Deuteronomy 6:4--The Shema
While the Shema has been seen as a declaration of absolute monotheism, it has other meanings in its biblical and liturgical contexts.
This article explores three possible interpretations of the Hebrew words and syntax of Deuteronomy 6:4. Some scholars disagree with the author’s tentative conclusion regarding the most likely meaning of this verse. For example, Dr. Stephen Geller of the Jewish Theological Seminary understands the word "one" to imply superiority of power--as in, "YHVH is #1"!--rather than as a statement regarding monotheism. Reprinted from The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy with permission of the Jewish Publication Society.
What Do the Words Mean?
The precise meaning of the Shema is uncertain. The four Hebrew words "YHVH eloheinu YHVH ehad" literally mean "YHVH our God YHVH one." Since Hebrew does not have a present‑tense verb meaning "is" to link subject and predicate, the link must be supplied by the listener or reader. Where to do so depends on context and is sometimes uncertain. Grammatically, "YHVH our God YHVH one" could be rendered in several ways, such as (1) "YHVH is our God, YHVH alone"; (2) "the LORD our God, the LORD is one" (lit. "YHVH our God, YHVH is one"); (3) "YHVH our God is one YHVH."
(1) YHVH is Our God, YHVH Alone
The first possibility, which is followed in the NJPS (new Jewish Publication Society) translation, is based on [the interpretations of medieval commentators] Ibn Ezra and Rashbam. One difficulty with this interpretation is that Hebrew normally expresses "alone" with levad, as in "You alone [levadekha] are God of all the kingdoms of the earth" (2 Kings 19:15, 19; and Psalm 86:10). A few passages have been found in which ehad seems to have this meaning, but the usage is at best rare.
There is also a serious syntactic difficulty with this interpretation: it interprets the words "YHVH our God" (YHVH eloheinu) as a subject and a predicate, meaning "YHVH is our God." Although this usage is grammatically possible (see 2 Chronicles 13:10), it is rare in the Bible and absolutely anomalous in Deuteronomy, where YHVH eloheinu occurs nearly two dozen times, consistently as a fixed phrase meaning "YHVH our God." Still, this interpretation seems to be presupposed by Zechariah 14 [Zechariah 14:9 reads: "And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one Lord with one name."]. If so, it is the only interpretation that was demonstrably held in biblical times.
(2) YHVH Our God, YHVH is One
The old and familiar translation "the LORD our God, the LORD is one" (2) makes the verse a statement about the nature of God Himself, namely that He is one. This might mean that He is unique (incomparable) or that He is indivisible, that He does not consist of multiple deities (the latter idea is also expressed by translation (3). This translation, however, is problematic because it leaves the second YHVH superfluous; "YHVH our God is one" would have sufficed.