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.
Exclusive 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.