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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In the liturgy, the three biblical paragraphs are preceded by blessings praising God for creating light and darkness and bringing on day, and night, and for loving Israel and teaching it the Torah. They are followed by blessings praising Him for redeeming and protecting Israel. 

In rabbinic thought, the first paragraph functions preeminently as a declaration of allegiance to God--as the rabbis called it: "accepting the authority of the kingship of God" (lit., "the yoke of the kingship of Heaven,"; Mishnah Berakhot 2:2). In the context of the liturgy, this is expressed by the addition, after verse 4, of the exclamation "Blessed be the glorious name of His kingship forever!"  The second paragraph is regarded as "accepting the duty of performing the commandments" (Mishnah Berakhot 2:2).

The Shema as Declaration of Allegiance

The blessing that follows the third paragraph begins with the declaration "True, firm, established, obligatory, proper, lasting, satisfactory, favored, agreeable, pleasing, respected, revered, fit, accepted, good and valid is this word" (i.e., this obligation that we have just recited). Many of the adjectives in this declaration are legal terms used in validating legal agreements. They give the recitation of the Shema the force of an oath, meaning: We solemnly affirm that the obligation we have just recited is valid and binding on us in every way. This makes of the Shema a daily affirmation of allegiance to God and to the covenant obligations that allegiance entails.

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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.