The Shema in Early Jewish Teaching

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"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4), known as the Shema, is a foundational teaching of both Judaism and Jesus.

A careful investigation of early sources suggests that Deuteronomy 6:4 must have been the first portion from the Hebrew Bible that Jesus committed to memory.[1] According to the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 42a), Jewish boys were taught this biblical passage as soon as they could speak. Since the Talmud specifies that “the father must teach him [i.e., the son],” we may confidently assume that Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, was responsible for the fulfilling of this task.

This text from the Torah of Moses comprises only six Hebrew words: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ יי אֶחָד (shema yisrael adonai elohenu adonai ekhad). It is important to note that it is located in the book of Deuteronomy, which in Jesus’ day was the most widely circulated and popular book of the Pentateuch.

We know that Deuteronomy carried this broad influence for two main reasons: 1) the New Testament has more quotations from Deuteronomy than from any other book of Moses, and 2) among the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran, more separate copies of the scroll of Deuteronomy were found than of any other Mosaic writing.

But the importance of the book of Deuteronomy is not limited to the early childhood of Jesus and others from his period. As an adult, Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, quotes three times from this book in mustering spiritual support in response to the three temptations of Satan (Matt. 4:1-11).

Today, Deuteronomy 6:4 is referred to as the Shema (literally, “Hear!”), based on the verbal imperative at the start of the verse. The Shema is often called the watchword of Israel’s faith because it declares the oneness and uniqueness of God. Since this verse held such great significance in the life and teachings of Jesus (see Mark 12:29) as well as in the history of the Jewish people, it is important that we explore its background and meaning in greater depth.

The opening words of the Shema’ (“Hear, O Israel”; Deut. 6:8) from a mezzuzah parchment. Photo by Mezuzah Scrolls courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Shema is not a prayer (rabbinic literature never refers to “praying” the Shema) but a confession of faith or a creed. The practice of reciting the Shema daily is firmly established in the Mishnah (ca. A.D. 200). The important place of the Shema in Jewish religious experience is underscored by the fact that the entire Mishnah begins, “From what time in the evening may the Shema be recited?” (Berachot 1:1). But there is also evidence of the Shema’s use during and even before the New Testament era, for the Letter of Aristeas (ca. 150 B.C.) alludes to it. In addition, the Mishnah states that the Shema was recited by the priests in the Temple—indication of its use prior to A.D. 70 (Tamid 4:3; 5:1).

As the Shema developed it came to include three passages from the Torah of Moses. The first (Deut. 6:4-9) proclaims God’s oneness (v. 4) and calls Israel to love him and obey his commandments (vv. 5-9). The second (Deut. 11:13-21) details the rewards promised for obeying these commandments and the punishments for disobeying them. The third (Num. 15:37- 41) sets forth the law concerning tassels on the garments as a reminder to keep “all the commandments of the LORD” (v. 39).

In accordance with Deuteronomy 6:7 the Shema was recited twice a day, in the morning and evening: “when you lie down and when you rise” (cf. Mishnah, Berachot 1:1-2). During the Talmudic period much rabbinic debate focused on the question of precisely how long after dawn or sunset the Shema should be read (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 2a-3a, 9b). The School of Shammai also debated the School of Hillel about the proper posture for reciting it (Berachot 10b-11a; cf. Deut 6:7). Women, slaves and children were exempt from the obligation to recite the Shema (Mishnah, Berachot 3:3). The Shema was recited as the last utterance of martyrs being led to their death, and to this day it is recited at the conclusion of deathbed confessions. Thus, Jews are taught to have the name of God on their lips from early childhood to the moment of death.

The Mishnah teaches that the morning recitation of the Shema is to be preceded by two benedictions and concluded by one. In the evening it is preceded by two and followed by two (Berachot 1:4; 2:2). The main theme of the morning benedictions is praise to God for creating the light of day, giving the Torah and redeeming Israel. The evening blessings likewise give thanks for physical and spiritual light, but also attest to the truths of God and plead for a peaceful rest.

Of the 5,845 verses in the Pentateuch, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” most clearly sounds the historic keynote of all Judaism. This fundamental truth and leitmotif of God’s uniqueness prompts one to respond by fulfilling the fundamental obligation to love God (Deut. 6:5). Accordingly, when Jesus was asked about the “most important commandment,” his reply did not contradict this central theme of Judaism (Mark 12:28-34). With 613 individual statutes of the Torah from which to choose, Jesus cited the Shema, including the command to love God; but he also extended the definition of the “first” commandment to include love for one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18).

Scholars have differed in their renderings of Deuteronomy 6:4 (the New International Version and Revised Standard Version give four possible translations, including those in the margin). Some translators have considered these six Hebrew words to be one nominative sentence, while others have taken them as two. Perhaps of greater importance, however, is the implication of the final word, אֶחָד (ekhad, “one”).

Jewish interpreters have largely understood the phrase “the LORD is one” to carry either or both of the following emphases:

  1. It is an affirmation of monotheism. In opposition to their polytheistic environment, the Hebrews were to know that there was only one God, not many. The LORD is one in that there is no other God. Cyrus H. Gordon has suggested further that Deuteronomy 6:4 means not only that there is one God, but that “One” is his name (cf. Zech. 14:9; see Cyrus H. Gordon, “His Name is ‘One,’” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 29 [1970]: 198ff.).
  2. It declares the uniqueness of God. The Lord is the Supreme Being, wholly unlike all other things in the universe, which have been created by him.

In the Hebrew Scriptures ekhad usually refers to a single unit such as a person. Certain interpreters have insisted, however, that ekhad may also be used to designate a collective unit (e.g., Gen. 1:5; 2:24; Num. 13:23), a diversity within unity.

Thus some Christian scholars have found room for trinitarian monotheism in the ekhad of Deuteronomy 6:4. So interpreted, God is seen as a complex unity, not simply as numerically one. It must be remembered, however, that the main focus of the Shema in its original setting—ancient Near Eastern polytheism—is clearly upon the fact that there is one God (cf. Deut. 4:39). God alone claims the unqualified love and obedience of all his creation.

Bibliography

  • Morris Adler, “Judaism’s Central Affirmation,” in Jewish Heritage Reader (ed. Lily Edelman; New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1965), 38-43.
  • Louis Jacobs, “Reading of Shema,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, 14:1370-1374.
  • Joseph H. Hertz, The Authorized Daily Prayer Book (rev. ed.; New York: Block Publishing Co., 1948), 108-129, 263-269.
  • Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus (trans. John Bowden and John Reumann; repr. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 66-81.
This article originally appeared in issue 35 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

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  • [1] This article is adapted from Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., and Dayton, OH: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1989), 122-125, and used by permission.

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    Marvin Wilson

    Marvin R. Wilson was, until his retirement in 2018, the Harold J. Ockenga Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. He has been honored four times at Gordon commencements with the senior faculty award for “Excellence in Teaching.” His field-trip course…
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