrael – “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” is the cornerstone of our faith. Sh’ma is contained in the Mezuzah we affix to the doorposts of our home, and in the Tefillin that we bind to our arm and head. We recite Sh’ma when preparing to read the Torah on Shabbat and festivals. And we recite Sh’ma at the end of the holiest day, Yom Kippur. There is a widespread custom to cover one’s eyes while reciting the Sh’ma, something that is not generally done during the recitation of other parts of the prayer service. The source for this practice is a passage in the Gemara which tells that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi would often be delivering a Shiur (Torah lecture) when the time for the Sh’ma came. At that point, the Gemara relates, Rabbi Yehuda would place his hand over his eyes and recite Sh’ma. He covered his eyes in order to help him concentrate intensely on the words, and not be distracted by his students. The custom thus developed to always cover one’s eyes during the recitation of Sh’ma in order to ensure maximum concentration and focus. The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi, who lived in the second century, would cover his eyes while he would recite the first verse of the Sh’ma,to ensure that nothing around him would disturb his concentration. Since then, the practice has been adopted by all Jewish communities throughout the world.  The most significant part of the Sh’ma is the first verse which reads Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d the Lord is one. This proclamation affirms our belief in a single, all powereful, infinite G-d – the basic premise of Judaism. This next part came from various sources. It seems to be preferable to cover your eyes with your right hand. In Judaism, preference is always given to the right side. Kabbalah explains that the right represents Kindness while the left represents Judgement. Because of this, we usually do Mitzvot with our right hand. Therefore when we cover our eyes while saying the Sh’ma, we cover our eyes with our right hand.

Manny Sperling

Temple Emanu El Worship and Practices Committee