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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-- 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).

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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.