Traditional Commentaries on the Shema

Commentaries on the three paragraphs of the Shema read Jewish concepts both out of and into the text.

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This collection of traditional comments on the three paragraphs of the Shema illustrates the kind of associative readings that have had an impact on Jewish theology and on traditional practice.

"Hear, O Israel": R. Shimon ben Lakish said: And Jacob called to his sons and said, "Gather yourselves together that I may tell you what will happen in the future."… Jacob became faint and thought, "Perhaps one of my children is unfit, like Abraham who had Ishmael or like my Isaac who had Esau." His sons answered him, "Hear, O Israel (referring to Jacob by his other name), the Lord our God, the Lord is One…Just as there is only One in your heart, so there is only One in our heart!" At that moment, Jacob responded, "Blessed be the name of God's glorious kingdom for ever and ever!"

-- Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 56a

the shema"the Lord our God, the Lord is One": Trying to teach that both fear and love should be directed toward God, the true Torah had to engender the belief in a single God first…and that God is the root, the source of all that exists and comes into existence, of what we regard and call 'good' as well as what we consider and call 'evil.'

-- Meir Loeb ben Jehiel Michael, known as the Malbim (1809–1879)

"You shall love the Lord your God": means that because of you the Name of Heaven will become beloved. That is, when a person studies Bible and Mishnah and ministers to the needs of the teachers of Torah, and speaks gently with other people, and deals properly with others in the marketplace, and conducts his business honestly, what do people say about him? "Happy is the one who studied Torah; happy is the teacher who taught this one Torah…"

-- Abaye, in the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86a

"With all your soul": The Rabbis taught: Once the evil kingdom [of Rome] decreed that the Jews may not engage in Torah study. Pappus ben Yehudah found R. Akiva teaching Torah in public to large groups. He said to him, "Akiva, are you not afraid of the authorities?"… When the Romans took R. Akiva to execute him, it was time for the reading of the shema. They were tearing his flesh with iron combs, and he was reciting the shema. His students said to him, "Master, must one go so far?" He said to them, "All my life I was troubled by the verse 'With all your soul,' which I understood as 'even if God takes your soul,' and I wondered about when I would have the opportunity to fulfill it? Now that I have the opportunity, shall I not fulfill it?

-- Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 61b

"And you shall teach them to your children": for the future generations are obligated to fulfill the Torah just like those who received it, and according to our sages of blessed memory, [the future generations] were there [at Sinai] as it says, "[And not with you alone will I make this covenant and this oath; but with those who stand here with us this day before the Lord our God] and also to those who are not here with us today" (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.