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The Framework of the Shema

  • Rav Michael Hattin







Jeffrey Paul Friedman

August 15, 1968 – July 29, 2012


יהודה פנחס בן הרב שרגא פייוועל

כ"ב אב תשכ"ח – י' אב תשע"ב




In memory of our beloved father, husband and grandfather,
Mitch Greenberg, Refoel Yechiel Meir Shlomo ben Chaim Tzvi , z”l.
whose sheloshim is Thursday July 18th, the 11th of Menachem Av .
Aaron and Miriam, Amy, Elaine and Tzvi, Nediva, Ezra & Yair Greenberg.






The Framework of the Shema

By Rav Michael Hattin




This week's Torah portion of Parashat Va-etchanan continues some of the themes of Sefer Devarim that we explored last week.  The parasha begins with Moshe's recollection of having pleaded with God – in the aftermath of the successful wars that he waged against the Amorite kings east of the Jordan – to enter the land.  God's decree, however, remained immutable, and Moshe's plea, juxtaposed against God's stark refusal, provides the people with a powerful lesson in appreciating the special privilege and opportunity inherent in His gift of the land. 


Moshe then goes on to encourage the people to adhere to God's laws in order to maintain their hold over the land, and spells out in ignominious detail the consequences of non-compliance, culminating in the dire threat of exile.  Again and again, Moshe warns the people that their election to become God's own, carries with it awesome responsibility.  The unrivalled experience of the Revelation at Sinai was not a gratuitous expression of Divine grace, but rather an irresistible invitation to Bnei Yisrael to serve God, to teach humanity, and to become sanctified.


As Moshe shifts the focus of his address to the review and to the explanation of the laws and ordinances, he begins with a recollection of the Sinaitic experience, and a restatement of the Ten Utterances.  The people's sensation of awe at God's majestic manifestation had never dissipated, and Moshe skillfully weaves the reminiscence of the encounter into his comprehensive message:


"These are the commandments, ordinances and laws that God your Lord has commanded that I teach you, in order to perform them in the land that you will cross the river to inherit.  It is in order that you might revere God your Lord, to observe all of His ordinances and commandments that I command you, you as well as your children and grandchildren all the days of your life, so that you will have length of days.  Hear Israel and be careful to fulfill, in order that you might experience goodness and great increase, just as God the Lord of your ancestors spoke to you concerning the land flowing with milk and honey" (Devarim 6:1-3).


The Short Section of the 'Shema'


What follows is a deceptively short and seemingly straightforward section that has become the 'mission statement' of the Jewish people:


"Hear Israel, God is our Lord. God is one.  You shall love God your Lord with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your might.  These things that I command you this day shall be upon your heart.  You shall teach them to your children and speak of them, when you dwell in your home, when you travel upon the way, when you lie down to sleep and when you arise.  You shall tie them as a sign upon your hand and place them between your eyes. You shall write them upon the door posts of your home and upon your gates" (Devarim 6:4-9).


This paragraph, known as the 'Shema' because of its opening words ('Shema Yisrael…'), is regarded in Jewish tradition as an eloquent encapsulation of the Torah's most profound and fundamental axioms.  It constitutes the most perpetual of the Jew's daily devotional recitations, and the primary elements of the morning and evening prayers have been structured around it.  Thus, not a day goes by when it is not uttered at least twice.  It is a prayer as well as a declaration, containing the first verses taught to an infant and the final words proclaimed as life ebbs away and the soul departs.  In the popular imagination (and misconception) the Shema has been associated with the final defiant declaration of martyrs, but its message is primarily about life and living.


The Theme of Constancy as Expressed in the Shema's Observances


Examining its motifs more closely, a dominant theme emerges.  God's oneness is tempered by the command to love Him, but these elemental ideas only constitute the first two verses of the Shema.  What follows are four verses that together stress a single idea: constancy.  Thus, we are enjoined to place 'these things' upon our hearts, to repeatedly teach them to our children, to speak of them always, to 'tie' them upon our hands and between our eyes, and to inscribe them upon our door posts. 


