February 2020 QUESTION:
I have noticed that, when we sing the Shma during services, some people close their eyes. Why?
February 2020 ANSWER:
Our predecessors wanted to concentrate on the Shma…which is as close as we get to a statement of belief in God…so they developed the practice of closing their eyes…some even cover their eyes, to enhance their concentration…to shut out all visual stimulation/distraction. And some of us continue to do this, for much the same reason.
If you are going to do this, you should be aware that we close our eyes only for the first line of this Biblical text. We open our eyes again for the sentence that has been inserted between the Shma and the v’ahavta (which follows directly upon the Shma in Deuteronomy 6). That line (Barukh shem k’vod malkhuto…) is attributed to the angels in heaven (yes!) and we sing this softly to indicate that it is not from the same source as the Shma and v’ahavta; by doing this, we acknowledge that this line actually interrupts the recitation of words from Torah.
And we keep our eyes open through the rest of the service. The Shma, however, occurs a second time in the service, when we have a Torah reading. According to many authorities, the Shma was inserted into the Torah service around the time of the Spanish Inquisition, when Christian officials attended Jewish services to make sure that the Jews were not denying the concept of the Trinity (the idea that God is not “one” but three entities—the father, the son, and the holy spirit). The Shma certainly says that “God is one.” So the Jewish leaders at the time removed the Shma from its usual place, just after the call to worship. That seemed to satisfy the Christian officials, so the Jewish leaders inserted the Shma into the Torah services, which the officials did not stay to monitor.
Once the Shma was restored to its proper place, it nonetheless continued to be part of the Torah service (there are other instances in our prayers of things that have been added for specific reasons, and never deleted, even though the original need has long since ceased to exist). To acknowledge that this second occurrence of the Shma is not the liturgically correct place for it, the practice has been not to shut the eyes when we sing this Biblical citation during the Torah service.
Of course, many worshippers are unaware of this, and so they close their eyes for the Shma in the Torah service. There is surely no harm in closing one’s eyes for the second Shma…and many who do this would find it awkward and maybe even sacrilegious to do otherwise. On the other hand, this practice indicates that many (maybe most?) Jews do not know much about the structure of this service, or the thinking behind what and how we pray. There is actually logic to the placement of prayers and texts in the service, and the recitation of the Shma is now a firmly established part of the Torah service, and no innovators have dared to remove it.
So you will have to decide whether you want to close (and/or cover) your eyes for the Shma, and whether you will do so for both interations in our prayerbook. I will be interested to find out what you decide, and how you reach your conclusion.