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Listen Up!

By: Rav Uri Cohen

While in a toy store, my husband and I overheard a mother and her small daughter discussing the dolls. “What does it do?” the child would ask about each one. The mother would answer, “It talks,” or “It wets,” or “It cries.” The dolls were rather expensive, so the mother tried to direct her little girl’s interest toward an ordinary one that was more reasonably priced. “Does it do anything?” the child asked. “Yes,” the mother replied. “It listens.” The little girl reached eagerly for the doll.<1>

The Torah’s description of Hakhel includes: “Read this Torah before all of Israel, in their ears . . . so that they will hear and will learn to fear Hashem your God and to keep all the words of this Torah” (Devarim 31:11-12). Rebbetzin Chana Bracha Siegelbaum, head of Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin, suggests that Hakhel was geared towards teaching us to develop good listening skills. She points out that the parts of Sefer Devarim that are read for Hakhel, including the first two paragraphs of the Shema, mention the word “shema” (listen) 52 times.<2>

All throughout Sefer Devarim, listening is emphasized. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks elaborates:

The verb lishmo’a is a key term of the book of Deuteronomy, where it appears in one or other forms some 92 times (by way of comparison, it appears only 6 times in the whole of Leviticus). It conveys a wide range of meanings, clustered around five primary senses:

[1] to listen, to pay focused attention, as in “Be silent, O Israel, and listen [u-shema]” (Deut. 27:9)

[2] to hear, as in “I heard [shamati] Your voice in the garden and I was afraid” (Gen. 3:10)

[3] to understand, as in “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand [yishme’u] each other” (Gen. 11:7)

[4] to internalize, register, take to heart, as in “And as for Ishmael I have heard you” (Gen. 17:20), meaning, “I have taken into account what you have said; I will bear it in mind; it is a consideration that weighs with Me”.

[5] to respond in action, as in “Abraham did [vayishma] what Sarah said” (Gen. 16:2). This last sense is the closest shema comes to meaning “to obey”.

It has yet other meanings in rabbinic Hebrew, such as “to infer”, “to accept”, “to take into account as evidence” and “to receive as part of the Oral tradition”. No English word has this range of meanings. Perhaps the closest are “to hearken” and “to heed” – neither of them terms in common use today. Psychotherapists nowadays sometimes speak of “active listening”, and this is part of what is meant by Shema.<3>

Rabbi Sacks is fascinated by this idea. He develops it to characterize the whole Torah:

Judaism is a religion of listening. This is one of its most original contributions to civilisation.

The twin foundations on which Western culture was built were ancient Greece and ancient Israel. They could not have been more different. Greece was a profoundly visual culture. Its greatest achievements had to do with the eye, with seeing. It produced some of the greatest art, sculpture and architecture the world has ever seen. Its most characteristic group events – theatrical performances and the Olympic games – were spectacles: performances that were watched. . . . This idea – that knowing is seeing – remains the dominant metaphor in the West even today. We speak of insight, foresight and hindsight. We offer an observation. We adopt a perspective. We illustrate. We illuminate. We shed light on an issue. When we understand something, we say, “I see.”

Judaism offered a radical alternative. It is faith in a God we cannot see, a God who cannot be represented visually. The very act of making a graven image – a visual symbol – is a form of idolatry. As Moses reminded the people [in Parshat Va’etchanan], when the Israelites had a direct encounter with God at Mount Sinai, “You heard the sound of words, but saw no image; there was only a voice” (Deut. 4:12). God communicates in sounds, not sights. He speaks. He commands. He calls. That is why the supreme religious act is Shema. When God speaks, we listen. When He commands, we try to obey.

Rabbi David Cohen (1887-1972), known as the Nazirite, a disciple of Rav Kook and the father of R. She’ar-Yashuv Cohen ([late] chief rabbi of Haifa), pointed out that in the Babylonian Talmud all the metaphors of understanding are based not on seeing but on hearing. Ta shema, “come and hear.” Ka mashma lan, “It teaches us this.” Shema mina, “Infer from this.” Lo shemiyah lei, “He did not agree.” A traditional teaching is called shamaytta, “that which was heard.” And so on. (This appears in the opening pages of his work, Kol Nevuah.)<4> All of these are variations on the word shema.

This may seem like a small difference, but it is in fact a huge one. For the Greeks, the ideal form of knowledge involved detachment. There is the one who sees, the subject, and there is that which is seen, the object, and they belong to two different realms. A person who looks at a painting or a sculpture or a play in a theatre or the Olympic games is not himself part of the art or the drama or the athletic competition. He or she is a spectator, not a participant.