Teaching One's Children


Significantly, tradition discerns at least four separate ritual activities that are associated with these verses.  (1) "You shall repeat them to your children" refers to the obligation to instruct one's children in the laws and observances of the Torah. Remarkably, however, the Hebrew word used here for 'teach,' 'veShiNaNtam,' comes from a root associated with repetition.  By extension, it is occasionally used as a verb to describe the act of sharpening or whetting a blade.  In other words, the type of instruction of which this command speaks cannot be accomplished in a single lesson (inspiring though it may be and then promptly forgotten), for the pedagogical goal of the 'Shema' is to foster the discipline of constant awareness and unceasing attentiveness.  For its message to be driven home, its tenets must be taught, repeated, and stated again.  Living teachings, those that are intended to guide our lives, must be learned and learned well, but then must be memorized and retained so that they become part and parcel of our very fiber.


Self-instruction and the Recitation of the Shema


(2) " Speak of them when you dwell in your home, when you travel upon the way, when you lie down to sleep and when you arise."  This phrase contains an amplification of the command concerning instruction considered above.  This time, however, the teaching is to be directed primarily towards the self, and must also be all encompassing.  There is no forum in which the words of the Torah are to be considered out of place.  They are to be learned at home and abroad, before one retires for the night and immediately when one arises.  This is of course an emphatic way of stating 'ALWAYS.'  A similar formulation occurs in the Book of Yehoshua, when God instructs Yehoshua to remain cognizant of the Torah's teachings at all times:


"Be but strong and very courageous to carefully fulfill all of the teaching that Moshe My servant commanded you.  Turn neither to the right nor to the left, in order that you will be successful in all of your endeavors.  This Book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth, for you shall meditate upon it day and night, in order that you shall be careful to fulfill all that is written in it, for only then shall you be successful in your efforts" (Yehoshua/Joshua 1:7-8). 


At the same time, the expression "when you lie down to sleep and when you arise" was understood to indicate a specific obligation to recite the words of the 'Shema' twice daily, at nightfall and at daybreak.  There is much discussion in the early sources concerning the various elements and details of this command, but the basic requirement is straightforward enough: recite the words of this section twice a day, every day.  Recite them once in the morning, and repeat them again at night.  Let not a single day of your life go by without stating them. Again, the ability to successfully integrate the content of the instruction is made a function of its mode of transmission.  How the teaching is communicated is, in this case, as important as the teaching itself. 


The Ritual of the 'Tefillin'


(3) "You shall tie them as a sign upon your hand and place them between your eyes" is a somewhat obscure verse that the Oral Tradition asserts refers to the command concerning the donning of Tefillin.  The Tefillin consist of two small almost identical leather boxes containing a selection of Scriptural sections, including the Shema.  One of these boxes is tied upon the arm, and the other is fastened on the head and centered.  They are typically worn during the weekday morning service, but can be worn any time of the day.  The Torah refers to them on four separate occasions: Shemot 13:9 and 13:16 where they are introduced as commemorations of the Exodus, and Devarim 6:8 and 11:18 where they are presented as constant reminders.  Of course, the connection between these two groupings is obvious enough, for the Torah instructs us to remember the Exodus always.  


Often, however, the above-quoted phrase was misinterpreted as expressing nothing more than a poignant metaphor. Such was the position of the Karaites, a sect founded in the 8th century that won many adherents during the following few hundred years, and whose creed was the rejection of 'Rabbinic' interpretations of the Biblical text.  They explained these words, as well as the succeeding injunction concerning the doorposts, to refer to a non-specific command to be always aware of the words of the Torah.  Based upon similar linguistic usages from the Book of Mishle/Proverbs that speak of 'wearing' words of instruction as a beautiful ornament around the head and neck (1:9), or 'tying' them around the neck and heart or 'engraving' them upon the heart (3:3, 6:21), the Karaites understood that the Torah here enjoins us to never forget the message of the Shema, AS IF they were tied upon our hands, placed between our eyes, or written upon our doorposts. 


Now, it is the case that the Rashbam (12th century, France) explains in his commentary on Sefer Shemot (12:9) that the deep INTENT of this commandment is to indeed foster the sentiments of which the Karaites spoke.  In glaring contrast to their rejection of the Oral Tradition, however, he maintains that the means of achieving that intent is through the fulfillment of the observance of the Tefillin.  Significantly though, a more comfortable agreement between this all-embracing intent and the seemingly more limited ritual observance existed during the times of the Mishna and Talmud, when the Tefillin were often worn all day long.  In fact, even today, there are pious individuals who fill their days with study, teaching, and prayer, and don the Tefillin constantly. 


