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The verse Shema Yisrael (Devarim 6:4) is highly significant. It is Biblically required to be recited twice daily, it is to be said at the end of one's life, and appears in the liturgy at the end of Yom Kippur and in Kedusha of Mussaf.

It is clear why the verse is so considered: It states that Hashem is the one God, obviously critical to Jewish belief.

However, what about the first two words, "Shema Yisrael" - "Hear, O Israel"? Are these words significant just because they appear in the same verse as the fundamental belief, or is there something special about these words themselves?

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The Sefer Hachinuch interprets this verb as the source that the commandment stated here is to believe in God, and not merely to profess belief in God. His piece on Commandment 417 begins:

מצות אחדות השם - שנצטוינו להאמין כי השם יתברך הוא הפועל כל המציאות, אדון הכל, אחד בלי שום שתוף, שנאמר (דברים ו ד) שמע ישראל יי אלהינו יי אחד, וזה מצות עשה הוא, אינה הגדה, אבל פרוש שמע כלומר, קבל ממני דבר זה ודעהו והאמן בו, כי השם שהוא אלקינו אחד הוא

The commandment of unification of [God's] Name: That we are commanded to believe that Blessed God is the one who enacts all of existence; the Master of all; One, without any partnership. As it says (Deuteronomy 6:4): "Hear, Israel: God is our God; God is One." And this proactive commandment is not [in the] speaking; rather, "Hear" is meant to say, "Accept this point from me, know it, and believe in it: That God, our God, is One."

(translation and emphasis mine)

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The words Shema Yisrael are usually translated as "Hear, Israel" or "Listen, Israel." However, the word appears with a different meaning elsewhere in Tanach:

Shmuel 1 15:4:

וַיְשַׁמַּע שָׁאוּל אֶת הָעָם,

And Shaul gathered the nation

Metzudas Tzion there:

וישמע" - ענין אסיפה הבאה בשמיעת קול המאסף"

Vayishama - gathering that happens through calling out

So שמע ישראל could mean "Gather, Israel."

In the context of Shema, the significance of this could be understood as follows - we, the Jewish people, represent Hashem in this world. Shema is the declaration of Hashem's One-ness, and it can only be declared and espoused in its entirety with the unity of the Jewish people. Therefore, we must gather together before we can properly declare Hashem's One-ness. On a similar note, the Vilna Gaon in his commentary to the 3rd blessing of Shemoneh Esrei comments that the entire Torah is a name of Hashem. Chazal tell us (Zohar Chadash Shir HaShirim) that there are 600,000 letters of the Sefer Torah which correspond to the 600,000 souls of the Jewish people, and if even one letter is missing it is invalid. However you will resolve the discrepancy in the numbers, the idea seems clear that the entire body of Israel is necessary to complete this sefer Torah, which is the name of Hashem. In order to properly represent Hashem in this world, we need to all be included.

  • +1; interesting. However, שמע is in the kal form, whereas וישמע is in the pi'el, so this translation of shema seems a stretch. – Ypnypn Dec 15 '14 at 21:30
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    @Ypnypn Is it really such a stretch to say that "וַיְשַׁמַּע" is the transitive form - to gather others together, while "שמע" is the intransitive form - to gather ones-selves togehter? – Isaac Moses Dec 16 '14 at 3:35
  • @IsaacMoses Okay, now I understand what you mean. – Ypnypn Dec 16 '14 at 4:54
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Often in Tana"ch, the word "Shema" doesn't mean "hear" - using ears. It means "understand". Example of this - Na'aseh V'nishma - the response B'nai Yisra'el gave upon accepting the giving of the Torah - means, "We will do, and we will understand".

Talmud Brachot (don't recall exact page) mentions that the recital of the Shema is comparable to reciting the 10 Commandments. It seems, fair, then to make a parallel interpretation of the word "Shema" in "Shema Yisrael" as meaning "Understand, Israel. Hashem ou G-d, Hashem is one." I.e. - understand what you are saying, understand what this basic principle means, understand that you are performing a mitzvah, etc. - thre are multiple layers of understanding required while reciting Shema.

