Judaism’s ultimate prayer is the Shema, our declaration of God’s unity. And the ultimate word in the Shema is its concluding word — אחד (echad) — “God is one.”
The Sages provided detailed instructions how to carefully pronounce this critical word:
“All who prolong the word echad will have their days and years prolonged.
Rabbi Acha bar Ya’akov taught: One should prolong [the last letter in the word], the ‘ד’ (Dalet).
Rabbi Assi added: Provided one he does not slur over [the middle letter], the ‘ח’ (Chet).” (Berachot 13b)
Why should the word echad be stretched out? And what is the significance of the letters Dalet and Chet?
The Talmud explains that one should pronounce the word echad long enough to draw a mental picture of God’s reign over all that is above, all that is below, and the “four sides of the heavens.”
When we proclaim God’s unity in the Shema, we acknowledge God’s unique control of the universe. While His absolute reign may be expressed in spatial terms — in all six directions — a deeper insight is that we should recognize God’s providence in all events that occur in the world. We may divide up the universe into three functional categories:
God’s reign incorporates all three categories. He rules over the heavens — i.e., the initial causes. His control extends to the earth — the completion and fulfillment of each goal. And Divine rule also includes the diverse intermediate means and events. These means are referred to as the “four sides of the heavens,” since they form an intermediate stage connecting the heavens (the initial causes) with the earth (the ultimate goals).
Why is God’s oneness so significant? What is the principal message to be derived from the Shema?
By recognizing this underlying unity, we acknowledge that all of the various events in the world — even though they appear to be dispersed and disconnected, like the four sides of the heavens — are in fact directed towards one unified purpose, towards the goal of that which is good and elevated.
Why prolong the letter Dalet when saying the Shema? Dalet has the numerical value (Gematria) of four. It represents the four diverse directions, the myriad intermediate means in the universe. By emphasizing the Dalet, we affirm the connection of these means to the unified goal of creation.
Still, the ‘heavens’ and the ‘earth’ should not be ignored. In order that we will be able to properly value the intermediate means, we must contemplate the lofty counsel which directs all events towards their purpose. And we should consider the value of the sublime goal, as it is attained and revealed in all its splendor.
Thus, the letter Chet needs to be articulated clearly. Chet has the numerical value of eight; it represents the seven levels of heaven (shiv'ah reki'im) together with the earth. These eight levels indicate the various stages, from the initial cause to its final, practical fulfillment. In addition, the number eight signifies the realm of time: the seven days of the week, and the eighth dimension, unlimited by the confines of time.
To “swallow up” the Chet would show an insensitivity to the value of the initial cause and the final goal. Then the intermediary events would lose their true significance.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I p. 71; Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 245)