SEEK THE CONTEXT: Biblical Texts, Language, Cultural Background & Meaning. Context Changes Everything!

Looking Deeper into Shema

Looking Deeper into Shema

This article is a drash on Shema. As a drash it is meant to be an inspirational teaching and with some lessons for today. But I cannot inspire anyone with a verse from the Bible properly without explaining what it truly means in context. And that means some serious teaching and digging a little below the surface is necessary. I cannot assume that people who read or hear this share the same understanding of Shema with me, so before I can inspire someone with any words from the Torah, I have to help you see what the Shema means to Jewish people.

Shema is much more than just a passage from the Bible. Yes, it is a biblical quote, but over the years it has become much more than that for Jewish people. In Judaism, it is considered to be a prayer because its words are recited each day. In fact, many Jewish prayers contain portions of Scriptures. For all the misunderstandings and abuse of pre-written prayers, praying God’s own words standing before God is praying according to his will. If they are God’s own words, then they are in his will. Such prayers, if internalized and owned, actually transform the one who prays them. How about that for praying in words which are not your own?

So what is this Shema?

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יהוה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יהוה אֶחָד׃

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad

Listen, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.

But that is not all of the Shema… In Jewish tradition, by Shema we also understand Deut 6:4-8; 11:13-21; Num 15:37-41. That is the complete Shema according to the traditional thinking. And if you read these expanded verses you will understand that they describe the kind of relationship Israel is supposed to have with God.

The first verse (the Shema) is really a pneumonic device, a reminder of a much larger section of Scripture. And this section teaches us many things, but the first couple sentences is a way to remember the larger and fuller teaching. Yet even in the first couple of verses, we can find deep wisdom. I will not unfold on all three passages of the Shema right now. It will take quite a while. I will, however, show you what one can glean from the very beginning of this prayer

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יהוה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יהוה אֶחָד׃

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad

Listen, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.

And another phrase that follows…

וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יהוה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶךָ׃

Veahavta et Adonai Eloheycha bchol-levavcha, uvechol-nafshecha uvechol-meodecha.

And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.

The word is Shema –  often translated as “Hear” but I prefer the word “Listen”. Everyone knows that Judaism puts a great significance on obedience to God’s commandments. But you might be surprised to find out that ancient Hebrew does not have a verb “obey”. Instead, Hebrew uses “hear”, or “listen to me” and by listening we understand “listen and do”, or in other words “obey” Who is supposed to listen and obey is clear – its Israel, the name given by the divine messenger to Jacob, the name carried even today by his children who descend from his 12 sons. Israel is a corporate identity and God addresses Israel as one unit.

You may not realize this, but most commandments in the Bible and all Jewish prayers are typically said in the plural. They are meant to be corporate and communal. Even in the New Testament – “Give US this day, OUR daily bread and forgive US our trespasses…”- this is very Jewish and quite normal. There are not many “me and I” prayers in Jewish tradition. Even when praying alone traditional Jews pray in the plural, because we are part of greater whole inseparable from the rest of our people. Am I my brother’s keeper? That question is never even asked. Israel is our corporate identity and we are in this together. This is something simply understood.

The next words mention God’s special name, which consists of four Hebrew consonants. We do not pronounce this special name out loud bases on a long-standing tradition. We say Adonai – or Lord instead. In fact, we do not even know from the Biblical text how to pronounce God’s name properly.

In Moses’ day, Hebrew had no written vowels. Vowels were spoken, but not written and the only way people knew how to say God’s name (or any other word) is by hearing someone else pronounce it out loud. And that was not done casually. The leaders of Israel, Moses, Aaron and those who followed after them did not teach the people how to say God’s four-letter name on purpose. They were very cautious. They feared that people would take it in vain and profane it, abuse it in speech and bring judgment upon themselves and the entire community. Because we are in this together. If we do not know how to pronounce God’s name, how can we misuse it?  So the Jewish tradition is to substitute God’s name with Adonai – Lord or “Hashem”, which simply means “the name”. Everyone knows what is meant is God’s special name.

The word “Elohim” means God in Hebrew, so Adonai Eloheynu – means “Lord our God”. The plural OUR points to the fact that the Lord is not our personal, private God, but rather the God of our entire clan, our entire family. The context of community is how we interact with him and relationship with him is inseparable from our relationships to others within the family. I know I am stressing this point again, but it needs to be seen over and over because it is essential to Jewish perspective.

The next phrase is Adonai Echad – “the Lord is One” This is a loaded phrase that produced much reflection throughout generations. It is a bit difficult for me to explain the meaning of Echad –  “one” because even within the Jewish community there are multiple interpretations of what that means and what are the implications of understanding this oneness. Echad as “one” can mean a singular one. It can be understood as “alone” The word “one” can be seen in a sense of “unified” or “united” as well. Let’s set this word aside for now and come back to it later in another context.

The next phrase sounds like a commandment – “And you shall love the LORD your God” Human language is fascinating. When we command or order someone to do something we typically use an imperative verb – “Sit, Fido” or “Go home, Johnny”  or even “Drop and give me 20”… These are all imperatives and they are all commands or orders.

But the phrase “you shall love” is not an imperative in the original Hebrew. It is not a true order or even a command in that sense. God is simply instructing and informing Israel that this is something that they as a people of God are going to do. It is just a fact, an axiom, not an instruction. They are going to love him. Not would you, or should you, but plainly stated – you will love!

But what does that mean to love? I am afraid that is another sermon. There is no quick way of explaining this term, so I am going to assume most people here know and understand the word “love” as I do in the broadest sense. What I will go deeper into is how Israel as a people are supposed to love their God.

First – with all of your heart. This does not mean emotional love. The heart is the organ or body part responsible for thoughts and decisions in the eastern world. I know in the western culture we think with our brain and love with our heart. That is not how it works in the east and sorry the Bible is not a western book, so you will have to adapt here.

If it will help you to substitute heart for mind here in this verse, go ahead, because that is what it really means. Jewish tradition explains that loving God with our heart means obeying him out of love and not out of fear of punishment or guilt or retribution. The only way one can please God is by fulfilling his commandments because one loves God and wishes to demonstrate this love with loyalty and devotion. That is actually the only way to follow God’s commandments. God wants to be loved in our thinking and decision-making that orders our daily lives.

Second – with all of our soul. How does one do that? Well, the word soul in Hebrew – “Nefesh” is related to “breath”. It is what God breathed into Adam after he made it. So “Nefesh” is what makes one a living being. One’s soul is one’s very life and one very being, the very essence of what animates us. Once the soul leaves the body, the person is not really there anymore. The Jewish tradition says that we must love God even if it means we have to lose our soul, in other words – die. We have to be willing to even die for God if it is necessary. So loving God with one’s soul is loving him with our very being which we actually owe to him in the first place.

Third –  with our strength or might as some translations put it. Yes, one of the meanings of the word “meod” in Hebrew is “physical strength, intensity”, so one may think we are supposed to love God “very, very intensely”, “very-very hard”, like a bear hug that cracks the bones. Well, the intensity is probably not the meaning here. Another meaning of “meod” is ability or capacity and that makes much more sense.

We are to love God as much as we are able to do, as much capacity we have to love him. The Jewish sages went even further and often taught that this also implies one’s possessions, one’s wealth, one’s economic capacity as well. One must love God with everything that belongs to him, with everything he owns. In a way you can see how this may be connected to our might and ability, it is tied to all of our resources.

I am going to slow down here. I have probably given you a few ideas to digest and I do not want to give too much all at once. Even the most delicious meal can be ruined if one overeats. So I am going to slow down and summarize for you a few Shema-related ideas that are planted deeply in the traditional Jewish understanding. I promised to return to the oneness of God, so here we are.

Israel is told to listen, to hear that God is one.

Moses told Israelites – “Know therefore today, and take it to your heart, that the LORD, He is God in heaven above and on the earth below; there is no other” (Deut 4:39).

Israel is to hear that God is one, not to see that he is one. There is no statue or image to see and one must hear and not see God. The hearing is one of our senses and it expresses a commitment to that which others may not have witnessed.

For Jewish people, the Shema became a key statement to fight belief in many gods. Those gods were quite real but Israel was to make a choice to follow only one God. This idea of oneness is like when a person declares that they will have only one spouse and it will be the only one for them. Shema is not trying to deny the existence of other gods, in fact. Just like a person making a commitment to a spouse does not deny the existence of other men and women out there.

The ten commandments passage says we are to have no other gods. Not that we are not allowed to believe they are real, that they may exist, but we are not to have them, not to engage with them, especially in front of God who brought us out of Egypt. The God of Israel showed us his glory in the plagues that mocked the powers of the gods of Egypt. Who was he mocking if they do not exist? So one means not exclusively one, but more precisely – the only one for us in this context.

But be careful, context is everything and we should look at terms in their natural setting. Stretching a term and applying it uniformly to every situation and in every other context is what causes so much of twisting and changing of what God actually meant for us to see.

Shema is central to Jewish theological reflection. It can be so embedded that it becomes unrecognizable if people are not aware that it is always there. Apostle Paul was a famous Jew among the followers of Jesus, a very conservative one, in fact. His theology in the New Testament writings is built firmly on the thinking behind the Shema. For him, it is a cornerstone around which he builds his teachings and sometimes he explains this to his non-Jewish disciples in his letters. I hope you are intrigued.

