Shema as a Love Story

The three paragraphs of the Shema can be interpreted allegorically by connecting each of the three paragraphs to a different stage of a growing, loving relationship.

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Similarly, the second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11:13-22) begins "If you will truly listen/understand/obey (ועמשת עמש םא) my mitzvot" and focuses on the need to pay attention in order to understand the "rules" of the human-divine relationship. Then the Shema presents the following condition: If you observe the commandments, God will send rain in the appropriate season; the fields will produce plenty of wine, grain, and oil; and you will eat and be satisfied. If you don't observe the commandments, the rain will stop, the land will dry up, and you will starve.

The Bible was written for people who understood the cycle of rain. The rain literally and figuratively connects heaven and earth. The mitzvot are the commands that tie Israel to God and God to Israel. When they are observed, the relationship with God grows and produces fruit. When the mitzvot are ignored, the relationship withers away. The paragraph concludes with a view to the future. "[Do these things] so that your days upon the land be multiplied." As this stage in a relationship matures, the couple begins to think about the long-term implications of their relationship.

The ultimate stage in this loving relationship is marriage and the declaration that the relationship will last. The marriage is marked by the use of a public sign and reminder, a wedding ring. The ring reminds the wearer of the marital covenant and is a sign to onlookers that the person is part of an eternal relationship. This is most crucial in avoiding "wandering hearts and eyes" through which a person prostitutes the relationship. In rabbinic terminology, the marital relationship is called kiddushin (sanctification) to indicate that the two are sanctified to each other .

In the final paragraph of the Shema (Numbers 15:37-41), Israel is commanded to make tzitzit (fringes) upon the corners of their garments as public signs and as reminders. The reference to the corner of the garment (kanaf)recalls the use of the language in the book of Ruth, where to come under the corner of one's garment symbolizes the commitment to marry (Ruth 3:9). Nowadays, we take the tzitzit in our hand when reciting the Shema and kiss them. The tzitzit are designed to be public signs and also personal reminders "that you not go scouting-around after your heart, after your eyes which you go whoring after" (15:39, following Everett Fox's translation). Do all of this, the Torah enjoins, "in order that you remember and do all of the commandments and thereby be sanctified (kedoshim) to your God" -- םכיהלאל םישדק םתייהו (15:40).

Maimonides asks "What is the love that is appropriate for God?" His response is to love God as if you are falling in love, only more so. But humans don't love that intensely all of the time. Judaism is not just for the moments of spiritual ecstasy or radical religious insight. Judaism is about Israel loving God for the long-term, and as the Shema teaches, that means learning the rules and making a long-term and public commitment.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.