Speaking and listening are not forms of detachment. They are forms of engagement. They create a relationship. The Hebrew word for knowledge, da’at, implies involvement, closeness, intimacy. “And Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived and gave birth” (Gen. 4:1). That is knowing in the Hebrew sense, not the Greek. We can enter into a relationship with God, even though He is infinite and we are finite, because we are linked by words. In revelation, God speaks to us. In prayer, we speak to God. If you want to understand any relationship, between husband and wife, or parent and child, or employer and employee, pay close attention to how they speak and listen to one another. Ignore everything else.<5>

Since listening is so important, we can now understand our custom of covering our eyes for the first line of the Shema. In Rabbi Sacks’s words, “[W]e cover our eyes – to shut out, if only for a moment, the world of sight, so that we can more fully enter the [Torah’s] world of sound.”<6>

Shabbat is another time when we emphasize listening. From 1989 to 2013, Senator Joe Lieberman was famous for being the person in the Senate who was principled, well-liked, and an Orthodox Jew. He also wrote a book about Shabbat published by the OU. Here’s how Senator Lieberman connects Shabbat and listening:

[T]he Sabbath is a day when we have the opportunity to listen to people in a way we don’t during the rest of the week. Our modern secular culture is very visual, often in unhealthy ways. Our eyes are constantly on televisions, video games, computers, email, websites, and all the rest. Many modern workers spend entire days interacting with a video screen. Even if the images we see are all wholesome – and of course they aren’t – it is still socially isolating to have such an exclusive relationship with a video screen. It separates us from the company of other people and from civil interaction and social conversation.

The Sabbath forces us to pull our eyes away from the digital flow and rejoin the natural world, where communication is accomplished mainly through human voices speaking and human ears listening. The genius of the Sabbath lies in the way it restricts us from certain activities and, thereby, frees us to experience others including conversations – big ones with God and less grand ones with our family and friends.<7>

One more time that is all about listening is now, the Yamim Nora’im (High Holy Days). Rabbi Stewart Weiss, head of the Jewish Outreach Center in Ra’anana, has a a theory that each of our Chagim (holidays) can be connected with one of the senses. Pesach relates to the sense of taste, Shavuot relates to the sense of sight, and Sukkot relates to the sense of touch. As for the Yamim Nora’im, he writes:

I suggest that they center around the idea of listening. No other time of the year is so sensitive to sound as the Days of Awe: The sound of prayer, all day long. The sound of greeting one another, asking forgiveness from a neighbor or friend, wishing all we meet a “Shana tova,” a good year. The poignant and powerful poems and songs which fill our liturgy; the Slichot penitential prayers chanted deep into the night or at the break of dawn. The time of year when cantors and choirs reign supreme.

This theme of listening is most clearly represented by the sounding of the shofar. For 40 days, from the first of Elul until that dramatic last moment of Ne’ila (the prayers that conclude the Yom Kippur service), the shofar provides the soundtrack, or at least the backdrop of the High Holy Days.<8>

Whether we’re listening to the shofar or listening to other people ask us for mechilah (forgiveness), this is the time of year to remind ourselves of how important it is to listen. So listen up!




1. Dinah Smith of Oklahoma City, in Reader’s Digest, June 1994.

2. Rebbetzin Chana Bracha Siegelbaum, “Learning to Listen,”  Reprinted in her Women at the Crossroads: A Woman’s Perspective on the Weekly Torah Portion (Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin, 2010), p. 187. She adds on p. 188: “Since women are praised for their ability to listen, perhaps this is why the mitzvah of Hakhel took place in the women’s courtyard of the Temple.”

3. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “The Meanings of Shema,” Covenant & Conversation, Va’etchanan 5770 (24 July 2010).

4. Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm describes Kol Nevuah as a whole volume on the word shema and its implicit concepts. See Rabbi Lamm’s book The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism (Jewish Publication Society, 2000), p. 13. For more details of this unusual approach of Rav Cohen the Nazir (and a critique from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein), see Rabbi Chaim Eisenstein, “Hearing the Sounds of the Divine,” Chanuka To-Go 5776 (December 2015), pp. 5-8.

5. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “The Spirituality of Listening,” Covenant & Conversation, Eikev 5776 (23 August 2016). His earlier article (note 3 above) presents this idea as well, but more briefly.

6. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “Listen O Israel,” Covenant & Conversation, Va’etchanan 5767 (26 July 2007).  Compare his formulation in the Hebrew Daily Prayer Book (Singer’s, 2006), p. 278: “To emphasise the non-visual nature of Jewish belief, it is our custom to cover our eyes as we say these words.”

7. Senator Joseph Lieberman with David Klinghoffer, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath (OU Press/Howard Books, 2011), p. 95.

8. Rabbi Stewart Weiss, “Hear Ye! Hear Ye! The High Holidays and the Art of Listening,” The Jerusalem Post, September 28, 2008, Rosh HaShana 5769 supplement, pp. 24-25.


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