web analytics
April 18, 2014 / 18 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance
Judaism
Sponsored Post
Spa 1.2 Combining Modern Living in Traditional Jerusalem

A unique and prestigious residential project in now being built in Mekor Haim Street in Jerusalem.



The Meanings Of Shema


Share Button

It would be reasonable to assume that a language that contains the verb “to command” must also contain the verb “to obey.” The one implies the other, just as the concept of a question implies the possibility of an answer. We would, however, be wrong. There are 613 commandments in the Torah, but there is no word in biblical Hebrew that means “to obey.” When Hebrew was revived as a language of everyday speech in the nineteenth century, a word, letsayet, had to be borrowed from Aramaic. Until then there was no Hebrew word for “to obey.”

This is an astonishing fact and not everyone was aware of it. It led some Christians (and secularists) to misunderstand the nature of Judaism: very few Christian thinkers fully appreciated the concept of mitzvah and the idea that God might choose to reveal Himself in the form of laws. It also led some Jews to think about mitzvot in a way more appropriate to Islam (the word “Islam” means “submitting” to God’s law) than to Judaism. What word does the Torah use as the appropriate response to a mitzvah? Shema.

The root “sh-m-a” is a keyword in the book of Deuteronomy, where it occurs 92 times, usually in the sense of what God wants from us in response to the commandments. But the verb “sh-m-a” means many things. Here are some of the meanings it has in Genesis:

1) “To hear,” as in “Abram heard that his relative [Lot] had been taken captive” (14:14).

2) “To listen, pay attention, heed,” as in “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree” (3:17) and “Then Rachel said: ‘God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son’ ” (30:7).

3) “To understand,” as in “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other” (11:7). This is how tradition understood the later phrase, “na’aseh v’nishma” (Exodus 24:7) to mean, “First we will do, then understand.”

4) “To be willing to obey,” as in the angel’s words to Abraham after the binding of Isaac: “Through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you were willing to obey me” (22:18). Abraham was about to obey God’s command but at the last moment an angel said, “Stop.”

5) “To respond in deed, to do what someone else wants” as in “Do whatever Sarah tells you” (shema bekolah, 21:12). It is in this last sense that it comes closest in meaning to “obey.”

The fact that sh-m-a means all these things suggests that in the Torah there is no concept of blind obedience. In general, a commander orders and a soldier obeys. A slave-owner orders and the slave obeys. There is no active thought process involved. The connection between the word of the commander and the deed of the commanded is one of action-and-reaction, stimulus-and-response. For practical purposes, the soldier or slave has no mind of his own. As Tennyson described the attitude of the soldiers before the Charge of the Light Brigade: “Ours not to reason why; ours but to do or die.”

That is not how the Torah conceives the relationship between God and us. God, who created us in His image, giving us freedom and the power to think, wants us to understand His commands. Ralbag (Gersonides, 1288-1344) argues that it is precisely this that makes the Torah different:

Behold our Torah is unique among all the other doctrines and religions that other nations have had, in that our Torah contains nothing that does not originate in equity and reason. Therefore this Divine Law attracts people in virtue of its essence, so that they behave in accordance with it. The laws and religions of other nations are not like this. They do not conform to equity and wisdom, but are foreign to the nature of man, and people obey them because of compulsion, out of fear of the threat of punishment but not because of their essence.”

Along similar lines the modern scholar David Weiss Halivni speaks of “the Jewish predilection for justified law,” and contrasts this with other cultures in the ancient world:

Ancient law in general is apodictic, without justification and without persuasion. Its style is categorical, demanding, and commanding … Ancient Near Eastern law in particular is devoid of any trace of desire to convince or to win hearts. It enjoins, prescribes, and orders, expecting to be heeded solely on the strength of being an official decree. It solicits no consent (through justification) from those to whom it is directed.

The Torah uses at least three devices to show that Jewish law is not arbitrary, a mere decree. First, especially evident throughout the book of Devarim, is the giving of reasons for the commands. Often, though not always, the reason has to do with the experience of the Israelites in Egypt. They know what it feels like to be oppressed, to be a stranger, an outsider. I want you to create a different kind of society, says God through Moses, where slavery is more limited, where everyone is free one day a week, where the poor do not go hungry, and the powerless are not denied justice.

Share Button

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

No Responses to “The Meanings Of Shema”

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
Flyers ordered Jews to appear at a designated location in Ukraine, in Sept., 1941. The next day, the Jews lined up at the Babi Yar Ravine.
‘Jews Must Register’ Flyer in Ukraine an Echo of Babi Yar
Latest Judaism Stories
Reiss-041814-King

Amazingly, each and every blade was green and moist as if it was just freshly cut.

PTI-041814

All the commentaries ask why Hashem focuses on the Exodus as opposed to saying, “I am Hashem who created the entire world.”

Leff-041814

Someone who focuses only on the bones of the Torah makes his bones dry and passionless.

The following is President Obama’s statement on Passover (April 14, 2014). As he has in the past, the President held an official Passover Seder at the White House. Michelle and I send our warmest greetings to all those celebrating Passover in the United States, in Israel, and around the world. On Tuesday, just as we […]

The tendency to rely on human beings rather than G-d has been our curse throughout the centuries.

“Who is wise? One who learns from each person” (Pirkei Avot 4:1)

In Judaism, to be without questions is a sign not of faith, but of lack of depth.

“I’ll try to help as we can,” said Mr. Goodman, “but we already made a special appeal this year. Let me see what other funds we have. I’ll be in touch with you in a day or two.”

Rashi is bothered by the expression Hashem used: “the Jews need only travel.”

Reckoning Time
‘Three Festivals, Even Out Of Order’
(Beizah 19b)

Two husbands were there to instruct us in Texas hold ‘em – and we needed them.

Question: Why do we start counting sefirat ha’omer in chutz la’aretz on the second night of Pesach when the omer in the times of the Beit Hamikdash was cut on Chol HaMoed?

M. Goldman
(Via E-Mail)

A few background principles regarding the prohibitions of chametz mixtures on Pesach may provide some shopping guidance.

According to the Rambam, the k’nas applies to any chametz on Pesach with which one could, in theory, transgress the aveirah – even if no transgression actually occurred.

She was followed by the shadows of the Six Million, by the ever so subtle awareness of their vanished presence.

More Articles from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Sacks

In Judaism, to be without questions is a sign not of faith, but of lack of depth.

Rabbi Sacks

You perpetuate a transformative event by turning it into a ritual.

There is much in this episode that is hard to understand, much that has to do with the concept of holiness and the powerful energies it released that, like nuclear power today, could be deadly dangerous if not properly used. But there is also a more human story about two approaches to leadership that still resonates with us today.

Nasi is the generic word for a leader: a ruler, king, judge, elder, or prince. Usually it refers to the holder of political power.

The account of the construction of the Tabernacle in Vayakhel-Pekudei is built around the number seven.

Vayakhel is Moses’ response to the wild abandon of the crowd that gathered around Aaron and made the golden calf.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you fail. Such is life.

In Judaism, monarchy had little or no religious function.

    Latest Poll

    Now that Kerry's "Peace Talks" are apparently over, are you...?







    View Results

    Loading ... Loading ...

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/halacha-hashkafa/the-meanings-of-shema/2012/09/05/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: