Shema and Deuteronomy

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The Shema and Its Significance

The first words of a section of the Torah are Sh'ma Yisreal, which is Hebrew for "Hear, O Israel." This name, which can be shortened to Shema, refers to a prayer that is the main focus of morning and evening prayer services. The first verse of the Shema incorporates the monotheistic principles typical of Judaism: "hear o Israel the lord our God, the Lord is one," found in the fourth verse of the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy. An alternative translation that is frequently used is "Lord is our God the lord, Lord is one." The Shema is considered by devout Jews as the most significant section of the prayer service and daily recitation as a commandment from Old Testament law.

Expansion of the Shema

The term Shema is used broadly in reference to all daily prayers that start with "Hear o Israel" and includes Numbers 6:4-9, Deuteronomy 6:11-13, and 6:20-25. Initially, the Shema was made up of only Deuteronomy 6:4. However, its recitation in liturgy incorporates Numbers 15:37-41, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and 11:14-21. These three passages represent the fundamental concepts of the Jewish religion. The Shema is associated with a reinforcement of the personal relationship with God's rule, which is also a major theme in the book of Deuteronomy. A subtle reference to the Ten Commandments can be observed in all the three passages that constitute the Shema. As the daily prayers began to abandon recitation of the Ten Commandments in the Mishnaic era, recitation of the Shema is viewed as a chance to meditate upon the Ten Commandments.

The Shema in the New Testament

In the New Testament, Mark 12:29-31 states that Jesus Christ took the first words of the Shema to be the first of his two greatest commandments and is closely related to the second, based on Leviticus 19:18b. The first of the two commandments is "hear, O Israel; this is the first commandment, and the second one is; though shall love thy neighbor as thyself." In Deuteronomy 6:5, the heart is mentioned first as the origin of emotion in general, and love is the specific focus, this is followed by the soul, to portray love as engulfing the completely self-conscious. To this, the author adds "with all strength" in the context of body and soul.

The Transition to Monotheism

Though many might argue that ancient Israel was monotheistic while its neighbors were polytheistic, only the second half of this statement may be entirely valid. Israelite tradition was originally polytheistic, before the time of Abraham, the forefathers of the kingdom of Israel worshipped many gods in a land outside Canaan as shown in Genesis. Though religious belief eventually became monotheistic later on in Israel's history, this transition was very gradual, lasting for a period of about 850 years. Therefore, for most of the period covered by the Old Testament, Israel is characterized by monolatry. In essence, monolatry is the worship of one god without a denial of the existence of other gods.

The Singularity of the God of Israel

There is significant evidence of monolatrism in the biblical text. This evidence is derived mostly from references to other gods as seen in the Shema, in Exodus 12:12, and in Exodus 7:11-13 where Egyptian magicians show their ability to turn sticks into snakes. The existence of magic was widely accepted in ancient Israel, though Israelites perceived it as a result of abominable tradition and were prohibited from taking part in it as observed in the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 20) and the "Echad" (Deuteronomy 6:4). The Hebrew word Echad occurs at the end of Deuteronomy 6:4 and is used as a singular and absolute reference to an all-powerful God. This emphasizes the singularity of the god of Israel and reinforces the fact that there is none comparable to Him.

Works cited

The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford University Press, 2004

April 13, 2023


Subject area:

Religious Beliefs Judaism God

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