Shema Yisrael: In What Way Is “YHWH One”?
The Shema: A Survey of Traditional and Contemporary Approaches
One of the first things a traditional Jewish child learns is the recitation of the Shema and ideally it is the last thing we say before surrendering our soul to the Almighty. Its words are well known (Deut 6:4):
Hear, O Israel:
YHWH (is) our God,
YHWH (is) one (or: alone)
The syntax of the statement is quite strange. As Jeffrey Tigay points out, the lack of a present tense linking verb in Hebrew (i.e., “is, am, and are”) makes for many possible readings of this text. More difficult is the question of what it means to say that YHWH is “one.” “One” as opposed to many? Thus, it is not surprising that both traditional commentators as well as contemporary scholars offer many different interpretations.
1. YHWH is the Only God: Monotheism
Most of us understand this line as Judaism’s credo of monotheism. Although this is not the traditional rabbinic interpretation of the verse, some contemporary commentaries with a traditional bent interpret the phrase this way. Aharon Mirsky (1914-2001), for example, writes the following (Da’at Miqra, ad loc.):
ה’ אחד – יחיד ואין עוד מלבדו. אחד, ואין עמו אל אחר. האומר בכתוב הזה הוא יסוד ושרש האמונה של עם ישראל, עליה הרגנו כל היום, ולא זזנו ממנה מאז עוד היום הזה ועד עולם.
Hashem is one – the only, and there is no other but him (Deut 4:35). He is one, and no other god exists alongside him (Deut 32:12). That which is written in this verse is the foundation and root of Israel’s faith. For this principle, we have been killed over the years, but we have not budged from it from then until now and never will.
Mirsky argues here that the Shema is Deuteronomy’s declaration of Israel’s monotheism, which he supports with other verses in Deuteronomy which declare Israel’s monotheism. Though he may be correct about Deuteronomy’s monotheism—the matter is debated in scholarship—the question is not whether Deuteronomy is monotheistic, but whether theShema is a monotheistic credo. In order to read it this way, the word eḥad must be translated as if it says “the only one,” which is not what it says.
2. YHWH Is Indivisible – The Nature of God
A number of medieval rabbis took a philosophical approach to this verse, understanding theShema as a claim about the nature of God. Since God is not physical, God has no parts and is indivisible, and thus “one.” Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) codifies this understanding of the verse in his Book of Mitzvot:
המצוה ב’ היא הצווי שצונו בהאמנת היחוד והוא שנאמין שפועל המציאות וסבתו הראשונה אחד, והוא אמרו ית’ שמע ישראל י’י אלהינו י’י אחד.
The second mitzvah – By this injunction we are commanded to believe in the unity of God; that is to say, to believe that the Creator of all things in existence and their First Cause is One. This injunction is contained in His words (exalted be He), “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
This interpretation, however, reflects medieval philosophical thinking, not biblical thinking; the idea of God as a non-physical entity is not biblical.
3. YHWH Will Be One – Eschaton Approach
The classical rabbinic approach was to read this verse as a prediction about the future, namely that at the end of days, YHWH will be accepted by all people as the one God. Rashi, for instance, writes:
י”י שהוא אלהינו עתה ואינו אלהי האומות עתיד להיות י”י אחד, אז יהפך אל עמים שפה ברורה, ונאמר: ביום ההוא יהיה י”י אחד ושמו אחד.
The Lord, who is now our God and not the God of other nations, will in the future will be one Lord, for then the peoples will be made to have pure speech (Zeph 3:9), and it says (Zech 14:9), “on that day the Lord will be one and his name One.”
Rashi buttresses his interpretation by quoting other biblical verses about the universal recognition of YHWH in the end of days:
כִּי אָז אֶהְפֹּךְ אֶל עַמִּים שָׂפָה בְרוּרָה לִקְרֹא כֻלָּם בְּשֵׁם יְ-הוָה לְעָבְדוֹ שְׁכֶם אֶחָד.
For then I will make the peoples pure of speech, So that they all invoke YHWH by name And serve Him with one accord.
וְהָיָה יְ-הוָה לְמֶלֶךְ עַל כָּל הָאָרֶץ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִהְיֶה יְ-הוָה אֶחָד וּשְׁמוֹ אֶחָד.
And YHWH shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one YHWH with one name.
The choice of Zechariah as an intertext makes good sense, since it uses the same phrase “YHWH eḥad.” In fact, Zechariah may even be interpreting the Shema here. Nevertheless, it is very unlikely that this is the meaning in Deuteronomy. Zechariah and Zephaniah are both explicitly speaking about some future event. Deuteronomy, however, is speaking about the present. Moses tells the Israelites that YHWH (is) one, and that this is how they must act/believe now; Moses’ message is not a prophecy about how the nations of the world will act/believe at some future point.
