Shema Yisrael is a Jewish prayer (known as the Shema) that serves as a centrepiece of morning and evening Jewish prayer services. It comes from Deuteronomy 6:4 and following. In this, Moses utters one of the most important revelations of God’s identity:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד׃ (reading right to left)
Sh’ma Yisra’el, YHWH ‘eloheinu, YHWH ‘eḥad: (reading left to right)
Note that Moses commands Israel to listen. Moses does not call upon Israel to look at something, for God did not show himself to Israel, but rather made himself heard. Nor does Moses invite Israel to imagine something about God. Rather it means the starting point and controlling factor of Israel’s faith is Yahweh’s own personal revelation of himself.
In Hebrew the statement after “Listen, O Israel” consists of just four words:
Yahweh Our God Yahweh One
Hebrew does not have a word for ‘is’ (it has to be inferred from context), so the question is how these four words relate to each other and what they mean together. There are at least six possible ways to understand the statement, but the one commonly translated in our Bibles (e.g. in the NIV) is:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
The word “one” can also mean “unity”, which is what we think of when we consider the Trinity: God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit – Three in One. When Jesus was asked which commandment in the Law was the greatest, in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 12:28-31), he answered by reciting Deuteronomy 6:4-5:
Deuteronomy 6:4-5 NIV 4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
And he added ‘The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself’ from Leviticus 19:18.
In Luke 10:25-28 and Matthew 22:35-40, Jesus uses similar quotes from Deuteronomy and Leviticus.
In the cacophony of sounds and voices in the world today, let us listen to the Lord when he tells us to love Him with all our being and to love others as ourselves.
Peace be with you.