Yakov Saacks


The most important prayer in Judaism is the Shma, which is the affirmation of the belief in God. The literal translation is “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This prayer is recited at least three times daily to constantly remind us of our creed.


While there are no last rites in Judaism, and a Rabbi does not have to be called in to administer prayers and ministrations to the person on the brink of death, the dying individual should ideally recite the Shma prayer sometime before passing.

During the Holocaust, the Shma verse was the last words said by the holy martyrs who died strictly because of an evil anti-Semitic nut job. Think about it, as they were waiting to be shot or gassed, they never let the Nazis destroy their inner core. The body maybe, but not their soul.


If you ever went to Hebrew school or attended a Jewish service, you will notice that when we say the Shma, we place our hands over our eyes to block our vision. There are a number of explanations given as to the reasoning behind this practice. The most well-known accepted belief is that when saying the Shma, which is our ultimate declaration of faith, we cover our eyes to show that there is nothing but God, and we fear nothing but God. Other reasons state that by covering our eyes we are able to concentrate better. Yet, there is another explanation that I believe is powerful and enlightening. Beware, these next few paragraphs may change the way you see things. (pun intended).


Let’s discuss eyes for a moment.

Eyes are one of the most delicate parts of the human body. To see the world, light has to enter through the iris, cross the lens, and fall on the retina in just the right way. Everything has to function perfectly in order for an eye to do its job and see. What is fascinating to me with everything that goes on inside an eye — the iris opening and closing, the lens focusing and the retina sending electrical signals to the brain – eye size is completely done growing by three-months-old.

Scientists as of this moment have not created an artificial eye and placed it in a person. They may get there but still have a way to go.


Despite the awesomeness of our eyes, there are so many things we cannot see. Every night, our vision is compromised. A dog can see and hear things that we are not able to. A leopard, hyena, owl and opossum all hunt in the dark without the benefit of a flashlight. In fact, I would venture to say that most things in our universe are completely invisible to us. When we see water, we see clear liquid and we do not see the H2O. I think of my days studying all about things we cannot really see like the atomic particles, neurons, electrons, nucleus and ions. What we can physically see is miniscule compared to what is out there in the universe. Even colors are subjective. Remember the blue and/or gold dress. I saw blue, what did you see?


I read the following fascinating letter that someone sent to a colleague of mine and he forwarded it to me. The letter has been truncated due to its length.

A woman writes. “When I traveled to Israel, I visited the Blind Museum. Simply explained, it’s a museum that is entirely black. You literally feel like you are blind. It was terrifying, to say the least. I felt acutely more vulnerable and insecure than I ever felt in my life. We were a group of six frantic strangers and one guru guide and the darkness. The only thing I knew about anyone in the room were their voices.

“Consistently, throughout the tour, I subconsciously learned to drown out strangers voices around me and train my ears to listen for the one voice, my tour guide who himself was completely blind. The blind leading the blind.

“Nothing though could have prepared me for the ‘music’ room. It was an empty room—I know that because of the echo I heard—and we all sat on the floor doing nothing — just listening to beautiful Bach and Mozart compositions. It was perhaps one of the most visceral experiences I have ever had. I could feel the music in my bones, the vibrations in the floor! Because I could not use my eyes, the music came alive in a different way.

”The last room in the museum was the ‘cafe’… We ordered snacks, made our way to a table, groped our way around chairs and finally settled in for what was to be a fascinating chance to ask our authentically blind guide everything we ever wanted to know about being blind. Amazingly, he was even able to tell me whether I was standing or sitting and even what I was feeling. A truly remarkable fellow. And then the lights went on and I got to ‘see’ him. I got to really see him. Physically, with my naked eyes.

“Rabbi, I’m ashamed to admit this but I recoiled in shock. His eyes were half mast, fluttering jarringly. His gait was uneven, his teeth buck, stained and crooked. His body was deformed and his face was grotesque. I am embarrassed to admit. I could not look at him. It was too uncomfortable for me. I am ashamed but that was my feeling. I couldn’t reconcile the wise, trustworthy, brilliant, deep, inspirational, kind, loving, sensitive, and insightful guide with this bumbling physical mess. My eyes saw, my brain knew, yet they couldn’t mesh it all together. I was so disgusted with myself, with my short-sightedness.

“And it was on that day that I learned a truth I will always cherish: As long as I could not see, I actually saw. When I started to see, I became blind.”


You see, as long as she was in the dark and could not see anything, she actually could “see” this special human being. She could see him for who he really was. As long as her eyes were shut, she was privileged to see this man’s insides. But when her eyes opened, when the light came on and she began to see, she stopped seeing. She BECAME blind! When her eyes were closed, she saw all of him. When they opened, she only saw the superficial.


Now we can understand a deeper reason for covering our eyes during the Shma prayer. When our eyes are open, we don’t see God, we see superficial stuff that clouds our minds and hearts. When we close and cover our eyes and see nothing, this very nothingness allows us to see God without disturbing sights of the happenings around us.

This is the same reason women and girls cover their eyes when they light the holy Shabbat candles. This is the same idea when you see people from all different faiths and backgrounds close their eyes during a moment of prayer.

When our eyes are shut, this gives us the ability to really see.

Please feel free to share.

About the Author
Rabbi Yakov Saacks is the founder and director of The Chai Center, Dix Hills, NY. The Chai Center has been nicknamed by some as New York's most Unorthodox Orthodox Center.
Related Topics
Related Posts