The Real Shema


According to a rabbinic tradition, when the “men of Jericho” recited the Shema, they would say it in a slightly different way from that followed by Jews nowadays. They would recite the first verse, “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God the Lord alone,” and then go on to the next verse in the Torah, “And you shall love the Lord your God…” without inserting anything between them.


Nowadays, Jews customarily insert between these two verses the words “Blessed be the Name of Him whose glorious kingship is eternal” (see Mishnah Pesaḥim 4:8, Tosefta Pisḥa 3:19). We don’t know exactly why the “men of Jericho” insisted on skipping these words (except for the fact that they aren’t in the biblical text itself), but whatever their reason, according to the Mishnah, the Rabbis did not consider this practice improper, even though they did not follow it.


What the “men of Jericho” did or did not do might seem like a minor matter, but it isn’t at all. It addresses the very essence of the Shema and its significance in Judaism.


Since ancient times, the Shema has been treated as Judaism’s great confession of faith, the assertion that there is only one God: “Hear O Israel: the Lord [is] our God, the Lord alone” (or, in some translations, “The Lord is one”). These six words in Hebrew are considered a concise statement of the belief that lies at the very heart of the Jewish religion, monotheism. And yet, there may be reason to conclude that this was not how this first verse of the Shema was originally understood.


To begin with, there is little evidence before the time of the Rabbis (that is, before the first century CE) that the proclamation “the Lord [is] our God, the Lord alone” was understood as a basic teaching of the Torah. For example, the anonymous author of the book of Jubilees, a Jew who lived around 200 BCE, was apparently unaware of any special significance attributed to what we call the Shema. He was a careful reader of the Torah, and as such he referred to many of the Torah’s laws in his book, including the duty to love God that is mentioned right after the opening verse of the Shema (see Jub 20:7). But he never mentions or even alludes to the verse preceding it, “Hear O Israel, the Lord [is] our God, the Lord alone”—not once in a work of some 50 chapters. If it was so important, how could he just leave it out?


What is more, the earliest sources that do allude to the practice of reciting the Shema never describe it as a proclamation that there is only one God, or that God is “one” or anything similar. For example, the “Letter of Aristeas,” a Hellenistic Jewish work of the second century BCE, reports that God commanded “that on going to bed and rising, men should meditate on the ordinances of God,” that is, they should think about God’s commandments. This says nothing about God’s unity or uniqueness.


Similarly, the “Community Rule” discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls asserts that “With the entrance of day and of night, I shall enter into the covenant of God, and with the going out of evening and of morning, I shall speak His laws…Before I move my hands and feet, I will bless His name; I will praise Him before I go out or enter, or sit or rise, and while I lie on the couch of my bed I will extol Him; I will bless Him with the offering that comes from my lips in the company of men” (1QSerekh col. 10: 10-14). Here, the recitation of the Shema is conceived as many things: an enactment of entering into the covenant, an act of speaking of divine laws, of blessing and praising and extolling God—everything except proclaiming monotheism and God’s utter oneness.


Josephus, at the end of the first century CE, restates a commandment in Deuteronomy 31:10-11, which requires the public reading of the Torah every seven years at the time of Sukkot. Josephus says that the reading should be performed by the High Priest standing on a raised platform, so that “all Israel”—men, women, children, and slaves—will be able to hear. The first commandment that Josephus mentions in this public reading is the recitation of the Shema: “Two times each day, at dawn and when it is time to go to sleep, let everyone acknowledge to God the gifts that He has bestowed upon them through their deliverance from the land of Egypt, the offering of thanks being by its nature praiseworthy, and something that is done both in response to past favors and so as to invite future ones” (Jewish Antiquities IV 212). That the recitation of the Shema is the first commandment mentioned by Josephus in this context is certainly significant; obviously it had already gained its central place in Judaism. How much more surprising, then, is His description of its significance: the Shema is an “offering of thanks,” not a proclamation of monotheism.


All this suggests that people back then understood the Shema rather differently. It seems altogether probable that they were not reading those first six words in isolation, as a declaration of monotheism, but that they read that first verse as connected to what follows, the duty to love God and to think and talk about His laws—just as the “Letter of Aristeas” and the “Community Rule” say explicitly.


