Our Pastor had recently preached on the significance of the shema to the Jewish people – how it was the first prayer they recited in the morning and the last one they said at night; how the shema might be whispered into the ear of a newborn baby, and recited as the final prayer of one’s life. I found it interesting, then, to read this story contained in the introduction to the book I am reading now, called “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, subtitled, ‘A War Story’, written by Diane Ackerman, copyright 2007:
My grandfather, who lived on a small farm (in Poland)heard folk stories passed down through generations.
One of them tells of a village with a little circus whose lion had suddenly died. The circus director asked an old Jewish man if he would pretend to be the lion, and the man agreed since he needed the money. The director said: “All you have to do is wear the lion’s fur and sit in the cage, and people will believe you are a lion.” And so the man did, muttering to himself, “What strange jobs I’ve had in my life,” when his thoughts were interrupted by a noise. He turned just in time to see another lion creeping into the cage and fixing him with a hungry stare. Trembling, cowering, not knowing how to save himself, the man did the only thing he could think of — vociferously chant a Hebrew prayer. No sooner had he uttered the first desperate words, ‘Shema Yisrael’ (Hear O Israel)…than the other lion joined in with ‘adonai elohenu’ (the LORD our God), and the two would-be lions finished the prayer together.
So, I guess, as this little story would show, the shema is so pervasive in Jewish culture that it is even part of Jewish humor : )