What does Shema say?
Deuteronomy 6:4–9 contains the shema, which is recited by many Jews two or three times a day, as an affirmation of their relation to God. The first two verses are translated in the 1955 version of The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) as follows. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” What do these words mean?
The introductory verb shema
It is true that shema literally means “hear”; however, it should be obvious that God wants the Israelites to do more than use their sense of hearing. The term “hear” is used as a figure of speech for “accept” in Hebrew and in English. When one says to another “hear me and do what I say,” one means “accept my view and do what I am telling you.” The command shema has this figurative meaning, God wants the people to not only listen but accept what God is about to say.
The exclamation “O” in the JPS translation is understood as solemn and poetic language designed to lend earnestness to an appeal. “O” is not in the Hebrew. The JPS translators and the many others that use “O” apparently felt that this command was so solemn they ought to highlight it with “O.” Tradition, as we will see, agrees that the command is important, but we also need to understand that this highlighting is not in the Hebrew original.
The word shema is written in the singular while the phrase “our (God)” is plural. How should the mandate be understood? Is “Israel” the people as a whole, without any individual responsibility, or is the name directed to each individual? The consensus among the rabbinical interpreters is that it is an individual responsibility.
The name “Lord,” used twice in this sentence, does not appear in the Hebrew. The Hebrew uses the Tetragrammaton, four letters without vowels that represent the “ineffable name” of God. It is commonly transliterated in English as “Jehovah.” Jews felt that they must not pronounce the name outside of the Temple. When Egyptian Jewry made the first Bible translation, rendering it into Greek, they sidestepped the problem of using the Tetragrammaton by substituting a Greek word meaning “Lord.” This practice was continued in the JPS and other English translations.
The Hebrew language does not have the verb “is.” Should the verse be translated “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” This would direct us to accept the Lord as God and know that God is one. Without “is,” the passage requires us only to know that God is one. The JPS translation, as we saw, took the second approach. This is the view of Maimonides (1138–1204) who reasoned that “accepting” God has no meaning. It does not state what act is required. It cannot mandate belief because belief cannot be forced. Maimonides sees the command regarding our relationship to God in the next verse, which tells us to learn about how God functions in the world, the laws of nature.
The following word is “one.” We are told to know that the Lord is one. Are we instructed to know that there is no other God but the “Lord” or is the injunction to understand that God’s “oneness” is unique, unlike any other kind of oneness? Maimonides takes the latter stance. In short, he understands this verse to state that one must study and know that God’s oneness is unique. We cannot understand God, only how God’s creation, the laws of nature, functions.
The second verse of the shema: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God”
Maimonides observes that it is not realistic to suppose that one can require another to love anything, even God. Thus, the phrase “love God” must mean something else. He identifies this something else as the mandate to use one’s intelligence, study nature, develop an understanding of the world, and know God as much as one is able to do so, by understanding the laws of nature, and using this knowledge to improve ourselves and society..
How strong is the injunction to “know”? Deuteronomy states: “with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” The word “heart” is understood today as the seat of emotions. Thus the verse would be directing us to direct all our emotions to God. We saw that this is unreasonable; one cannot order another to love. “Heart” in the Bible refers to the intellect. Thus, the first part of the instruction is to study, learn, know, and use our entire mind.
Soul, or is it body
Similarly, the word nefesh, which means “soul” in modern Hebrew, and is rendered so in the JPS translation, never has this meaning in the Bible. It means one’s body, one’s being, or one’s life. In this verse, it means we should know God and demonstrate our knowledge of God with our entire being.
The final requirement in this verse m’odekha, translated by JPS “with all thy might,” is usually understood as either “possessions,” meaning using one’s material goods to effectuate the divine will, or it is a command to learn about God with as much power as we can muster.
Implementing the law of the second sentence
In short, the first sentence of shema states that the Lord is God and is unique. The second sentence states that since we are unable to know God, we should study how God acts: learn the laws of nature, the sciences, so that we can improve ourselves and society. This second sentence is a command. The rest of the paragraph, verses 6-9, tells us how to implement this command to know God. There are two approaches to the interpretation of the implementation of this command.
The rabbis saw the verses telling Jews to perform certain acts that are not explicit in the passage. The words “when you lie down and when you rise up” require Jews to read shema twice daily during the morning and evening services. The words “they shall be a sign upon thy hand and frontlets (another word for sign) between thy eyes” require placing tephilin (phylacteries) on the forehead above the hair line (not between the eyes) and upon the left arm (or right arm for lefties, not the hand). They understood “write them upon the doorposts of thy house and upon thy gates” as a command to create a box (mezuzah) containing this and other paragraphs about God and place it on the right hand side of door posts.
Obviously, this is not the plain meaning of the words. The rabbinical laws help carry out the spirit of the biblical law and are good, but what does the paragraph actually say?
The plain meaning
Verses 6-9 tell six ways of how to implement the command to know God. Verse 6 is a general statement “These words which I command you this day shall be upon thy heart” meaning, you should think about God always.
Verse 7 requires parents to teach this lesson to their children “and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children.” It also requires constant thinking about God, and gives six ways to do so: (1) “talk of them when thou sittest in thy house,” (2) “and (even) when thou walkest by the way, (3) and (even) when thou liest down and (4) when thou risest up.
The paragraph continues what has been said – to think and study about God constantly – in a metaphorical manner. Verse 8 states (5) you should “bind them for a sign upon thy hand and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes,” meaning, whenever you use your hands or eyes, whenever you work or do any act, and whenever you see anything, you should relate what you do and see to God; what you do and what you see should help you understand how God functions in this world.
Verse 9 states, again metaphorically, that you should write the law of verse 5 on the doorposts of thy house and upon thy gates, meaning, whenever you leave or enter your home or city you should also think of God.
The plain meaning of Deuteronomy 7-9 is, as indicated in verses 5 and 6, to think about God at all times. The rabbis added the commands of prayer, tephilin, and mezuzot to help implement verses 5 and 6.