4. YHWH Alone Is Our God: A Declaration of Loyalty
A fourth interpretation of the verse is to read it as a declaration of loyalty to YHWH. The verse is not saying that YHWH is the only God in the world but that YHWH is Israel’s only God, and that Israel promises exclusive worship of this God. Such an interpretation highlights the pronoun “our” in the verse’s middle phrase: “YHWH is Our God.”
Rashbam (R. Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1158) may be the first to have suggested this reading:
ה’ אלהינו ה’ אחד – ה’ הוא לבדו אלהינו ואין לנו אלוה אחר עמו. וכן בדברי הימים: ואנחנו ה’ אלהינו ולא עזבנוהו – כלומר, עימכם עגלי זהב אבל אנו ה’ הוא אלהינו ולא עזבנו אותו כבית ירבעם, שאתם משתחוים להם
YHWH alone is our God, and we do not have another god with Him. And thus (2 Chr. 13:10), “But [as for] us, YHWH is our God, and we have not forsaken Him.” Meaning, with them are golden calves, but [as for] us, YHWH is our God, and we have not forsaken Him like the house of Jeroboam, which worshipped them (the golden calves).
Acknowledging Rashbam’s interpretation, Jeffrey Tigay takes a very similar approach in his preferred interpretation:
The verse [Deut 6:4] is a description of the proper relationship between YHVH and Israel: He alone is Israel’s God. This is not a declaration of monotheism, meaning that there is only one God. That point was made in 4:35 and 39, which state that “YHVH alone is God.” The present verse, by adding the word “our,” focuses on the way Israel is to apply that truth: though other peoples worship various beings and things they consider divine (see comment to 3:24), Israel is to recognize YHVH alone.
The problem with this interpretation—and Tigay notes this problem explicitly—is that the verse does not say “YHWH alone (לבדו),” it says “YHWH (is) One (אחד).”
5. YHWH Is Unique: A Poetic Compliment
Comparative study of similar formulas in the ANE literature reveals that cultures that worshiped many gods would use a similar formula with regard to their deities to emphasize a great god’s uniqueness or “aloneness.” Moshe Weinfeld explains:
That oneness in reference to a god involves aloneness may be learned from a proclamation about the god Enlil in a Sumerian dedication inscription:
“Enlil is the Lord of heaven and earth, he is king alone”
The parallel here is quite striking. As Weinfeld points out, the Sumerian word translated above as “alone” (aš.ni) literally means “his oneness.”
Weinfeld further notes that we find the same claim in Ugaritic literature about Baal, in the Baal Cycle:
I myself am the one who reigns over the gods (CTA 4:7, ln. 49).
The word translated as “myself” is אחד, the same word for “one” as in Hebrew. (Ugaritic is very close to Hebrew, and of particular utility in understanding Hebrew words.) Similar statements can be found about the Egyptian god, Amun; for example, in this 13th century BCE hymn:
One is Amun, who keeps himself concealed from them, who hides himself from the gods, no one knowing his nature.
Weinfeld notes that the same expression about “oneness” is a part of the Latin Mysteries, popular in Roman times:
Isis who is all; Hermes all alone and one; One is Zeus Sarapis…”
An ANE Liturgical Confession
How are we to understand the relationship between all these declaration in polytheistic cultures and the Shema in Deuteronomy? Weinfeld summarizes:
All these pagan proclamations cannot of course be seen as monotheistic; yet they are of a hymnic-liturgical nature. By the same token, Deut 6:4 is a kind of liturgical confessional proclamation and by itself cannot be seen as monotheistic.
According to this interpretation, the statement here is a poetic compliment to YHWH emphasizing his uniqueness akin, to the statements made by Egyptians about Amun, Sumerians about Enlil, and the Canaanites of Ugarit about Baal.
This interpretation is plausible. Nevertheless, reading the Shema against the backdrop of ANE literature, another use of the phrase “god X is one,” especially prominent in the time Deuteronomy was being composed (8th-7th centuries) suggests itself.
A New Historical and Contextual Approach to the Shema
Assigning Numbers to Deities
Ancient Mesopotamian religion had a long tradition of assigning numeric values to their principal deities. These numbers were regarded as epithets, i.e., a kind of nickname for a god akin to “the Merciful One” or “the Holy One” in Jewish tradition for God, or “the Radiant one” in Greek tradition for the sun-god, Helios. Benjamin R. Foster explains how the number-based epithets worked:
Some deities were ranked numerically by [ancient] Mesopotamian scholars in that they wrote numerical substitutions instead of spelling the gods’ names. In this approach, Anu was given the highest number, 60 (the basis for Mesopotamian sexigesimal mathematics), as most important; Enlil 50, Enki 40, Sin 30, Shamash 20, Ishtar 15, Girra 10, and Adad 6, though variations occur.
