Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you. [Deuteronomy 31:8 (NLT)]
With its declaration of one all-powerful infinite God, Jewish tradition holds that the Shema’s first verse “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” is the most important and, as such, demands greater concentration so the eyes are closed or covered by the right hand during its recitation. The Talmud traces this practice back to Rabbi Judah the Prince (135 – 219 AD) who often interrupted his lectures to recite the Shema. Whenever he did so, the rabbi placed his hands over his eyes as a way of disconnecting from his surroundings.
Reading about covering eyes during Shema caused me to ponder why we usually close our eyes during prayer. Closing our eyes certainly helps us avoid distractions but I came across additional Talmudic explanations for this practice. Rather than closing his eyes as a way to shut out the world, 13th century Rabbi Yonah Gerondi rotated his eyes so he could see God in all directions. He only covered them during the Shema to ensure his spiritual privacy while rolling his eyes. In his explanation for shutting the eyes, 17th century Rabbi Ezekiel Landau said, “it would be difficult to express complete faith in God while looking at the pain in the world around us.” Indeed, sometimes it is difficult to express our faith in the midst of the suffering and ugliness in the world.
Another Talmudic explanation for closing the eyes while reciting the Shema is that its meaning goes beyond stating there is only one God—the Shema also means there is no existence outside of God. By closing one’s eyes during its recitation, a person briefly steps outside the physical reality of the world and into a reality centered only on God.
While there are times I pray with my eyes open (when walking in the morning, inspired by God’s glorious creation, witnessing something troubling, or saying a quick prayer for a stranger or passerby), I usually pray with my eyes closed (as I suspect most people do). Why? After all, when Jesus taught us to pray, He didn’t tell us to close our eyes before starting!
Perhaps we close our eyes during prayer for all of the reasons found in the Talmud—to avoid distraction, to see past the pain, to see God in all directions, and to acknowledge that nothing exists outside of Him. It could simply be that when we close our eyes all we can see is darkness. Nevertheless, even though we can’t see our surroundings, we know they haven’t disappeared because we also know that not seeing something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Our closed eyes remind us that even though we can’t see God, His purpose, or His plan, He’s right beside us. Perhaps, we close our eyes because, as follower of Christ, we live by faith, not sight!