Technically, this is not a prayer, because there is no praise, supplication or thanks. The Sages included it in the daily liturgy, however, because the principles found in Shema are so important. Shema itself begins with the sentence that is the ultimate declaration of belief in monotheism and God’s special relationship to the Jewish people. Throughout history, and today, Jews recite this sentence with their final breath because it encapsulates Jewish faith so completely in this one short phrase. This verse is recited aloud while covering the eyes with the right hand, in a state of total concentration: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord, is One.”
The three short paragraphs that follow, referred to collectively as Shema, contain many of the basic principles of Judaism. They constitute a succinct declaration of our beliefs, our obligations and the nature of our relationship with God.
The first paragraph speaks of the obligation to love God, to teach and study the Torah and to transmit it to the next generation. It continues with the obligation to inscribe the Torah on our actions, thoughts and environment, as symbolized by binding tefillin on the arm and head, and affixing the words of Shema to the doorposts of our dwellings, as a mezuzah.
The next paragraph teaches us the obligation of obedience to God’s commandments, the concept of reward and punishment and Divine providence, and the promise that the Land of Israel will belong to the Patriarchs and to us, their descendants. The final paragraph contains the prohibition against blindly following our senses and desires, and the obligation to keep the commandments at the forefront of our consciousness.
The wearing of fringes, tzitzit, on our garments helps us keep these responsibilities in mind and is the central commandment of the last paragraph. The Shema ends with a mention of the Exodus, thus enables us to fulfill the Biblical command “that you may remember the day of your departure from Egypt all the days of your life.”