These particular numbers, with 60 being the most exalted, were used from the Sumerian period (3rd millennium B.C.E.) all the way through the Hellenistic period (late 1st millennium B.C.E.).
Anu is One/Ashur is One/YHWH is One
Robert R. Stieglitz notes that in this sexigesmal system, 60 also equals 1, its reciprocal. Thus, the head of the pantheon, was described as One. Among the Sumerians, this honor went to Anu, the god of the heavens. For the Assyrians, their national god, Ashur was One. This might be what the Shema is expressing here, that YHWH is One, i.e., the top god.
Moreover, in the context of Judah being an Assyrian vassal state, such a phrase may have had a dual meaning. A look at some important details regarding the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Judah’s place in it will make the point clear.
Assyrian National Syncretism
During the ascendency of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-605 B.C.E.) the Assyrian national deity, Ashur (Aššur), was identified with the head of the (Sumerian/Akkadian) pantheon, Enlil. In other words, the Assyrians supplanted Enlil with worship of Ashur by paying lip service to the importance of Enlil as head of the gods, but claimed that Ashur himself was Enlil and that Ashur was the proper manifestation of Enlil to worship.
Ashur Replaces Marduk
Similarly, the Assyrians attempted to replace the Babylonian god Marduk with Ashur, even holding an Akitu (new year) festival, complete with the reading of Enuma Elish in Assyria, but with Ashur in place of Marduk as the protagonist.
Indeed, it seems that at least some Assyrians believed Ashur to be the only god worth worshiping. Assyriologist Simo Parpola goes so far as to say they were monotheists:
[B]elief in the existence of a single omnipotent God dominated the Assyrian state religion, royal ideology, philosophy and mystery cults to the extent that Assyrian religion in its imperial elaboration, with all its polytheistic garb, must be regarded as essentially monotheistic…. the basic equation underlying the Assyrian concept of god was “God” = “(all) the gods.” This formula implies a distinction between a transcendent universal God – the supreme god of the empire and the only true God – and his powers and attributes, hypostatized as different “gods.”
However that one understands the exact nature of Ashur in Assyrian theology—and there were likely multiple interpretations of this—all other gods were either manifestations of Ashur or lesser gods subservient to him.
Subservience: Ashur “Defeats” YHWH
Whereas syncretism was how the Assyrians dealt with gods they considered particularly important, the gods of most of Assyria’s conquered provinces were treated as weak or subservient to Ashur. This seems to have been the case with regard to Judah’s god, YHWH as we see in the biblical depiction of Sennacherib’s campaign against Judah (701 B.C.E.), during which one of his officials (the Rav-Shakeh) delivered a message to King Hezekiah:
מלכים ב יט:י כֹּה תֹאמְרוּן אֶל חִזְקִיָּהוּ מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה לֵאמֹר אַל יַשִּׁאֲךָ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בֹּטֵחַ בּוֹ לֵאמֹר לֹא תִנָּתֵן יְרוּשָׁלִַם בְּיַד מֶלֶךְ אַשּׁוּר. יט:יא הִנֵּה אַתָּה שָׁמַעְתָּ אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ מַלְכֵי אַשּׁוּר לְכָל הָאֲרָצוֹת לְהַחֲרִימָם וְאַתָּה תִּנָּצֵל. יט:יב הַהִצִּילוּ אֹתָם אֱלֹהֵי הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר שִׁחֲתוּ אֲבוֹתַי אֶת גּוֹזָן וְאֶת חָרָן וְרֶצֶף וּבְנֵי עֶדֶן אֲשֶׁר בִּתְלַאשָּׂר. יט:יג אַיּוֹ מֶלֶךְ חֲמָת וּמֶלֶךְ אַרְפָּד וּמֶלֶךְ לָעִיר סְפַרְוָיִם הֵנַע וְעִוָּה.
2 Kings 19:10 “Tell this to King Hezekiah of Judah: Do not let your God, on whom you are relying, mislead you into thinking that Jerusalem will not be delivered into the hands of the king of Assyria. 11 You yourself have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the lands, how they have annihilated them; and can you escape? 12 Were the nations that my predecessors destroyed — Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the Beth-Edenites in Telassar — saved by their gods? 13 Where is the king of Hamath? And the king of Arpad? And the kings of Lair, Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah?”
In this speech, the officials make their point clear: even if Hezekiah’s god promised to save them from the Assyrians, He cannot.
