Why do we cover our eyes during the Shema? Our tradition teaches that it is to avoid distraction and focus at this central time in prayer. Moreover, the Shema is a prayer about listening, and we can listen more intently when not looking; the limitation of one sense often makes others keener.
Here is another theory. In writing about Kabbalah and the concept of infinity, mathematician Amir Aczel discusses the kabbalistic term for God — “Ein Sof” — without end. The name of God as “Infinity” was first used, Aczel points out, by 12th-century kabbalist Isaac the Blind: “It took a blind man to conceive of the idea of an infinite light.”
Everything we see with our eyes is by definition limited. You cannot “see” infinity, only boundaries. So at the moment when we are most possessed by the idea of God, perhaps the tradition is advising us, in the manner of Isaac the blind, to shut off our visual sense for that is the way of limitation. Reciting the Shema, we cover our eyes so that in that moment we can imagine, as best we are able, the infinite, the Ein Sof. We stop looking so that we might see.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe.