Even Jews with little knowledge or interest in their Judaism are likely to be familiar with the verse known as Shma Yisrael - "Hear O Israel" (Deuteronomy 6:4).
In many ways it has become the watchword of the Jewish faith. The popularity of this verse may be due largely to its connection to martyrdom, a connection first mentioned in the story of the death of the great Tanna Rabbi Akiva who insisted on reciting the Shma on the morning of his torture and execution by the Romans. Akiva had always interpreted the phrase "with all you soul" in the verse "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all you soul and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5) to mean "even if he takes your soul" (Sifre Deuteronomy 32). Therefore, now that his life was being taken he would demonstrate his love and devotion to God by fulfilling the mitzva of reciting the Shma and declaring his belief in the oneness of God. As he said, "All my life I was troubled by the verse 'with all your soul' - even if He takes your soul. I thought, 'If it comes to that, will I be able to fulfill it?' And now that it has come about, shall I not fulfill it?!" (Berakhot 61b).
The recitation of the Shma, however, is by no means confined to the time of martyrdom and death. At least since the time of the Second Temple that verse, together with the paragraph that follows (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) and two other Biblical passages (Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41) has been recited by Jews as part of daily worship, morning and evening. Over time the significance of the recitation of those passages has been interpreted in different ways.
At the beginning they were recited as a way of fulfilling the command to "recite them at home and away, when you lie down and when you rise up." These passages were selected - we have no way of knowing by whom - to represent the entire Torah, serving both as a sample and in order to represent the important teachings of the Torah. The recitation is called Kriyat Shma, the word kriya always indicating the reading or recitation of passages of the Scripture. The Shma, therefore, is not a prayer at all but rather a reading, a way of listening to the word of God and attending to God's teachings.
As a matter of fact each of the three paragraphs represents an important dogma of Judaism. The first teaches monotheism and the love of God, the second the doctrine of reward and punishment and the third the belief in God as the redeemer. There is a threefold relationship to God described here: God the Creator, God the Giver of Torah, and God the Redeemer.
To the believing Jew the recitation of the Shma is an affirmation of Jewish belief. It is true that in Judaism we have never developed one official creed accepted by all - even Maimonides's Thirteen Articles of Faith were disputed by other great authorities - but the meaning of the Shma really does encapsulate basic Jewish belief. It could be summarized thus: We believe in the One God, Creator of heaven and earth, whose will has been revealed to us through the Torah and its mitzvot as interpreted by the Sages, and who redeemed us from Egyptian slavery, redeems us now, and will redeem both Israel and all humanity and bring us to the perfected world - the Sovereignty of God.
LATER ON the Sages added another level of meaning to the Shma. To them, as recorded in the Mishna (edited in the second century C.E.), the Shma was also - perhaps even primarily - a way of accepting upon oneself the Sovereignty of God (first paragraph) and the "yoke of the commandments" (second paragraph) (see Berakhot 2:2). Therefore it was not just a reading, but had to be done accompanied by a specific action - covering one's eyes when saying the first line - and with the intent of accepting the yoke of Heaven and the yoke of the commandments.
It became, therefore, the "pledge of allegiance" of Judaism. It was this significance more than any other that made it so important to Rabbi Akiva. At the moment of his death he defied the authorities of Rome by once again asserting his ultimate loyalty to God - the true Sovereign - as opposed to any Roman ruler. The Romans had control of his body and could torture him and even kill him, but they could not command his ultimate loyalty. God remained his sovereign until the very end.
It is no wonder that the Midrash fancifully seized upon the Shma as the words uttered by Jacob's children when they sought to assure him at the time of his death that they were true to his teaching. "Hear O Israel - our father," they said, "just as there is no doubt in your heart regarding God, so there is no doubt in our hearts, rather - the Lord is our God, the Lord is one" (Sifre Deuteronomy 31).
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.