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“Shema” for Deaf People

October 24, 2011 | By

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The Shema is the most important six-word liturgical formula in Judaism–”Hear o Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” runs the usual English translation.

But when translating into American Sign Language, one encounters a number of idiosyncratic disconnects. For one thing, the first word–hear. Deaf people don’t “hear” things in the way the Hebrew word indicates. So what does Shema, the word and the prayer, mean to them?

Enter Rabbi Darby Jared Leigh. Step by step and word by word, he takes us through his translation of the Shema into ASL. The second word, “Israel,” is often translated using the sign for “Israel”–but that sign refers to the land, not the people. And how do you translate “Adonai” and “Eloheinu,” which are two different words in Hebrew but both basically mean “God“? In under two minutes, Leigh shows us that when it comes to the Shema, there’s much, much more than meets the eye (and ear).

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