Deuteronomy 6:4--The Shema

While the Shema has been seen as a declaration of absolute monotheism, it has other meanings in its biblical and liturgical contexts.

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(3) YHVH Our God is One YHVH

The third possibility, "YHVH our God is one YHVH"--and not many YHVHs--is not as tautologous [self-referential] as it sounds. Pagans referred to some gods by their name and place of worship, such as "Ishtar of Arbela," and in some texts a god's name appears several times, followed each time by a different place. For example, an Egyptian‑Hittite treaty invokes both "the Re the lord of the sky" and "the Re of the town of Arinna"; similarly, it invokes "Seth the lord of the sky," "Seth of Hatti," and the Seths of ten other cities. 

This manner of speaking, based on the many sanctuaries of a deity, was also used by some Israelites. In some Hebrew inscriptions of the ninth‑eighth centuries B.C.E. discovered in the Sinai, one refers to "YHVH of Samaria" and two others refer to "YHVH of Teman." Some scholars believe that this manner of speech could imply that there were several deities of each name--several Res, Seths, or YHVHs--and that such a danger was developing in Israel. They believe that the Shema meant "YHVH our God is one YHVH," not many YHVHs, and was intended to counter this kind of disintegration of YHVH into several deities.

However, there is no other evidence that such a danger was developing in Israel and we do not even know whether non‑Israelites really drew such inferences. Re was the sun, and the Egyptians could hardly have believed that there were two suns. An Egyptian inscription describing offerings to Amon‑Re lists his name dozens of times, each time followed by one of his epithets, including local manifestations (e.g., "Amon‑Re in Thebes ... Amon‑Re in Heliopolis"), but includes phrases recognizing that all these references are to a single deity (e.g., "Amon‑Re in all the places where he wishes to be," "Amon‑Re in at his funerary temples," "Amon‑Re in all his names").

While it is possible that recognition of the unity behind all these names was limited to the intelligentsia and that the common folk thought of these as different deities, there is no evidence to that effect. Furthermore, such a danger seems foreign to the context of Deuteronomy 6, which is concerned with Israel's relationship to God, not with His nature.  On the basis of present evidence, translation (1) seems the most likely, but it is not certain.

The Shema in Jewish Liturgy

The instruction in 6:7, repeated in 11:18‑19, to "speak of ... these words ... when you lie down and when you get up" was understood in halakhic [Jewish legal] exegesis to mean recite these words at the times of day when people lie down to sleep and when they arise in the morning. "These words" were identified as 6:4‑9 and 11:13‑21, the paragraphs in which this instruction is found. The instruction was fulfilled by reciting these two paragraphs, followed by Numbers 15:37‑41, as part of the morning and evening prayers. They are called the Keri'at Shema, "recitation of the Shema"), after the first word in verse 4. The practice, known since late Second Temple times, is still followed today.

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Dr. Jeffrey Tigay

Dr. Jeffrey Tigay is A.M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania.