The Shema: Instructions for a Romance with YHWH
The Shema is taken from the book of Deuteronomy, and named after the first word of the passage:
דברים ו:ד שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְ־הוָה אֶחָד.
Deut 6:4 Hear, O Israel! YHWH is our God, YHWH alone.
Following this introductory verse, the text continues with a paragraph (Deut 6:5–9), whose unity is clear in grammatical structuring, with all five verses ending with a second person singular suffix:
V. 5: מְאֹדֶךָ (meʾodecha), “your might”
V. 6: לְבָבֶךָ (levavecha), “your heart”
V. 7: וּבְקוּמֶךָ (u-vequmecha), “when you get up”
V. 8: עֵינֶיךָ (ʿenecha), “your eyes”
V. 9: וּבִשְׁעָרֶיךָ (u-vishʿarecha), “your gates”
In addition, multiple ך endings (16 out of 42 words) and the pervasive sound of the letter ב (twenty-four times), give the section a rhythmic quality and phonological cohesion. These are all external, formal signs of unity.
The Threefold Demand
The passage also has an internal, conceptual unity. Verse 5 presents a threefold demand to love God:
דברים ו:ה וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ.
Deut 6:5 You shall love YHWH your God with all your heart (leivav) and with all your soul (nefesh) and with all your might (meʾod).
The opening verb form, ve-ahavta, rather than the imperative ehov, allows the prefixed vav to be taken as purposive. Walter Moberly, Professor of Theology at Durham University, argues that the form may be translated “so you shall love,” in other words, the love reflects a consequence rather than a commandment. The text is saying that by adhering to the program described in the following verses, you shall come to love God. The striving for love can awaken the capacity to love.
The rest of the verse serves as a topic sentence for a corresponding threefold explication in the following verses—drawn from the key terms heart (לֵבָב, leivav), soul (נֶפֶשׁ, nefesh), and might (מְאֹד, meʾod)—that spells out the implementation of the command.
The first demand, “love... with all your leivav,” corresponds to the next verse:
דברים ו:ו וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל לְבָבֶךָ.
Deut 6:6 And these words that I command you this day shall be on your leivav.
The phrase, “these words,” could refer to the Decalogue quoted in the previous chapter, or just to the Shema passage (Deut 6:4–9). Beyond just the literal meaning of “heart,” leivav (or leiv) bears a range of meanings. The term can refer to a mental state, such as in the expression (Deut 8:5), וְיָדַעְתָּ עִם לְבָבֶךָ “bear in mind,” and would thus express being totally mindful (of YHWHʾs teachings). The word can also refer to a feeling, such as in the expression (Deut 28:47), בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְטוּב לֵבָב “in joy and gladness,” and would then express loving God wholeheartedly or unreservedly.
By using a single term for thought and feeling, both mind and emotion are enlisted in an all-consuming love. “With all your leivav” can thus also imply that one is to love God with every meaning of leivav.
The biblical nefesh, literally “soul,” also has more than one connotation. It can refer to a living person, i.e., a body, such as when the king of Sodom asks Abram to return his people (Gen 14:21), תֶּן לִי הַנֶּפֶשׁ וְהָרְכֻשׁ קַח לָךְ “give me the persons and take the possessions for yourself.” Indeed, in the context of the larger prayer, rather than treating the first two commands in verse 4—to love with your “heart and soul”—as expressing an emotional intensity, they should be understood as referring to “mind and body” to reflect the total person.
The word can also refer to desires, such as in the phrase (Deut 12:15), בְּכָל אַוַּת נַפְשְׁךָ “whenever you desire.” Encompassing both connotations, nefesh can be understood as the self or one’s life-force. “With all your nefesh” thus implies with every meaning of nefesh.
The Shema passage stretches this meaning further by having “all your nefesh” correspond to the command to pass on the love of God to one’s children (v. 7), one’s own flesh and blood:
דברים ו:ז וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ וּבְקוּמֶךָ.
Deut 6:7 Inculcate your children with them by talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.
Then, the text commands marking this love on one’s own body, which also builds on the concept of nefesh:
דברים ו:ח וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת עַל יָדֶךָ וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ.
Deut 6:8 Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as frontlets on your forehead (lit. between your eyes).
Thus, the second demand in verse 4, “Love... with all your nefesh,” corresponds to both verses 7 (progeny) and 8 (body). If it just said “with your nefesh” it would indicate yourself; “all your nefesh” indicates your nefesh and more, namely, your children which are derivative of your body and soul and more.
Meʾod, “very,” is almost always used adverbially to denote exceedingly and, since it comes third here, superlatively. Thus, the threefold commandment to love God climaxes with the demand that the love of God be maximized with “all your very-ness,” namely, to your utmost. Meʾod is usually translated as “might” or “means,” i.e., “with your all” or “with all that you have” respectively. Each translation of this word connects with a different verse of the Shema unit.
Meʾod as “might” carries a sense of “with all your physical resources.” It connects to the tefillin of verse 8 (quoted above), since the hand tefillin epitomizes the harnessing of one’s strength in the love of God, following the model in which the tefillin constitutes a memento of God’s mighty hand at the Exodus:
שׁמות יג:ט וְהָיָה לְךָ לְאוֹת עַל יָדְךָ וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת יְ־הוָה בְּפִיךָ כִּי בְּיָד חֲזָקָה הוֹצִאֲךָ יְ־הוָֹה מִמִּצְרָיִם.
Exod 13:9 And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead—in order that the Teaching of YHWH may be in your mouth—that with a mighty hand YHWH freed you from Egypt.
Meʾod as “means” reflects the idea of “with all your financial resources,” and thus connects to verse 9, with its demand that the home, one’s quintessential possession and financial investment, be dedicated to the love of God.
דברים ו:ט וּכְתַבְתָּם עַל מְזוּזֹת בֵּיתֶךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶיךָ.
Deut 6:9 Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Thus, the demand, “Love... with all your meʾod,” corresponds to verses 8–9, and implies with every meaning of meʾod.
Overlapping Meanings to Express Interconnectedness and Totality
The use of polysemic terms—words with multiple, related meanings—for the threefold love of God, ties the verses together by creating overlap. The correlations of Deuteronomy 6:5 with verses 6–9 can be charted as follows:
Verse 6 focuses on thought (“shall be on your leivav”), 7 on speech (“you shall talk about them”), and 8 and 9 on deed (“you shall bind them... and write them”). Taken together, verses 6–9 spell out what is entailed in the total love of God: heart and mind, body and soul, progeny, as well as physical and financial resources are all included. integration.
The self is totally mobilized for the love of God, a love that is unreserved, all-demanding, at all times, in all places, and in all circumstance or positions. Nothing is excluded; thoughts are to be focused, words are to be spoken, and deeds are to be done.
A Romance with God
Precisely because the love of God demands one’s all, the master image can be a romantic one. Romantic love is exhaustive. It peaks in giving more than it has. Seeking constant engagement, it is marked by incessant and ubiquitous give and take. Its mementos and ornaments literally adorn both body and house. The love described in the Songs of Songs says it best:
שיר השירים ח:ו שִׂימֵנִי כַחוֹתָם עַל לִבֶּךָ כַּחוֹתָם עַל זְרוֹעֶךָ כִּי עַזָּה כַמָּוֶת אַהֲבָה קָשָׁה כִשְׁאוֹל קִנְאָה...
Song 8:6 Set me as seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave...
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Prof. Rabbi Reuven Kimelman is Professor of Classical Judaica at Brandeis University and rabbi of Beth Abraham Sephardic Congregation of New England, Brookline, MA. He holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in religious studies. He is the author of The Mystical Meaning of ‘Lekhah Dodi’ and Kabbalat Shabbat’ and the forthcoming The Rhetoric of the Jewish Liturgy: A Historical and Literary Commentary on the Prayer Book. His audio course books are The Hidden Poetry of the Jewish Prayer Book and The Moral Meaning of the Bible.
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