The biblical story continues with Isaiah’s speech that the all-powerful YHWH will stop Sennacherib, and Jerusalem is inviolable. Although it is indeed true that Sennacherib never took Jerusalem, history played out differently than described in the Bible. Hezekiah capitulated after Sennacherib destroyed every city in Judah other than Jerusalem, paying his new Assyrian overlord a massive ransom (2 Kings 18:14). For the rest of Hezekiah’s reign, and on through the long reign of his son Manasseh, until almost the very end of the Assyrian Empire, Jerusalem remained an Assyrian vassal.
Assyrian Religious Imperialism
As a loyal vassal, Manasseh and his people were free to pursue whatever religious rites they wished; nevertheless, officially, Ashur was the chief deity of the empire. This policy was not just theoretical; Assyria required vassals to swear loyalty oaths to the emperor, invoking Ashur as their deity and the Assyrian king as their monarch. Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty which dates to 672 B.C.E. (also called the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon, VTE) includes the following required oath:
While you stand on the place of this oath, you shall not swear this oath with your lips only but shall swear it wholeheartedly; you shall teach it to your sons to be born after this treaty… In the future and forever Aššur will be your god, and Ashurbanipal (=Esarhaddon’s son), the great crown prince designate, will be your lord. May your sons and your grandsons fear him.
Ashur in Judah
Judahites (especially the elites), who would have to pay Ashur lip service along with their king would have grappled with the idea that Ashur was the supreme deity. Some Judahites would have resented this imposition, others likely embraced it, a situation likely to anger pious Judahites, dedicated to YHWH, such as the scribes of the Deuteronomic school active at this time.
Writing Deuteronomy under the Assyrians
As Baruch Levine argues, Deuteronomy is best understood against the backdrop of Assyrian domination, and this includes Deuteronomy’s conception of how Judahites should relate to YHWH. Judah’s vassalage to Assyria was actually a key factor in the forming of Deuteronomy. As many scholars have already shown, the entire book of Deuteronomy is modeled on an Assyrian vassal treaty, except in place of Ashur and the Assyrian king stands YHWH.
The core of the book of Deuteronomy is generally understood to be the “book of the Torah” found in the Temple (2 Kings 22:8) during the reign of Josiah (641-609 BCE), Manasseh’s grandson. This book was the product of a school of thought in Jerusalem that idealized the pious king Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah, their defiance against Assyria, and their loyalty to YHWH.
This school did not appear overnight during Josiah’s reign but probably functioned through much of Manasseh’s reign, while Judah was a vassal to Assyria.
Shema: A Syncretistic Claim?
The Deuteromonic School’s YHWH-alone theology clashed with the official position of Assyria, in which Ashur reigned supreme over all other gods. Nevertheless, such an outlook was not the only way Assyria related to other gods. As we saw above with regard to Enlil and Marduk, the Assyrians also made use of syncretism, saying that a given god was a manifestation of Ashur as opposed to a lesser god.
I suggest that this could have been a factor in the Deuteronomist’s phrasing of the credo, “YHWH is One,” which may express a syncretism between YHWH and Ashur, who was “One” for the Assyrians. This would allow Deuteronomic scribes who made use of Assyrian modes of expression subversively to declare YHWH’s supreme greatness while at the same time making it sound as if they were embracing Ashur.
Hear O Israel (But Not Assyrians!)
The Shema was not written for the Assyrians, of course. The formulaic phrase Shema Yisrael“Listen/Harken Oh Israel,” clarifies that the message of the Shema was aimed at a Judahite audience. Nevertheless, it may have been phrased in such a way as to have an overtly non-subversive meaning if read or heard by an Assyrian official.
To the Assyrians, the phrase “YHWH is One” may have sounded like a form of capitulation, or flattery, or even piety: the Judahites accept that their great god YHWH is merely a manifestation of Ashur. Nevertheless, for the Judahites, it meant YHWH (not Ashur!) is Number One, reminding them that that Assyrian claims to Ashur’s invincibility and superiority, were false, even if they—the Assyrians—thought otherwise based on their battlefield victories and massive building projects.
With the fall of Assyria, the pretensions to syncretism could be dropped, and YHWH could be declared the supreme deity (YHWH is number One) without calling Ashur to mind. Eventually, with the loss of this divine numbering system, the very meaning of the sentence was lost, leading to the plethora of meanings we saw above, including that which remains the most popular today, the credo of our monotheistic Judaism.
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Rabbi Daniel M. Zucker, D.D. is the Associate Rabbi at White Meadow Temple/Or Hadash in Rockaway, and President and CEO of Americans for Democracy in the Middle-East. He holds an M.A. in Hebrew Letters, a Doctor of Divinity (Honoris Causa) from JTS, and rabbinic ordination from HUC-JIR. A sampling of Zucker’s many articles on the Middle-East can be found on his blog, and he is the author of “He Said: ‘It’s an Event not Pure, for it’s not Pure!’ (I Sam. 20:26b) A Political Analysis,” published in JBQ (2016).
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