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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-- Rabbi Hizkiyah Hizkuni (13th century)

"Do not follow after your heart and after your eyes": Lest a person think that it is impermissible to experience corporeality and that one must only walk, day and night, involved in Torah and the commandments, therefore Torah says, it is not thus, for "do not follow after your hearts…according to your desires." The explanation is that in truth, you do desire these [corporeal] things. But the word "desire" (zonim) is from the word for food (mazon), as it is explained in the case of Rahav the harlot (zonah) in her inn (cf. Targum Yonatan on Joshua 2:1). That is to say, you are permitted, and indeed you must be fed (nizon) by them, and enjoy all of the delights of this world. Only do not let the lusts (ta'avah) of your heart and your eyes become a bodily craving which would lead you to come to a house of prostitution and to expand your "food" to the lusts of your heart.

-- Sefer Be'er Mayim Hayyim of Hayyim ben Solomon Tyrer of Czernowitz (c. 1760–1816)

"So that you remember (tizk'ru) and do all of my commandments": Our sages of blessed memory explained that it is obligatory when reciting the shema in the morning and the evening to emphasize the "z" sound of the letter zayin in the word "tizk'ru." And the reason for this is so that we do not confuse ourselves with the word and that it not be thought of as tisk'ru which is from the root meaning "payment", for one is not to perform the commandments in order to receive a reward.

-- Rabbenu Bahya

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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.