The Shema

Three biblical passages work together to create a model for remaining faithful to a belief in God and in God's unity.

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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.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.


jewish liturgy quizBy using the term love, the text implies that these truths can be fulfilled less through cognitive affirmation than through relationship. This is a relationship that passionately transcends legal obligation and demands the mobilization of all the dimensions and resources of one's being. The question now becomes: How is this love preserved and guaranteed? The answer: by intentional, structured mindfulness. Children must be actively taught and rehearsed in the truths of God's ways rather than being left to the vagaries of nature. The adult, too, must not trust his or her nature; one must purposefully undertake to recall to mind God's unity within the coordinates of everyday life: morning and evening, at home and on the road.

Symbols play an important role in this mnemonic regimen. The tefillin, the phylacteries, on hand and forehead, and the mezuzah affixed to the doorpost, are in themselves the source of no totemic powers. They are concrete signs that remind one of larger truths. The function of the commandments as spurs to consciousness is elaborated in the third paragraph of the Shema (Numbers 15:37-42), which mandates and describes the wearing of tzitzit, fringes on garments. The middle paragraph (Deuteronomy 11:13-22) is monitory in tone: it warns that the enjoyment of God's grace, especially material prosperity and secure residence in the land of Israel, is absolutely contingent upon obedience to God's will as expressed through the commandments.

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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.