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.