Traditional Commentaries on the Shema

Commentaries on the three paragraphs of the Shema read Jewish concepts both out of and into the text.

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This collection of traditional comments on the three paragraphs of the Shema illustrates the kind of associative readings that have had an impact on Jewish theology and on traditional practice.

"Hear, O Israel": R. Shimon ben Lakish said: And Jacob called to his sons and said, "Gather yourselves together that I may tell you what will happen in the future."… Jacob became faint and thought, "Perhaps one of my children is unfit, like Abraham who had Ishmael or like my Isaac who had Esau." His sons answered him, "Hear, O Israel (referring to Jacob by his other name), the Lord our God, the Lord is One…Just as there is only One in your heart, so there is only One in our heart!" At that moment, Jacob responded, "Blessed be the name of God's glorious kingdom for ever and ever!"

-- Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 56a

the shema"the Lord our God, the Lord is One": Trying to teach that both fear and love should be directed toward God, the true Torah had to engender the belief in a single God first…and that God is the root, the source of all that exists and comes into existence, of what we regard and call 'good' as well as what we consider and call 'evil.'

-- Meir Loeb ben Jehiel Michael, known as the Malbim (1809–1879)

"You shall love the Lord your God": means that because of you the Name of Heaven will become beloved. That is, when a person studies Bible and Mishnah and ministers to the needs of the teachers of Torah, and speaks gently with other people, and deals properly with others in the marketplace, and conducts his business honestly, what do people say about him? "Happy is the one who studied Torah; happy is the teacher who taught this one Torah…"

-- Abaye, in the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86a

"With all your soul": The Rabbis taught: Once the evil kingdom [of Rome] decreed that the Jews may not engage in Torah study. Pappus ben Yehudah found R. Akiva teaching Torah in public to large groups. He said to him, "Akiva, are you not afraid of the authorities?"… When the Romans took R. Akiva to execute him, it was time for the reading of the shema. They were tearing his flesh with iron combs, and he was reciting the shema. His students said to him, "Master, must one go so far?" He said to them, "All my life I was troubled by the verse 'With all your soul,' which I understood as 'even if God takes your soul,' and I wondered about when I would have the opportunity to fulfill it? Now that I have the opportunity, shall I not fulfill it?

-- Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 61b

"And you shall teach them to your children": for the future generations are obligated to fulfill the Torah just like those who received it, and according to our sages of blessed memory, [the future generations] were there [at Sinai] as it says, "[And not with you alone will I make this covenant and this oath; but with those who stand here with us this day before the Lord our God] and also to those who are not here with us today" (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).

-- Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher ben Hlava (13th century)

"And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand they shall be as frontlets between your eyes": The mind that you dedicate to God through the tefillin cannot become the abode of lies, deceit, cunning, and malice. The heart that you sanctify to God through the tefillin cannot shrivel into self-seeking or become debased with pleasure-seeking. It must open up to an all-embracing love and dedicate itself in purity to the temple of the All-holy. And finally, the hand that you have sanctified through the tefillin as an instrument for serving God in your actions, can you stretch it out in treachery to [destroy] the happiness and peace of a brother?!

-- R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888)

"I shall give grass in your field for your cattle": One is forbidden to eat before one gives food to one's animals since it says "I shall give grass in your field for your cattle" and then "and you shall eat and be satisfied."

-- Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 40a

"…you shall eat and be satisfied. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods": God said to you be careful not to rebel against the Holy One, for a person only rebels out of a state of satisfaction, as it says "lest you eat and be satisfied and build nice houses and multiply your cattle and silver and gold" (Deuteronomy 8:12-13). And what does it say afterwards "and your heart will become arrogant and you will forget God" (8:14).

-- Sifre Deuteronomy, portion Eqev

"And you shall perish quickly from off the good land. Therefore you shall place these words on your hearts": Even after you have been exiled, make yourselves distinctive by means of my commandments: put on tefillin and attach mezuzot to your doorposts so that these shall not be new and unfamiliar to you when you return."

-- Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaqi, known as Rashi (1040-1105)

"And you shall remember all of the commandments of God": For the numerical value of fringes (tzitzit) is 600 (tzadi, yod, tzadi, yod, tav=90+10+90+10+400), plus the eight strings and the five knots equals 613 (the traditional number for the all of the Torah's commandments).

-- Rashi

"And you shall remember all of the commandments of God": And I do not understand [what Rashi is saying] for the word tzitzit in the Torah is spelled without a second yod, and its numerical value is 590 (tzadi, yod, tzadi, tav=90+10+90+400).

-- Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, known as Ramban (1194-1270)

"fringes…fringes…for fringes": Since the three times the word tzitzit is missing a yod, the third time is written letzitzit, for the lamed (numerical value=30) fills up the numerical value of all three words, so that each one has the numerical value of 613 ([590+590+620]/3=600, plus the eight strings and five knots).

-- Rabbi Hizkiyah Hizkuni (13th century)

"Do not follow after your heart and after your eyes": Lest a person think that it is impermissible to experience corporeality and that one must only walk, day and night, involved in Torah and the commandments, therefore Torah says, it is not thus, for "do not follow after your hearts…according to your desires." The explanation is that in truth, you do desire these [corporeal] things. But the word "desire" (zonim) is from the word for food (mazon), as it is explained in the case of Rahav the harlot (zonah) in her inn (cf. Targum Yonatan on Joshua 2:1). That is to say, you are permitted, and indeed you must be fed (nizon) by them, and enjoy all of the delights of this world. Only do not let the lusts (ta'avah) of your heart and your eyes become a bodily craving which would lead you to come to a house of prostitution and to expand your "food" to the lusts of your heart.

-- Sefer Be'er Mayim Hayyim of Hayyim ben Solomon Tyrer of Czernowitz (c. 1760–1816)

"So that you remember (tizk'ru) and do all of my commandments": Our sages of blessed memory explained that it is obligatory when reciting the shema in the morning and the evening to emphasize the "z" sound of the letter zayin in the word "tizk'ru." And the reason for this is so that we do not confuse ourselves with the word and that it not be thought of as tisk'ru which is from the root meaning "payment", for one is not to perform the commandments in order to receive a reward.

-- Rabbenu Bahya

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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.