The Shulchan Arukh clearly writes that the kavana (usually translated as attention, or focus) we are required to have when we pray consists primarily in understanding the meaning of the words we are pronouncing.
If we are not fluent in Hebrew, we should make the effort to understand the meaning of the words we pronounce. In the following weeks, B’H, we are going to explain the words of the Shema Israel and the ideas behind it.
When we pray, we should know first the simple meaning of a word. But then, we should also delve into the ideas behind the words. For example: the word ATA, means in Hebrew “YOU”. And the idea behind “YOU” is that we are addressing God in the second person! When we say baruch ata, after we understand that ATA means “YOU”, we must also realize and bring ourselves to think and feel that we are standing directly in front of Him. That God Almighty is present here and now.
Let us explore now the first word: shema’.
“shema” means “listen”, in the imperative form. In addition, and same as in English when in opposition to “hear”, “shema” means: listening while paying close attention. The rabbis mentioned that in this sense,“listen” precisely implies “understand” (bekhol lashon sheata shomea).
Our rabbis explained that the word “shema” also indicates that when we read the Shema Israel we need to be completely focused on it. It is obviously forbidden to talk and even to make a sound or a body signal, even to greet someone. We must reach a state of total concentration while reciting the Shema Israel.
In sum: “shema israel” means: You, members of the Jewish Nation, pay close attention, focus and understand the following crucial statement: “Hashem is our God, HaShem is one”.