The Sh’ma is one of the most sacred prayers in the Jewish faith, and I have been fascinated with it lately.

Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad.

The word Sh’ma means “hear” or “listen” or “obey.” This word obey is essential to the definition, it takes the word much farther than just hearing and then blowing off the information. It implies that not only do you hear what’s being said but you ‘obey;’ you become an active participant in the text.

We must understand that asking what Sh’ma means is much different than asking what Sh’ma is. Sh’ma comes from the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy.

“Hear O Israel, The Lord Our God, the Lord is One.”
-Deuteronomy 6:4

The Jewish prayer is called Sh’ma because of that first word in the text: “hear.” Moses commanded that the people pass this down from generation to generation. The Sh’ma is still foundational to Jewish thingking. We usually translate that word “Echad” as “one” like the number one. This is one of the most quoted verses by Christians and Jews alike to argue monotheism. The problem with that is the word can also be translated “all together” (Strong’s Hebrew and Greek dictionary, H259). There’s no reason for us to believe that they weren’t polytheistic at the time this was written. They constantly declare that God is their God as if they had a choice. In the Ten Commandments God even says have no other gods before me. Was this written because there were no other gods or because the people being addressed believed in other gods? It’s almost like the writer is acknowledging other deities.

Now, before you get steamed up at me, realize I’m not saying that there is more than one God, I’m not saying God is not one in number; I’m saying that that’s not the point of Sh’ma. When we translate Echad as “one” like the number we miss how the second part of Sh’ma relates with the first.

The second part comes from Deuteronomy 6:5.

“V-ahavta et Adonai Elohecha b-chol l'vavcha u-v-chol naf'sh'cha u-v-chol m'odecha.””And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

How does God being ‘One,’ ‘Echad’ have anything to do with us loving Him? Now there are a few reasons, it could be because He’s the only God so we should by process of elimination. It could also be because as the only God He’s lonely so we should because we feel sorry for Him. But what if it’s because His being ‘one’ has more to do with oneness as in being “all together?”

When Ashley and I went to see Rabbi Zalman Marcus he talked a lot about having an “undivided heart.” Since then I’ve noticed that phrase a lot in my reading. It seems to be a reoccurring theme in scripture and also in Jewish and Christian thought. It’s the idea of loving God with complete devotion, loving Him with all of you. As God is one, you will love Him with all your heart, soul, and might; with the same oneness of God. We are not called to compartmentalized lives that put God in one place and no in another. Today in Jewish synagogues when the Sh’ma is read that last word in the Sh’ma is read in loud voices repeatedly, over and over again, “Echad, Echad, Echad…” As God is Echad, we are called to love Him in that same oneness (Adam Clarke’s commentary).

This prayer was of the most sacred prayers even in Jesus time. When asked about what the greatest commandment was, which was a major debate in Jesus time He said, “V-ahavta et Adonai Elohecha b-chol l'vavcha u-v-chol naf'sh'cha u-v-chol m'odecha.” Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind (the difference here; might/mind, is because of Greek though about the mind, In the Hebrew the mind is part of the heart.) Jesus was repeating the Sh’ma and affirming it’s great importance. Jesus does something He often does in His teaching. He affirms a great value and takes it a step farther. He adds something to the Sh’ma that usually wouldn’t belong. “The second greatest commandment is equally important; love your neighbor as yourself.” And of course, He tells a story. Jesus is saying something very controversial for His time. He’s not separating loving God and loving people.

We often read this passage as a command to love people as we love ourselves. Could it be that it’s saying something much deeper? This second command is followed by a two part prayer/command. God is all together, love God altogether; with all of you. These two parts are closely knit together why would Jesus’ third part of the Sh’ma be any different? What if loving people as yourself has something to do with loving God with all of you. When you love God in this way, now you are undivided, you are whole. You are one ‘yourself.’ Jesus is not only adding something to Sh’ma, but He’s knitting them together.

Loving God and loving others are not separate, we can’t just leave it at ‘God is one’ because with his oneness we are called to be one and with our oneness we are called to love others that way. Jesus didn’t change or really even add to the Sh’ma He just took it to its next stage He understood the heart of Sh’ma.

Being ‘one’ or ‘all together’ is being whole. It’s being completely who you were made to be. God didn’t intend us to do things half heartedly or with a divided heart. He meant for us to do all that we do “with all our heart as working for the Lord” (Col. 3:23). In this kind of oneness we are called to love each other. With a radical and perfect love that only comes from God. Loving God and loving people are not disconnected, at the heart of a loving God is love for people and at the heart of people who love each other is a love for God. We don’t either love God OR love people, it doesn’t work that way, We have got to love God AND people. This is the true heart of the Sh’ma.

So Love all of God with all that you are and love all people in the same way; with all that you are, in word and deed.


Paula said…
At the beginning of your post you talked a bit about other "gods". It made me think about a time that the Lord revealed to me things that kept me from loving Him more fully--idols if you may, good things for the most part, but out of order. These things keep me from seeking God with all of me--loving with that singlemindedness. And discovering His depth of love for me. During this time of idol smashing that the Lord did, I gained a new foundation of solid oneness with God, but it hurt because I had to go through crap to even know I had those other gods. It was a hard, hard time, but I will always be thankful for it.
wellis68 said…
thanks Paula, for the honest comment. It's undeniable that there are other gods... we, people, can take something that has no power and give it amazing power over us. These gods are by no means God, their power depends on us not us on theirs.
Rabbi Seinfeld said…
In Hebrew, "echad" (one) has the same numerical value as "ahava" (love). This alludes to the Jewish definition of love: feeling one with another. The more I feel one with another, the more I love that person, by definition.

This explains why an expectant mother knows that she will love her child even before she knows what kind of person that child will become - because she already feels one with him/her (quite literally)!

This wisdom is the key to loving other people, even strangers: one merely needs to remember that we are all off-shoots of one root. And this is why, in the Torah, the verse of Shema, which ends in "echad", is followed immediately with the word "love" ("and you will love") - the point is, that if the Shema is used properly as a meditation on God's oneness, then the next immediate step is to feel love, which is synonymous with love.

In this sense, the Echad of the Shema would be best translated as "the one and only" - meaning, there is nothing else besides God. Yes, we have the illusion of multiplicity and of other gods, but they are all illusions, God is actually perfectly simple - Absolute One-ness.

What I wrote above is flushed out in more detail and with additional related ideas, and footnotes, in Chapter 6 of my book, The Art of Amazement. (I didn't come to your site to promote the book, I came because I'm obviously interested in the subject, but since I've spent so much time researching and writing about Jewish prayer and spirituality, I thought you might be interested in what I wrote.)

Thanks for a thought-provoking post.
wellis68 said…
Thank you Rabbi Seinfeld. I hope you understand that I'm very new at approaching Jewish thought and most of my writing is simply regurgetation of some digested thoughts. Thank you for the great comments and I plan to read your book.