The ritual command of the Tefillin can therefore be understood as an integral part of this same rubric of constancy suggested by the Shema's larger framework.  The Tefillin are worn as part of our daily attire and impress upon us the Shema's profound truth in tangible and substantial form.


The Observance of the 'Mezuza'


(4) "You shall write them upon the door posts ('mezuzot') of your home and upon your gates" is the final injunction of the section.  It is understood as a command to inscribe the words of the Shema as well as of another similar section ('VeHaya im shamoa' – Devarim 11:13-21) upon a small piece of parchment, which is then rolled up and secured to the doorpost.  Here, it is the home of the Jew that is provided with a constant reminder of God's teaching.  According to traditional interpretation, almost all of the rooms of one's dwelling must be provided with a 'mezuza,' excepting bathrooms and other similar areas.  The mezuza is fastened at approximately eye-height and is therefore an unavoidable visual cue when one enters or leaves a room.  It is as if all of our home activities are lived in the presence of the Shema's instruction, as if no part of our private lives can be lived detached from its overarching message, as if entry, exit and dwelling can become Godly pursuits.


We have seen that the underlying theme of the Shema is the perpetual and ceaseless recognition of the Torah's instruction and teaching.  This has found expression in requirements to learn, to teach, to wear a tangible reminder upon one's body, and to mark our homes with its message.  There remain, of course, the two preliminary principles that introduce the Shema: God's Oneness and the command to love Him.


God's Oneness and the Command to Love


The Oneness of God is Judaism's greatest innovation and the foundation upon which all else depends.  No idea of an Absolute Creator is possible in its absence.  No concept of Divine incorporeality can exist without oneness, for perfect oneness is indivisible but all material bodies are composed of parts.  God cannot be Absolute and Transcendent if He has material form, for all matter has limits of dimension, and all things concrete exist in time.  The notion of a Perfect Being, Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent, Eternal and Everlasting, necessarily depends upon an acknowledgement of God's utter immateriality and ineffable oneness, as does the corollary of an absolute moral code.  Oneness is at once the Torah's most profound as well as its most inaccessible and unfathomable concept concerning God.


The commandment to love Him with all of one's heart, soul and might seems, at first glance, equally unachievable.  How are we to approach, let alone revere and love, a God so supreme and remote from our material and mortal lives?  What common language do we share with a Being that embraces and transcends not only our individual or collective lives, not only this planet or the solar system, not only our constellation or the galaxy, but the very Universe itself? 


The Way to Find God


The Shema seems to raise uncomfortable questions that we are incapable of ever truly resolving.  To only meditate at length on its profound and utterly abstract concepts is to live a life of frustration, for material beings can scarcely begin to conceive of utter immateriality, and mortal man can never truly fathom eternity.  It is for this reason that these two related concepts of Oneness and love introduce the following verses that emphasize constant and concrete activities.  There is a way to begin to comprehend the mystery of God's grandeur and to experience His ethereal but real presence, and it is through the recognition of our material lives – our children, our minds, our bodies, our homes.


God's Oneness and the command to love are indeed profound ideas, and we are obligated to utilize our analytical faculties and intelligence to ponder them and to attempt to comprehend them.  Superficial pronouncements of doctrine and shallow rote declarations are anathema to the Torah's oft-repeated injunction to study and to learn.  At the same time, though, we must not be detached from the material realities that bind us to worldly concerns and hold most of our attention.    


The injunctions of learning, teaching, Tefillin and mezuza provide a short list of man's most material concerns and most time-consuming pursuits. We spend countless hours with our children, with our thoughts, with the care of ourselves and with our homes. Constantly infuse those things with an awareness of God, unceasingly impress them with a sensitivity to His presence, never let the life experiences that they encompass be devoid of His teaching, and then the Ineffable will no longer seem so unapproachable, and the Absolute will suddenly be near. 


"These things that I command you this day shall be upon your heart" – The Sifre (Chapter 33) explains: 'this verse enjoins upon us to love God, but how shall I love the Omnipresent?  The section therefore continues: "These things that I command you this day shall be upon your heart," to suggest that by learning Torah and fulfilling its commands one comes to recognize the One Who by His word brought the Universe into being.'


Shabbat Shalom