This Shabbat’s Torah reading contains probably the most significant texts in the entire Biblical literary tradition: the Ten Commandments, and the re-statement of the second of the commandments in what has become the watchword of the Jewish faith, the Shema. Surely, there can be no series of phrases better known than this one, nor more deeply embedded in the Jewish consciousness; we repeat it morning and evening, in moments of crisis and just before death, and it has sustained every generation of our people and intensified their commitment to the One God.
What is nothing short of remarkable then, when all of this is taken into account, is that in spite of the central position that the Shema has occupied in Jewish tradition and liturgy for many centuries, its exact meaning is not certain, nor is the reason for its peculiar form of writing, with the third letters of the first and last words enlarged, usually interpreted as standing for the word עד meaning ‘witness’, or ‘definitely known’. Yet these five verses, which in many ways are simply part of a much wider discourse by Moses, have been raised over time to a position of eminence, rivalled only by the Ten Commandments.
Let us look at some key words of the Shema, and then consider various aspects of it in broader terms.
Firstly, the three words that define our wholehearted commitment to God.
לבבך, this is understood to refer to the intellect; נפשך, this is understood in the Talmud to refer to one’s life, as with the story of the death of Rabbi Akiva, so that we are bidden to love God even if God takes our life from us; מאדך, this actually refers to one’s physical strength, although according to rabbinic tradition it implies one’s material possessions, there being no limit on the amount of money that must be sacrificed in order to avoid transgressing the laws of Torah.
שננתם is a word which we translate, teach diligently; but it actually comes from a root meaning to make an incision, giving us the idea of carving something deep into a surface: in this context the latter is the human mind, yielding the concept of an idea that is imbedded in the psyche.
טטפות is probably the hardest word in the Shema to translate, and what is referred to by it is even harder to identify. On the basis of ivory carvings discovered in the ancient city of Nimrud in Mesopotamia, these may well be derived from women’s ornaments worn on the crown of the head. Whether they originally had any religious significance it is impossible to say, what we can state with certitude is that the translations of the Hebrew by the word phylacteries (which is Greek in origin) or frontlets, are in themselves meaningless, as recourse to the dictionary will demonstrate – so a catch-all word like symbol is probably better.
Having said that though, what about the meaning of the Shema as a whole? First and foremost, the initial phrase, the watchword of Israel’s faith? Unfortunately, although we know what each of the words means on an individual basis, the phrase has no punctuation, and only one verb, the opening word שמע; so the text can be understood to say: Adonai is our God, and Adonai alone, or Adonai is our God, one indivisible Adonai, or Adonai our God is a unique Adonai, or Adonai is our God, Adonai is unique. Ultimately it is probably a matter of deciding which one appeals to you best!
The message of the one God, which Israel alone of all peoples in the ancient past held to with determination, became much later the theological underpinning of the two daughter faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but the relationship with that God, the God of the covenant at Sinai, the God of the Exodus and much more besides, is one to which the Jews alone have clung ever since. As the sage Alexander Suskind of Grodno wrote: I believe with perfect faith, pure and true, that you are one and unique and that you have created all worlds, upper and lower, without end, and you are in past, present and future.
The implications of the doctrine of the One God are also most significant. One God implies one humanity, and by extension the kinship of all peoples; it links monotheism inextricably with morality and demands an ethical life. It places God as the underpinning of all laws for both nature and humanity, as well as the ultimate redemption in the messianic age.
The other important message in the Shema is that of the love of God. We are commanded to love God with all our heart, all our soul and all our strength, in other words with the totality of our being; what we often ignore when we say these words is the definite implication that the love will be reciprocated. Fundamental to our religious tradition is the concept that God has loved the people of Israel since the days of the Patriarchs, and although it is almost impossible to decide whether God loved us before we loved God, or even whether God loved us because we loved God, or vice versa, what is certain is that the love was enshrined in the covenant at Sinai, and every generation of Jews is duty bound to maintain and extend it. So how do we show our love for God, and make ourselves worthy of God’s love into the bargain? – By behaving decently and in a manner that is true to the highest teachings of our faith.
I hope that from all of this it is clear why the Shema has assumed the place of supreme importance that it has in Jewish tradition, why it remains the central theological thread that binds the Jewish people together, why it occupies such a significant place in our liturgy, and why, even though we recite it regularly, and probably feel ourselves to be totally familiar with it, it is good to be reminded of its intricacy as well as its implications, and of how much of it we take for granted.
It comes as no surprise to discover that many things have been written about the Shema, and been inspired by it, and even more by the doctrine that it states; these writings are of all types, serious and lyrical, highbrow and low, analytical and fanciful, prosaic and poetic. I shall conclude with one of the latter, by the poetess Ruth Brin, entitled God of Sky and Sea, which explores just some of the implications of the oneness of God:
God of sky and sea, of vastness and silence,
God of mother and child, of closeness and sweetness,
What are we that we are mindful of You?
What are we that we can contemplate You?
In the universe of matter, from atom
to astronomical system, are You recognized?
And in living things, from algae to ape,
Are You comprehended, except by human minds?
This is our distinction, Mind of the Universe,
This is our difference from all other things:
That You have hidden in this shallow skull
A capacity to think of You.
That somewhere in this complex brain
Is a compulsion to search for You.
What crown of glory is this,
To know eternity is other than ourselves?
What honor is this, to see our faults
And our sins, to know ourselves wanting in Your sight?
Is this Your blessing, that we contemplate
Good and evil, God and eternity?
Is this Your gift of faith, that having looked upon ourselves
In an agony of despair, we live, we try again?
God of sky and sea, of vastness and silence,
God of parent and child, of closeness and sweetness,
Look down at us now with love and mercy,
Help us to bear what we have seen and understood.
Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.