Kriyat Shema (for older children)

In this resource, we will learn about a text that expresses beliefs that have been central to Jewish tradition over the course of history and in Jewish communities around the world.

Resource Ages: 9-11


Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ ה’ אֶחָד.


Rabbi Haim Sabato tells a story that he heard about Rabbi Isaac Herzog, who searched for Jewish children who had been hidden in convents across Europe during the Holocaust. The children were hidden at a young age and didn’t know about their Judaism and many of the heads of the convents preferred that they remain Christian. Here’s the story:

Rabbi Herzog went himself from convent to convent. He arrived at one convent in the afternoon. “There are no Jewish children here!” said the head of the convent to the rabbi, with great certainty and a stern face. The rabbi asked to see for himself, in light of the promise given by the pope [that all Jewish children found in convents would be returned]. The head of the convent agreed, knowing that no Jewish children would be found.

Following an order from the head of the convent, one of the nuns, who was young, tall and quiet, presented the rabbi with rows and rows of boys and girls wearing the gray smocks that were their school uniform. Rabbi Isaac Herzog appealed to their hearts […]. “Who here is a Jew?” he asked. The children all stood completely still, without moving a muscle and without any expression on their faces. Complete silence […] Suddenly, Rabbi Isaac Herzog turned toward the children and called out loudly, with all of his might, “This is what Rabbi Akiva said at the moment of his death, “שמע ישראל ה’ אלוקינו ה’ אחד!” (Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One) And the right hands of seven small children rose up to cover their eyes. “They are Jews!” cried out the rabbi. This is how they were taught by their mothers as they put them to sleep in their cradles before dark.

From the book B’Shafrir Chavion, by Haim Sabato

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How is prayer a vehicle to help us access connections to God?
  • How can I experience moments of connection to God? 
  • How does prayer present us with questions about God and the Divine? 

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • To what extent can a person be part of a community when they pray alone?
  • How does prayer connect us with our past?
  • How does prayer connect us with other Jewish communities?
  • How can prayers affect how we look at the world?

Background for Teacher

The verse “Shema Yisrael” is considered a fundamental statement in Judaism. It is a declaration of belief in the covenant between the Jewish people and God and in the unity of God. It is a fundamental expression of the monotheistic belief that has made...

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The verse “Shema Yisrael” is considered a fundamental statement in Judaism. It is a declaration of belief in the covenant between the Jewish people and God and in the unity of God. It is a fundamental expression of the monotheistic belief that has made Jewish culture unique from its earliest beginnings. It is important to note that the idea of believing in one god was an innovation of Judaism, which developed in a world of polytheistic nations. The verse comes from the book of Deuteronomy (6:4), where it is part of the speech that Moses delivers to the people before his death. In that speech, Moses orders the people to listen to and to perform God’s commandments. He calls to the people saying, “שמע ישראל, ה’ א-לוהינו, ה’ אחד”. The Shema serves as both a call to the people of Israel and a call to each individual to remember the principles of the Jewish faith.

The verse is said three times a day: in shacharit (the morning prayer service), in maariv (the evening prayer service) and before going to sleep. Every Jewish child is expected to know this verse and it bears witness to the relationship with past generations and to the Jewish tradition. This verse is also considered to be the last thing a Jew says before dying and there are many stories of martyrs that describe how they said the Shema in their last moments. One example is the story of Rabbi Akiva who was tortured by the Romans and recited the Shema before dying (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 61a).

As we say the Shema, it is customary for us to cover our eyes with our hand, to help us to concentrate on the words we are saying and to transfer our gaze from the external to the internal. The Shema is not a regular prayer, in that it does not contain any request/praise/thanks and is not directed at God. It is a declaration of faith that is directed toward ourselves and the community.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study
  • As a class, have the students make a list of belief statements (“Always do your best”; “The most important thing is to be happy”; etc.). Ask each student to rank the top three most important beliefs for them, from among all of the listed statements. Then, ask the students to share and explain their selections.
  • The phrase “Shema Yisrael” has itself become a Jewish symbol. Show the students a presentation of different Jewish items on which the words “Shema Yisrael” appear. Then ask: Is there anything that all of these items have in common? What does this presentation teach us about the place of the Shema in different generations?

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  1. In Jewish tradition, the Shema is considered to be a central and important prayer. Why do you think that is?
  2. In your own words, explain what the prayer says. To whom is the prayer directed?
  3. Why do you think that a declaration of faith in the unity of God and in the relationship between the Jewish people and God is necessary? Why are these the most important things to declare, in Jewish tradition?
  4. The declaration of faith in the Shema has been passed from generation to generation and is found in all Jewish communities around the world. How does saying the Shema influence the sense of connection with the past and with other Jewish communities?
  5. The Shema expresses the idea of monotheism, the idea that there is one supernatural force behind the entire universe and that everything has meaning. What do you think about that idea? Do you identify with it? How can the statement be meaningful even for someone who does not identify with this idea?
  6. How does the story of Rabbi Herzog demonstrate the importance of the Shema in Jewish tradition?

After watching the presentation referred to in the Optional Hooks: Ask the students, “What objects would be appropriate to decorate with the words ‘Shema Yisrael’? In what contexts would objects decorated in that way be used? What would those words add to the object?” Ask them to think about modern objects on which they might write the words “Shema Yisrael” and to draw an example. Have the students present their ideas to the class and explain what those words add to the object and how they correspond with how the object is normally used.

  • Study the passages of Kriyat Shema. What do they add to the main statement “Shema Yisrael”?
  • The Shema transmits an important message via our sense of hearing. In what other ways can we transmit a message? Divide the students into pairs and ask them to pass messages to their partners without speaking. How did they do this and how did each method affect how the message was received? How do you best receive messages: by seeing? by hearing? by touching?