The Meanings of Shema

shema tefillin boy davening shema yisrael prayer frum kavanah

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” These words are the supreme testimony of Jewish faith. Each word is worthy of careful study, but it is the first – the verb Shema – that deserves special attention.

There was a profound difference between the two civilisations of antiquity that between them shaped the culture of the West: ancient Greece and ancient Israel. The Greeks were the supreme masters of the visual arts: art, sculpture, architecture and the theatre.

Jews, as a matter of profound religious principle, were not. God, the sole object of worship, is invisible. He transcends nature. He created the universe and is therefore beyond the universe. He cannot be seen. He reveals Himself only in speech. Therefore the supreme religious act in Judaism isto listen. Ancient Greece was a culture of the eye; ancient Israel a culture of the ear. The Greeks worshipped what they saw; Israel worshipped what they heard.

This is how Hans Kohn put it in his The Idea of Nationalism. The ancient Greeks were “the people of sight, of the spatial and plastic sense . . . as if they thought to transpose the flowing, fleeting, ever related elements of life into rest, space, limitation . . . The Jew did not see so much as he heard . . . His organ was the ear . . . When Elijah perceived God, he heard only a still, small voice. For that reason the Jew never made an image of his God.”

That is why the keyword of Judaism is Shema. God is not something we see, but a voice we hear. This is how Moses put it elsewhere in this week’s sedra, describing the supreme revelation at Mount Sinai:

Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.

Deut. 4:12

This has systemic implications for the whole of Judaism. Its way of understanding the world, and of relating to it, is fundamentally different from that of the Greeks, and of the philosophical tradition (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others) of which they were the founders. A listening culture is not the same as a seeing culture. In this week’s study I want to explore one of the many aspects of this difference.

The Mosaic books are, among other things, a set of commandments, 613 of them. That is the primary meaning of the word Torah – namely law. It would seem to follow that a book of commands must have a verb that means “to obey”, for that is the whole purpose of an imperative. Obedience stands in relation to command as truth does to statement. Yet there is no verb in biblical Hebrew that means to obey. This is an utterly astonishing fact.
So glaring is the lacuna that when Hebrew was revived in modern times a verb had to be found that meant “to obey”. This was an obvious necessity – especially in the case of Israel’s defence forces. An army depends on obedience to the command of a superior officer. The word chosen was letsayet, an Aramaic term that does not appear in this sense anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. The word the Torah uses is quite different, namely lishmo’aShema, “hear”.

The verb lishmo’a is a key term of the book of Deuteronomy, where it appears in one or other forms some 92 times (by way of comparison, it appears only 6 times in the whole of Leviticus). It conveys a wide range of meanings, clustered around five primary senses:

[1] to listen, to pay focused attention, as in “Be silent, O Israel, and listen
[u-shema]” (Deut. 27: 9)
[2] to hear, as in “I heard [shamati] Your voice in the garden and I was afraid” (Gen. 3: 10)
[3] to understand, as in “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand [yishme’u] each other” (Gen. 11: 7)
[4] to internalize, register, take to heart, as in “And as for Ishmael I have heard you” (Gen. 17: 20), meaning, “I have taken into account what you have said; I will bear it in mind; it is a consideration that weighs with Me”.
[5] to respond in action, as in “Abraham did [vayishma] what Sarah said” (Gen. 16: 2). This last sense is the closest shema comes to meaning “to obey”.

It has yet other meanings in rabbinic Hebrew, such as “to infer”, “to accept”, “to take into account as evidence” and “to receive as part of the Oral tradition”. No English word has this range of meanings. Perhaps the closest are “to hearken” and “to heed” – neither of them terms in common use today. Psychotherapists nowadays sometimes speak of “active listening”, and this is part of what is meant by Shema.

The best way to discover what is unique about a civilization is to search for words it contains that are untranslatable into other languages. It is said that the Bedouin have many words for sand and the Inuit many terms for snow. The Greek word megalopsuchos – literally the “great-souled” person, one blessed with wealth, status and effortless superiority – has no equivalent in either Judaism or Christianity, two cultures that valued, as Greece did not, humility. Shema is untranslatable – understandably so since it belongs to biblical Hebrew, the world’s supreme example of a culture of the ear.

This is a fact of great consequence and should affect our entire understanding of Judaism. The existence of the verb lishmo’a and the absence of the verb letsayet tells us that biblical Israel, despite its intense focus on Divine commandments, is not a faith that values blind, unthinking, unquestioning obedience.

There is a reason for the commands. In some cases they are rooted in the fact that God created the universe and the laws that govern it: therefore we must respect the integrity of nature. In other cases they are grounded in history. Our ancestors were slaves in Egypt; they knew from indelible personal experience what it is to live in an unjust, tyrannical society. Therefore a society based on Torah will be just, compassionate, generous. Slaves must rest one day in seven. One year in seven, debts should be cancelled. The landless poor should not go without food at harvest time – and so on.

The God of revelation is also the God of creation and redemption. Therefore when God commands us to do certain things and refrain from others, it is not because His will is arbitrary but because He cares for the integrity of the world as His work, and for the dignity of the human person as His image. There is a profound congruence between the commandments and the laws that govern nature and history. An arbitrary ruler demands blind obedience. God is not an arbitrary ruler; therefore He does not demand blind obedience. Instead, He wishes us as far as possible to understand why He has commanded what He has commanded.

Hence the emphasis, in Exodus and Deuteronomy, on children asking questions. In an authoritarian culture, questions are discouraged: “Ours not to reason why, ours but to do and die” as Tennyson put it. Had this been the case in Judaism, the Torah would have had a verb that meant the same asletsayet, not one with the meanings of lishmoa.

On Pesach the least mature child, not the most, is “one who does not know how to ask”. Indeed we are commanded to teach him or her to ask. Even the verb three lines after “Hear O Israel” – usually translated as “You shall teach these things diligently to your children”, means according to Rashi, “you shall sharpen your children” — meaning, teach them the full depth of their meaning, rather than superficially (see Rashi to Kiddushin 30a).

To be sure – this should go without saying – obedience to the commandments should never be conditional on understanding them. It is a contradiction in terms to say that one who does not understand or agree with a law is free to break it. Anyone who thinks this has not understood what a law is. But it does mean that ours is a searching, questioning, rational, intellectual faith, one that calls for the full exercise of the mind.

Shema Yisrael does not mean “Hear, O Israel”. It means something like: “Listen. Concentrate. Give the word of God your most focused attention. Strive to understand. Engage all your faculties, intellectual and emotional. Make His will your own. For what He commands you to do is not irrational or arbitrary but for your welfare, the welfare of your people, and ultimately for the benefit of all humanity.”

In Judaism faith is a form of listening: to the song creation sings to its Creator, and to the message history delivers to those who strive to understand it. That is what Moses says, time and again in Deuteronomy. Stop looking: listen. Stop speaking: listen. Create a silence in the soul. Still the clamour of instinct, desire, fear, anger.

Strive to listen to the still, small voice beneath the noise. Then you will know that the universe is the work of the One beyond the furthest star yet closer to you than you are to yourself – and then you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might. In God’s unity you will find unity – within yourself and between yourself and the world – and you will no longer fear the unknown.

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