Jerusalem, Israel - January 15, 2017: .Hebrew plaque with the first words of the Shema prayer on the ceremonial menorah across the street from the Knesset.

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.

This article explores three possible interpretations of the Hebrew words and syntax of Deuteronomy 6:4. Some scholars disagree with the author’s tentative conclusion regarding the most likely meaning of this verse. For example, Dr. Stephen Geller of the Jewish Theological Seminary understands the word “one” to imply superiority of power–as in, “YHVH is #1”!–rather than as a statement regarding monotheism. Reprinted from The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy with permission of the Jewish Publication Society.

What Do the Words Mean?

The precise meaning of the Shema is uncertain. The four Hebrew words “YHVH eloheinu YHVH ehad” literally mean “YHVH our God YHVH one.” Since Hebrew does not have a present‑tense verb meaning “is” to link subject and predicate, the link must be supplied by the listener or reader. Where to do so depends on context and is sometimes uncertain. Grammatically, “YHVH our God YHVH one” could be rendered in several ways, such as (1) “YHVH is our God, YHVH alone”; (2) “the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (lit. “YHVH our God, YHVH is one”); (3) “YHVH our God is one YHVH.”

(1) YHVH is Our God, YHVH Alone

The first possibility, which is followed in the NJPS (new Jewish Publication Society) translation, is based on [the interpretations of medieval commentators] Ibn Ezra and Rashbam. One difficulty with this interpretation is that Hebrew normally expresses “alone” with levad, as in “You alone [levadekha] are God of all the kingdoms of the earth” (2 Kings 19:15, 19; and Psalm 86:10). A few passages have been found in which ehad seems to have this meaning, but the usage is at best rare.

There is also a serious syntactic difficulty with this interpretation: it interprets the words “YHVH our God” (YHVH eloheinu) as a subject and a predicate, meaning “YHVH is our God.” Although this usage is grammatically possible (see 2 Chronicles 13:10), it is rare in the Bible and absolutely anomalous in Deuteronomy, where YHVH eloheinu occurs nearly two dozen times, consistently as a fixed phrase meaning “YHVH our God.” Still, this interpretation seems to be presupposed by Zechariah 14 [Zechariah 14:9 reads: “And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one Lord with one name.”]. If so, it is the only interpretation that was demonstrably held in biblical times.

(2) YHVH Our God, YHVH is One

The old and familiar translation “the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (2) makes the verse a statement about the nature of God Himself, namely that He is one. This might mean that He is unique (incomparable) or that He is indivisible, that He does not consist of multiple deities (the latter idea is also expressed by translation (3). This translation, however, is problematic because it leaves the second YHVH superfluous; “YHVH our God is one” would have sufficed.

(3) YHVH Our God is One YHVH

The third possibility, “YHVH our God is one YHVH”–and not many YHVHs–is not as tautologous [self-referential] as it sounds. Pagans referred to some gods by their name and place of worship, such as “Ishtar of Arbela,” and in some texts a god’s name appears several times, followed each time by a different place. For example, an Egyptian‑Hittite treaty invokes both “the Re the lord of the sky” and “the Re of the town of Arinna”; similarly, it invokes “Seth the lord of the sky,” “Seth of Hatti,” and the Seths of ten other cities.

This manner of speaking, based on the many sanctuaries of a deity, was also used by some Israelites. In some Hebrew inscriptions of the ninth‑eighth centuries B.C.E. discovered in the Sinai, one refers to “YHVH of Samaria” and two others refer to “YHVH of Teman.” Some scholars believe that this manner of speech could imply that there were several deities of each name–several Res, Seths, or YHVHs–and that such a danger was developing in Israel. They believe that the Shema meant “YHVH our God is one YHVH,” not many YHVHs, and was intended to counter this kind of disintegration of YHVH into several deities.

However, there is no other evidence that such a danger was developing in Israel and we do not even know whether non‑Israelites really drew such inferences. Re was the sun, and the Egyptians could hardly have believed that there were two suns. An Egyptian inscription describing offerings to Amon‑Re lists his name dozens of times, each time followed by one of his epithets, including local manifestations (e.g., “Amon‑Re in Thebes … Amon‑Re in Heliopolis”), but includes phrases recognizing that all these references are to a single deity (e.g., “Amon‑Re in all the places where he wishes to be,” “Amon‑Re in at his funerary temples,” “Amon‑Re in all his names”).

While it is possible that recognition of the unity behind all these names was limited to the intelligentsia and that the common folk thought of these as different deities, there is no evidence to that effect. Furthermore, such a danger seems foreign to the context of Deuteronomy 6, which is concerned with Israel’s relationship to God, not with His nature.  On the basis of present evidence, translation (1) seems the most likely, but it is not certain.

The Shema in Jewish Liturgy

The instruction in 6:7, repeated in 11:18‑19, to “speak of … these words … when you lie down and when you get up” was understood in halakhic [Jewish legal] exegesis to mean recite these words at the times of day when people lie down to sleep and when they arise in the morning. “These words” were identified as 6:4‑9 and 11:13‑21, the paragraphs in which this instruction is found. The instruction was fulfilled by reciting these two paragraphs, followed by Numbers 15:37‑41, as part of the morning and evening prayers. They are called the Keri’at Shema, “recitation of the Shema”), after the first word in verse 4. The practice, known since late Second Temple times, is still followed today.

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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