In fact, this may also explain why the “men of Jericho” did not want to break the connection of the first verse to the one that follows it: the two can indeed be construed as a single idea, “Hear O Israel: the Lord [is] our God, the Lord alone, and you shall [therefore] love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul and all your strength.” What does this mean? To rephrase these two verses slightly: Understand, O Israel, that the Lord our God is the only God, and you shall therefore love Him with all your heart. How so? Since He is the only God, your devotion to the divine need not be shared between Him and some other deity, but you shall love Him with your whole undivided heart and soul and might.


The first two verses of the Shema actually embody a fairly common construction in biblical Hebrew: a verb in the imperative is followed by an “and you shall” clause, the latter expressed by a verb in what is called the “vav consecutive” or “vav conversive” (or various other names, including the Hebrew vav ha-hippukh).” The juxtaposition seems to say: “Do this, and as a consequence, then you will do that.”

For example, the Ten Commandments are introduced in the chapter preceding the Shema in precisely the same way as in our verse, an imperative followed by two verbs in the vav consecutive form: “Hear O Israel the laws and ordinances that I am speaking in your ears this day, and you shall learn them and you shall take care to do them” (Deut 5:1). Once again, the “and you shall” clause comes as a result of obeying the verb in the imperative (“Hear”) at the head of the sentence. Similarly, “Hear O Israel, today you are crossing the Jordan to enter and dispossess nations larger and more powerful than you…and you shall know this day that it is the Lord your God who is crossing over before you as a consuming fire…” Indeed, this is a favorite construction in Deuteronomy, but it is fairly widely distributed elsewhere: see, for example, Gen 17:10-11; Num 16:17; 1 Kings 2:36; Jer. 11:6, 36:2, and many more.


In fact, there seems to be a connection with what became the first paragraph of the Shema in a later verse, Deut 11:13 (which ended up become the start of the second paragraph of the Shema): “And it shall be, if you listen to My commandments, which I am commanding you today, to love the Lord your God with all your hearts and all your souls…” The word listen (Heb tishme‘u) may be an allusion to the word Shema‘ in “Hear O Israel…” but whether this is so or not, certainly “to love the Lord your God with your whole hearts and with all your souls” recalls “and you shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul and all your strength.” What’s missing in this allusion? The supposedly all-important verse, “Hear O Israel, the Lord [is] our God, the Lord alone.” All this suggests that that verse was never intended to stand on its own, but had always been read in conjunction with the words that directly follow it, “and you shall [therefore] love the Lord your God with your whole heart.”


How did this ever change? It would seem that the rabbis of the first and second centuries CE quite consciously set out to stress the independence of Deut 6:4 as an affirmation of monotheism: “Hear O Israel, the Lord [is] our God, the Lord alone,” period. This may not have been the original intention behind the insertion of “Blessed be the Name of Him whose glorious kingship is eternal,” but it certainly had the effect of creating a full stop after the word eḥadh (“alone”)—and this was apparently what the “men of Jericho” objected to.


The same sort of full stop is reflected in various other customs connected with the Shema (see b. Talmud Berakhot 13b): drawing out the “d” in the word eḥadh at the end of this verse;* covering the eyes while saying the first verse; being pores ‘al Shema, an ancient practice explained in various ways today, but which seems to have resulted in isolating the first verse from the rest; and so forth. The Mishnah’s description of the first paragraph of the Shema as embodying the “acceptance of divine kingship” (Berakhot 2:2; this description that best fits the Deut 6:4 alone, rather than the whole paragraph) might be a further example of this tendency. In short, it seems that it was rabbinic interpretation that created the new role for Deut 6:4: it became an isolated assertion of the truth of monotheism.


If so, what are we really meant to understand when we recite the first paragraph of the Shema? “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is the only God; therefore, you shall love Him with your undivided heart and soul and might. [In practice, this means that] you shall always keep in mind the things that I am commanding you today and you shall teach them to your children; talk about them whether you are at home or traveling on the road, when you go to bed and when you get up. And you shall bind them as a sign on your arm, and they shall be as frontlets [i.e., headband ornaments] between your eyes, and you shall write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.”


Shabbat shalom!


*Actually, the sound that is to be drawn out is not that of our letter “d,” but rather the sound represented in English by “th” as in those or that. This pronunciation of the last letter of the Hebrew word eḥadh (“alone”) is represented in Tiberian Hebrew by the letter daleth without a dagesh (a dot) in the middle of it. You can’t draw out a dental plosive like “d”; its sound stops as soon as it is articulated.

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