Author Archives: Alan Mintz

Alan Mintz

About Alan Mintz

Alan Mintz is the Chana Kekst Professor of Hebrew Literature and chair of the Department of Hebrew Language at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Dr. Mintz joined the JTS faculty in June 2001 after ten years at Brandeis University as the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature.

The Shema

Reprinted with permission from Back to the Sources: Reading the Jewish Classics.

In the Shema, three passages from the Bible form the theological center of the prayer book. The passages are Deuteronomy 6:4-8 and 11:13-22 and Numbers 15:37-42. The first of these begins with one of the most famous and resonant statements in all of Jewish literature. During the service, the pray-er recites it with eyes closed and in a moment of great concentration:


Hear, O Israel              Shema Yisra’el

The Lord is our God    Adonai Eloheinu

The Lord is one!          Adonai ehad!

The context for this verse in Deuteronomy reveals that it is uttered in a dramatic, interactive situation. The first phrase (“Hear, O Israel”) is spoken by God to Israel; it carries no message, only the fact of being addressed by God, the experience of divine attention. Israel responds to being addressed by proclaiming that “the Lord is our God!” In English this sounds like a redundancy, but Hebrew differentiates between Adonai, which is the particular and proper name of God in the Bible (itself already an avoidance of the unpronounceable sacred name), and Elo­heinu, which is the generic term for gods or divine beings.

God is One

So Israel’s response has the force of declaring that God, alone of all the claimants to divinity, is He Whom we choose. The last phrase, Adonai ehad, is understood by some interpreters to stress the exclusivity of the choosing of God (reading ehad as “alone”; “The Lord our God, the Lord alone ) and by others to introduce a further concept: the oneness of God.

jewish prayerExclusive fidelity to God and God’s unity are the two major con­cepts of the Shema. The first demands that no system of value–not just another religion but an ideology, art, success, or personal happiness–be allowed to replace God as the ultimate ground of meaning. God’s unity, conversely, asserts thatall experienced moments of beauty, good, love, and holiness are not in and of themselves; they are disparate and scattered signals of the presence of the one God. Now, if this is the “message” of the Shema, the continuation of the passage from Deuter­onomy, which completes the prayer’s first paragraph, mandates what to do with the message: how to be loyal to it, how to transmit it, how to remain mindful of it.

The Blessings Around the Shema

Reprinted with permission from
Back to the Sources: Reading the Jewish Classics

The Shema proper is surrounded by three extended berakhot. (As a unit within the prayerbook, the whole structure of the Shema plus its berakhotis itself called the Shema.) The three berakhot deal respectively with the themes of creation, revelation, and redemption; the Shema proper comes between the second and the third.

Berakhah One: Creation

Berakhah Two: Revelation


Berakhah Three: Redemption 

The sequence creation-revelation-redemption forms the essential theo­logical drama of Judaism. There is a clear recapitulation here of the movement of sacred history as enacted in the Bible and interpreted by the rabbis: the formation of the world in Genesis, the giving of the Torah at Sinai in Exodus, and the messianic age-to-come as prefigured by the liberation from Egypt.

hebrew textYet history is only one level at which these prayers speak. Creation-revelation-redemption are presented not just as events located in the mythic past or the future, but also as processes ongoing within the life of the individual and the people. The first berakhah, for example, forcefully underscores this dimension when it declares that God “through His goodness daily renews the work of creation.” Lest we lapse into an alienated conception of an Aristotelian prime mover, the text insists that the God of Israel continues in His moment-to-moment authorship of our reality.

The berakhah on Creation is the longest, encompassing fragments of ancient poetic litanies and a depiction of the acclamations of the angelic choruses. It is also one of the places where the hand of the rabbis in shaping the liturgy out of biblical materials is most conspicu­ous. Take the opening statement of the berakhah:

“Praised be You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace and creates all things.

Now take its source in Isaiah 45.7; God is the speaker:

“I form light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil.”