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Shema Yisrael: The Original Haiku?

07/28/2021 03:17:38 PM


This is the D'var Torah that Cantor Fogelman offered on July 23, 2021.

This week’s Torah portion has something in common with the Tokyo Olympics. And I’ll admit it: It’s a bit of a stretch. But this week’s Torah portion, which as a reminder contains the Shema and V’ahavta, has a connection to Japanese culture that will blow your mind. Are you ready for this one?

         One of the most popular forms of Japanese poetry is the Haiku. Traditional Haikus are structured in three phrases, the first containing five syllables, the second containing seven syllables, and the third containing five syllables. So get your counting fingers ready and listen to this:

Shema Yisrael

Adonai Eloheinu

Adonai Echad

Yes, that’s right! We’ve got the five, seven, five structure right there!

         This connection between the Shema and Japanese Haiku refutes the tongue-and-cheek information put forth in the forward of the book “Haikus for Jews” by David M. Bader:

“The earliest Jewish haikus were the contribution of the now almost-forgotten Jewish Haiku Mavens. Like the Japanese haiku, the Jewish haiku was typically an untitled work, consisting of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively. It also had to include a kigo, or "season word," hinting at the time of year. For example, in traditional Japanese haiku, russet could suggest autumn, dragonfly could mean summer, while cherry blossom might connote spring. Similarly, in Jewish haiku, sunblock could signify summer, extra sweater winter, and doing my taxes spring. In Jewish haiku, the season word was sometimes left out entirely and replaced by a "home-furnishings word," such as broadloom.

Perhaps the most brilliant poet of the Jewish haiku was Sheldon "Sashimi" Lepstein, according to his mother. Lepstein grew up aspiring to be a retainer in the court of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Since he was born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1948, he enrolled in City College instead.”

As we all know, the Shema – along with the Torah, for that matter – was redacted long before 1948. So why the haiku? Coincidence? Is there something intuitive about Haiku rhythm that inspires people to string words together this way? Or is there some sort of connection between the Ancient Israelites and Far-East culture?

We might ask, then, which came first? The Torah or the Japanese art form of Haiku?

The Academy of American poetry teaches that Haiku began in thirteenth-century Japan as the opening phrase of a renga, a type of oral poem, generally a hundred stanzas long, which was also composed syllabically. The much shorter Haiku broke away from the renga in the sixteenth century and was mastered a century later by Matsuo Basho, who write this classic haiku:

An old pond!

A frog jumps in –

The sound of water.

The Academy explains that the overall philosophy of a haiku has been preserved for centuries, even though it’s not quite as old as the Torah:

“The focus on a brief moment in time; a use of provocative, colorful images; an ability to be read in one breath; and a sense of sudden enlightenment.”

Sounds a lot like the Shema to me! The Shema is all about oneness – certainly focuses on a brief moment in time. There aren’t any specific reference to color, but since we traditionally close our eyes during the shema our visualizations can be as colorful and provocative as we want! We don’t always say the Shema in one breath, but I encourage you to try it. It’s a profoundly spiritual experience that enables us to focus on the text in a new way. And if you have ever stopped an listened to the collective sound of a congregation singing the Shema together – well, to me, there is no greater feeling of enlightenment.  

But a Haiku is much more than the sum of its syllables. In an article on, David Carasso explains the deeper intricacies of a Haiku:

“Haikus have to express something about nature. They have to use very concrete terms, never generalities. They have to deal with the here and now and be composed of strong nouns and verbs; rarely are there modifiers, such as adjectives or adverbs. Often their three lines are split into two parts, by a colon or a dash, with an imaginative distance between the two sections. Each line, however, should contain a complete thought. And finally, the whole haiku should have a twist that offers some spiritual insight by juxtaposition.”

Caruso goes on to explain why he believes that the Shema does, in fact, meet this criteria:  

“The Shema's six simple words has many twists, offering spiritual insights by juxtaposition. Here are three:

- Elo-him, the God of Monotheistic Judaism, is a plural noun, signifying the seemingly many forces that are spread throughout creation. Yet, these worldly forces are One.

- "Ado-nay is our God" – the God of the Jews; but in the future, Ado-nay will be acknowledged by all as the One God.

- Ado-nay is used to denote God's Attribute of Mercy, while Elo-him is used to denote God's Attribute of Justice. But, no matter whether we perceive God as kind, angry, merciful, or judging, He is One, and His Truth and Purpose is One.”

Some might argue that while the Shema might look to resemble a Haiku on the surface, a minor Hebrew grammatical differentiation might refute any comparison. You see, there is some debate as to whether the word “Shema” in itself is one syllable or two syllables! The vowel under the “sh” is called a schwa, which some consider to be a quasi/semi syllable. From a musical standpoint, it is technically considered to be a de-facto syllable, since it does have a beat – even though it is an unaccented one. You have the same situation in the word “Yihyu” or “Y’hi-yu” as in “Yehiyu L’Ratzon!” Is the word one syllable or three? In this case, it depends on how the composer sets the music. In the Josh Nelson setting we sang tonight, there are definitively three syllables. But in the Marshall Portnoy setting, there are two.

In terms of the Shema, if you look at the three settings in the Complete Shireinu, the Pik and Sulzer settings are written with Sh’ma as one syllable – even though we often sing both of them as “She-ma.” But Debbie Friedman’s setting is scored as “She-ma,” with two syllables. So really, it’s all subjective.

Whether or not the Shema actually counts as a real Haiku, I’ll leave you with some of my favorite examples of Bader’s “Haikus for Jews:”

Apropos to the Olympics:

Jewish triathlon --

gin rummy, then contract bridge,
followed by a nap.

On Passover we
Opened the door for Elijah
Now our cat is gone.

Testing the warm milk
on her wrist, she beams; nice, but
her son is forty.

Today I am a
man. On Monday I return
to the seventh grade.

And my favorite:

Yom Kippur–forgive
me, God, for the Mercedes
and all the lobsters.

Shabbat Shalom!


Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782