The Shema

Three biblical passages work together to create a model for remaining faithful to a belief in God and in God's unity.

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You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.


jewish liturgy quizBy using the term love, the text implies that these truths can be fulfilled less through cognitive affirmation than through relationship. This is a relationship that passionately transcends legal obligation and demands the mobilization of all the dimensions and resources of one's being. The question now becomes: How is this love preserved and guaranteed? The answer: by intentional, structured mindfulness. Children must be actively taught and rehearsed in the truths of God's ways rather than being left to the vagaries of nature. The adult, too, must not trust his or her nature; one must purposefully undertake to recall to mind God's unity within the coordinates of everyday life: morning and evening, at home and on the road.

Symbols play an important role in this mnemonic regimen. The tefillin, the phylacteries, on hand and forehead, and the mezuzah affixed to the doorpost, are in themselves the source of no totemic powers. They are concrete signs that remind one of larger truths. The function of the commandments as spurs to consciousness is elaborated in the third paragraph of the Shema (Numbers 15:37-42), which mandates and describes the wearing of tzitzit, fringes on garments. The middle paragraph (Deuteronomy 11:13-22) is monitory in tone: it warns that the enjoyment of God's grace, especially material prosperity and secure residence in the land of Israel, is absolutely contingent upon obedience to God's will as expressed through the commandments.

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Alan Mintz

Alan Mintz is the Chana Kekst Professor of Hebrew Literature and chair of the Department of Hebrew Language at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Dr. Mintz joined the JTS faculty in June 2001 after ten years at Brandeis University as the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature.