Of the 4,875 verses in the Torah, one stands out. Since the time of the Temple, the words Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, “Hear, O Israel, TheLord is Our God, The Lord is One,”[i] have been recited twice daily by Jews. They are among the first words taught to a child and the last words spoken at death. Jewish martyrs have proudly pronounced them against forces of tyranny, and through the centuries they have constituted the most universally known Hebrew phrase. It is this verse that we read in our Torah portion, Parashat Vaechtenan, this week in Deuteronomy 6:4.
As the most fundamental line in all of Judaism, our commentators have expounded on it at great length regarding its importance and what it truly means. Rabbi Joseph Hertz, once the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, says that there is no utterance found in literature that can be compared in its intellectual and spiritual force. Well-known modern commentator Rabbi Gunther Plaut characterizes the Shema as “a precious gem…a diamond set into a crown of faith and proven true and enduring in human history”.
Despite these testimonials to the importance of the Shema, commentators still raise questions. Some claim that the Israelites first said the Shema as they were standing at Sinai, while others argue that the phrase “Adonai our God” mean “God is our Source.” In other words, human beings derive from God and are made in God’s image.
Our most famous commentator, Rashi, offers a different approach. For him the words “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, The Lord is One” translate into “Hear, O Israel: Adonai, whom we recognize as our God, will one day be accepted by all people as One, and their belief in one God will unite us as one human family.” Another renowned commentator, Maimonides, holds that the Shema is not a statement of hope that all human beings will eventually agree that “God is One” but a theological declaration that “the cause of all existence is One”.
Nachmanides, Ramban, along with other observers, offers another view. Ramban claims that this is the first and only instance when Moses is speaking and says “our God” instead of “your God.” The idea is that all Jews must bear witness to God’s unity and power.
Throughout the centuries, Jews have recited the Shema as the most important expression of faith. We have regarded the words as “love letters”, but we have also wrestled over the meanings, deciphering various messages as if these words contained clues to understanding their relationship to God. The explorations and debates continue. The declaration of Jewish faith remains a source of inspiration and an ongoing challenge as well.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham
[i] It is worthy to note the next “part” of the Shema (Baruch Shem Kavod) is not even in the Torah; it is from the days of the Temple. The High Priest would pronounce God’s name, and the people would respond. Nowadays it is not said aloud except on Yom Kippur, and we will speak about this as the day approaches.