In the city of Corinth, the followers of Jesus were confused about idols and eating food that was offered to them. This was a normal pagan practice. So keep in mind the ideas I shared about Shema and look for them now carefully as you read his teaching.

4 Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world and that there is no God but one. (remember what he means by one – one for us) 5 For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth (Paul is alluding to Deut 4:39 that says there is only one God in heaven an on earth), as indeed there are many gods and many lords, (hopefully this makes sense if you remember that one means – “only one for us”, like a spouse) 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” (1 Cor 8:4-6)

You see Paul acknowledged that there are many gods and lords out there. There are many that wish to be called gods, but we are not going to give them such honor. For us there is one God and one Lord. This is the Shema logic at work!

Paul is a fascinating Jew. Many misunderstood him and his passion he had for non-Jews turning to Israel’s God. Unlike many religious Jews of his day, Paul insisted that non-Jews who turn to Christ must not be circumcised, i.e. converted, i.e. become Jews. To him, this was not acceptable. But not because he thought less of Judaism or Torah, believe me. It is not that he had a dislike of Jewish ways of life. He personally circumcised Timothy because his mother was Jewish. But Paul fought that non-Jewish identities of Jesus-followers must be preserved. For his Gentiles turning to God was miraculous. For ages, Jews took in outsiders and made room for them within Israel by offering them conversion. This was the norm. Why would it be so bad for his disciples to convert? The answer is in Paul’s understanding of the Shema.

29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. 31 Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law. (Rom 3:29-31)

Paul rhetorically asked if God of Israel the God of the others nations as well. If Israel’s God is true and if he is one, that he has to be one God for the nations of the world. This is a reasonable thinking.

Paul is not alone in thinking that God who is one, currently embraced by Israel will ultimately be embraced by all the nations. Paul read the prophets who said that in the last days the Lord will be one and his name will be one, that one day every knee will bow and every tong will confess that Israel’s God is one and true God. There will be no others. This is a well-known message.

So if Israel’s God is the God of the nations as well, as one God he justifies (makes righteous) both Jews and non-Jews by faith (he means by faith in Messiah). Does this faith in Messiah lead us to nullify the law, the Torah? Not at all. Instead, we establish and uphold the Torah, God’s teaching through faith. How? Because we are living the Shema – God is one. The God of Israel now the Lord of the whole world and in the future, it will manifest in fuller force.

This is why Paul does not want for his disciples to convert and become Jews. Not that this would be bad for them inherently. But God needs to be the God of Israel and the God of the nations. If those of the nations who believe in him all become Israelites, then God would not be the God of the nations.

Shaul believed that he was living in the final days and the words of the prophets were being literally fulfilled in his sight. Perhaps now, you see his motivation. His stubbornness about the conversion of Gentiles had nothing to do with his feelings for Torah or Judaism. It’s the Shema shaping his mind.

Here is the question for reflection. How much is your theological thinking, your beliefs are shaped by the Shema? You may say – I do not know. Maybe you are hearing all this for the first time in your life. Maybe my message is hard to take in. Maybe you are reading the New Testament from such Jewish perspective for the first time and that is a big difference. Maybe you have been taught to read Paul not a Jew, but as Lutheran or as Baptist, or a Presbyterian. I challenge you to stop doing that. Study the Shema. Read Paul’s writings in light of Shema and his letters will speak to you in a new way.

I wanted to take my time, and share my knowledge, my insights with you in hopes of showing the beauty of God’s words. But I want to also lift your spirits and encourage you today. Jews and Christians – we serve one God because we have chosen to serve him alone. We had other choices, but we chose him. Our journeys may have taken different roads, but they will eventually lead to the same destination. Of that, I am assured.

If you are a Christian, I implore you – do not allow the teachings of the Hebrew Bible, which many call the Old Testament become lost and forgotten to you. As I showed to you today, you will miss so much in the New Testament if your theology does not begin in the beginning. If you are a Jew, do not dismiss the New Testament as irrelevant. It was written by Jews and full of wholesome Jewish values. Understanding Shema in this broad prophetic perspective as it will affect not Israel alone but the whole world is a good place to start.

Connect and seek with us… subscribe or register here!


I am an educator, researcher, a faculty member and an avid believer in online education. My specialties are Sacred Texts and Cultures (Second Temple period, early Judaism and nascent Christianity). I am passionate about meaning, context, and cultural transmission of ancient texts. My preoccupations with history, ancient languages and contextual interpretation often find expression in my blog posts. Every human has a pretext, every message has a context. Context changes everything! Enjoy reading.

Leave a Reply