Related - the Gemarah Brachot also debates if the recital of Shema is acceptable if one recited it without kavanah - the proper intent. Part of the reason of that debate, from my recollection, emanates from the translation of the word "Shema" as "understand".

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The "hear" is critical to this verse, because this word lies in logical parallel to "the Lord our God."

The Masoretic Text contains cantillation marks which serve not only to indicate the stress and accents on the Hebrew words, but to provide musical harmony to "sing" the Scripture, which aids in memorization. The way the words are pronounced (based on the cantillation marks) therefore provides key logic markers on how to understand the verse.

For example, the command to "hear" is in direct harmonic parallel to the words "the Lord our God." Please click here, and then click here. (Please note that the two Tipcha disjunctive accents occur in parallel, since the verse is divided in half by the Atnach accent.) Please note therefore that on each side of the verse, the Tipcha accent (please see the red arrows) falls on the word for "hear" and on the words "the Lord our God."

So when heard in proper cantillation, the word "Israel" would be subsumed logically to "hear" (as indicated by the blue colored box here).

But the words "the Lord our God" would occur on the same note as "hear," and therefore the logical inference is Hear the Lord our God (because of the parallel Tipcha accents).

Finally, the words "the Lord is one" would be subsumed logically to "the Lord our God" (as indicated by the blue colored box here).

Thus the key thought of the verse --according to the musical annotations and accentuation within the Masoretic Text-- has to do therefore with listening to the Lord. In Biblical Hebrew, the verb to listen often appears in the context of obedience (i.e., "listening to the voice" of someone).

In summary, the Masoretic Text provides guidance for public readers of the Scripture, so that when the Scripture is read aloud (as in the case of this verse), an accent note, which is sung, occurs on both Tipchas in equal stress and cantillation force, so that the listeners will place both the "hear" and "the Lord our God" in logical parallel.

Addendum

The question is asked in the comments, What is the Lord saying in Deuteronomy 6:4?

Answer: Obey (the voice of) the Lord. This answer stems from direct discussion found in the Babylonian Talmud.

In the Tractate Berakhot ("Blessings" in Talmud) we find guidance regarding the Shema (a section of the Torah recited as part of prayer), the Amidah (Silent prayer), and Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals). All three of these areas come into focus on whether the deaf-mute can "speak" and "hear" the Shema, and the answer is YES.

In other words, the Shema has as much to do with "speaking and listening" as is OBEYING, of which the rabbis contend the deaf-mute is capable. The OBEYING is therefore the emphasis. That is, what value would be the oneness of the Lord, if in fact you do not obey his voice?

In Berakhot 2:3, I.1.A, several rabbis discussed the rules of the Shema in the context of a deaf-mute. For example, the deaf-mute was not allowed to provide the heave-offering, but if he did so, the offering was acceptable. Since prayers after meals in silence were acceptable, and since the Shema could be recited in silence (but while standing), the deaf-mute could "speak" the Shema silently to himself.

The Talmud in this context concludes as follows...

“Matters follow the intention of the heart [and not what your lips speak, so one need not actually say the Shema audibly].”

In other words, what you do is just as important as what you say. The rabbis had thus contended "following teaching on Tannaite authority" that if the deaf-mute can obey the voice of the Lord through his actions (without "hearing" and "speaking" the Shema de novo), then this person is de facto "hearing" the Shema and is de facto "speaking" the Shema through his actions. Please click here to read this relevant portion of the Babylonian Talmud in English, which is cited from Neuser (2011).

In summary, the actions (of the deaf-mute who recites the Shema in his heart in silence, for example) will "speak" louder than spoken words of someone who actually hears and recites the Shema audibly, but who does not obey the Lord.

REFERENCE:
Neusner, J. (2011). The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Vol. 1). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 95-97.

  • And what is the Lord saying? – seebiscuit Dec 17 '14 at 3:50
  • @Seebiscuit - Kindly see my addendum comments to answer your question. Thanks. – Joseph Dec 18 '14 at 23:43

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