Monday, January 2, 2012

Haikus for Jews?

All my Jew Crew on Facebook is all a-twitter about the Shema. Someone pointed out that the Shema is a haiku, and it began to spread like wildfire through status updates. After a few friends "verified" it, I decided it was finally time to investigate it for myself. 

The Haiku
The haiku is a traditional Japanese form of poetry. It's short and sweet, and English speakers usually define it by its number of syllables (and maybe say it has to be about nature). I may have been the Haiku Champion of 7th grade English class, but I have forgotten what the precise requirements of an English haiku are (since English "syllables" and Japanese "on" are not identical). So here they are:
  • 17 syllables, broken into three "lines" of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. 
  • A "seasonal reference" that apparently should be drawn from a set list of words (but not necessarily nature-related)
  • The juxtaposition of two images or ideas
As I said above, our English teachers say that a haiku has 17 syllables, but that's not exactly true to the Japanese form, simply because the languages are written and formed so differently. This same problem applies to Hebrew: It's like the translation of a translation of the original quote. But we can still try it. 

The first issue is the problem that there isn't three "lines." However, you can make three lines. Following traditional practice, Hashem is substitute for the word used in prayer, as is Elokeinu. Hashem should be treated as having 3 syllables for our experiment.

Sh'ma Yisrael
Hashem Elokeinu
Hashem Echad

I find this three line breakdown convincing. So let's start counting syllables.

The sheva "half-vowel" in the word Shema is the make-or-break here. If you think of She-ma as two syllables, you reach a different result than if you think of Sh'ma of one syllable. 

So if you use She-ma, you have 5-7-5. A haiku structure.
But if you slur together the word into the one syllable "Sh'ma," you have a different outcome: 4-7-5. Not a haiku form.

Seasonal Reference
There is a large, but well-defined, list of words that qualify as a "seasonal reference," and they're not all nature-related. According to Wikipedia (yes, yes, I am citing the Wiki of Evil), the most common categories are
  • The Season
  • The Heavens
  • The Earth
  • Humanity
  • Observances
  • Animals
  • Plants
Some Google snooping reveals many entries for "festivals" and "observances." Under those categories, there are entries for various gods of the harvest or season, etc. So perhaps discussing Hashem fulfills this requirement, but this isn't determinative without the help of someone more knowledgeable than myself.

I would argue that this quality is fulfilled. When the Shema was written, the idea of "god" and the singular were considered very divergent ideas. Their juxtaposition would have shocked many of the polytheist societies at the time.

So what do you think? Haiku or not? Deep revelation or cheap trick of a middle school English teacher? Does the Shema now have more meaning for you?


  1. Sh'ma is supposed to be She-ma because the sheva at the beginning of a a word is always 'sheva na' - a pronounced sheva. So it would have to be two syllables.

  2. I find this fascinating! Am posting on Fb!

  3. Btw the shva of shema is grammatically a vowel since it is in the beginning if a word and is therefore called a "shva NA" - a true syllable. So yes haiku!

  4. Welcome Back! I love your blog.

  5. my son recently wrote a haiku style poem synopsizing the great war (ww1) for his grade ten history class. he was invited to submit to the royal canadian legion who was holding a contest regarding writing and posters. he came in first out of 162 locally.

    this may not seem related to what you wrote but i am of the personal opinion that Haiku Style writing is a very powerful form of writing. It can be used for amusement as easily as for serious writing.

    if you want to see the ww1 haiku, let me know.

  6. I think it's probably a coincidence more than anything, but it's still pretty cool. I too wonder about the sheva, but I believe the rule is that in the first syllable, it IS an e, no matter how short... so I guess I'd give it a pass on that front.

  7. 'Haikus for Jews' would be an awesome coffee table book!

    Was the Shema was intended to be a haiku? Maybe... There are lots of poetic forms in the Torah. (Mostly chiastic, but contact with Asia did happen.)

    Also, welcome back! Don't ever leave us again, your father and I were worried sick...

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  9. While the 5-7-5 order is common, it's not necessarily a stricture. Much less so in a foreign language (i.e. not Japanese). It's just a tradition that people seem to care to stick to in English haiku. Haiku written in Japanese were classically in a single line vertically, as were many medieval Japanese documents. So even if the syllable count were slightly different in the Shema it could be considered a haiku. The "seasonal reference" and "juxtaposition" concepts are not strictures either, they're just commonalities found in many traditional haiku. :)

  10. As other commenters have pointed out, the shva at the beginning of the word ’שמע' is a shva na, which is sounded; however, in Hebrew, a syllable consists of at least one consonant and at least one true vowel, and a shva is not considered a true vowel. Therefore, the word 'שמע' should be considered a one-syllable word, even though when we transliterate it and apply English grammatical rules, it appears to be a two-syllable word.


    One guy's interpretation in english.

  12. What no one is mentioning is that this suggests that the haiku form/structure is actually Divine and that this form of poetry is not just a human invention/construct and so the Haiku therefore originates from the Jewish God and not from the Japanese!!

    A haiku of mine called 'Hanukah Haiku' by Eli Spivakovsky

    Watching the fireworks
    An ember falls to the ground
    Kids chase after it.