Why Do We Cover Our Eyes for Shema?
By Yehuda Shurpin
When saying the first six words of the Shema, it is a universal Jewish custom to cover one's eyes with the right hand.
Why? The simple answer is that doing so allows one to concentrate properly without visual distractions.1
It is crucial to have the proper intention when reciting the first verse of Shema, even more so than during other parts of prayer. As we say the words, we focus not just on the meaning of the words, but on accepting the yoke of heaven. We concentrate on the idea that G‑d is the only true reality. This intention is so important that one who recites the words of this verse but does not think about its meaning needs to recite it again.2
The custom to cover one's eyes can be traced back to the times of the Mishnah, when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (Judah the Prince) would cover his eyes while reciting the first verse of the Shema.3
Direction of the Eyes
Some early commentators, however, explain that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi covered his eyes while reciting the Shema because some had the custom to look in all directions so as to accept divine sovereignty throughout the world. Rabbi Yehuda covered his eyes, for he wished to conceal his precise eye movements while reciting the Shema.4
The Secret of the Blind Maiden
The kabbalists, most notably Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Arizal, explain that one is meant to use the right hand to close5 one's eyes while reciting the first verse of Shema.
The Arizal explains that this is connected to a very enigmatic "riddle" found in the Zohar.
The Zohar relates that "an old man" (saba), ostensibly a donkey driver, met Rabbi Yossi on his travels and posed several questions to him, but Rabbi Yossi failed to appreciate their true significance. However, his colleague Rabbi Chiya sensed that there was more to the questions than met the eye, and after probing the matter, they realized that the old man was in fact teaching them some of the deepest mystical secrets.
The "riddle" that he had the hardest time understanding was the following:
Who is the beautiful maiden without eyes, whose body is concealed and revealed, who comes out in the morning and disappears during the day, who is adorned with ornaments that never were?
There is much discussion about the meaning of this "riddle."6 But to simplify the Arizal's explanation as it relates to the reading of Shema, "the maiden" refers to the divine attribute of malchut ("kingship"),which at times is referred to as the Shechinah (the feminine aspect of the divine). In this context, it is also referred to as "Rachel."
There are four spiritual worlds within the kabbalistic formulation of the cosmos, the world of Atzilut ("Emanation") being the highest of the four. In this realm, nothing has physical form or color, and sight is nonexistent.
When we recite the Shema, we are elevating the Mayin Nukvin ("Feminine Waters") to the world of Atzilut, setting the stage for the unification of the feminine and masculine, or the unification of the soul and the Shechinah. Since the Mayin Nukvin are entering Atzilut, a world that is higher than sight, one must close one's eyes during the first line of the Shema.
The reason we specifically use the right hand (even if one is a lefty), which symbolizes the attribute of chessed (kindness) as well as the Mayin Dechurin ("Male Waters"), is also connected to this "riddle."
The Blind Are Full of Light
Throughout the Talmud, the blind are called sagi nahor—"enough of light" or "full of light." This is because one's physical sight, which gazes out at the mundane and materialistic world, often contradicts and weakens one's "inner" spiritual sight.
The idea of G‑d's oneness, that is, that G‑d is the only true reality, often seems contradicted by our physical senses. We see and smell and taste and feel the world around us, while divinity is an abstract and spiritual reality.
Therefore, when we say the Shema and proclaim the oneness of G‑d, we are affirming that true reality is neither what our eye sees nor what we experience naturally and intuitively. By covering our eyes, we are indicating our desire to disconnect from the physical and connect to the spiritual.7
The Shechinah Rests Upon the Face
When we recite the Shema and accept upon ourselves the yoke of heaven, the Shechinah, Divine Presence, rests upon our face. Out of respect for the Divine Presence, we cover our faces, as G‑d told Moses, "And it shall be that when My glory passes by, I will place you into the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by."8 ,9
Judgement and Mercy
In the first verse of Shema, we proclaim that "the L‑rd is our G‑d; the L‑rd is one."10 With this statement, we are affirming our belief that both G‑d's attribute of strength and judgment and G‑d's attribute of mercy are really one. Thus, we cover our eyes, symbolizing that what we may perceive with our physical eyes as negative is, in truth, positive.11
Of course, we await the day when we will see this positive reality with our physical eyes as well. May it be speedily in our days!
Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 61:5.
Talmud, Berachot 13b.
Rabbi Hai Gaon, quoted in Sefer Haruch on Berachot 13b.
This is more in line with the classic explanation of Rabbi Yehuda's actions.
See also The Riddle of the Saba.
Kli Yakar, Exodus 24:4; Mishnat Chachamim 23:495; see also Tanya, Igeret Hakodesh 9.
Yesodei Yeshurun, Siddur Lechol, Keriyat Shema.
Kol Arye, Vayigash.