What Does “Shema” Even Mean?
“Shema” is the transliterated Hebrew word for “hear.” Thus, if you look for S-H-E-M-A in your Bible, no, you won’t find it. But if you search for the word “hear” in your Old Testament and look up the Hebrew word behind it, three letters pronounced “shema” is what you’ll find. So, is this “something that’s actually in the Bible?” You bet it is.
So why do we need to know this word? Well, we don’t really, but you will hear people referring to “the Shema” in discussion, so aside from learning the concept, it never hurts to know the terminology as well!
The Root of the Shema
Different people mean different things when they talk about “the Shema.” In Judaism, this term can refer to a liturgical prayer based on a passage of Deuteronomy. Outside of Judaism, people referring to “the Shema” are usually just referring to either the initial passage contained in the Jewish prayer or even just the first verse thereof. Here is the entire passage on which we’ll be focused for the remainder of this study:
Deuteronomy 6:4-8 Hear, O Israel! YHWH is our god. YHWH is one! You shall love YHWH, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead.
From here on out, we’ll be examining this passage and digging into exactly what it contains and why Messiah called this the greatest commandment of the entire Torah (Mark 12:29).
Identity of Our God
Reading “the Shema” or “Shema Israel,” we find something which appears so simple and yet is so incredibly important. “YHWH is our god – YHWH is one.” Now, why does this matter?
Today there are 7.X billion people in the world ALL of whom worship SOMETHING. Out of all those people, how many of them worship only one god whose name is YHWH? To give you an idea of just how exclusive this group ALREADY is (it will become more so in the next section), consider for a moment that there are 2.7 billion Christians in the world who claim to serve the god of the Bible… whom they claim is a TRINITY (not one) and whose name they believe is “God.”
In the world today (January 1, 2017), there are somewhere between six and fifteen million people who even under the most liberal terms claim to serve a god named YHWH who is one. So, given the MOST OPTIMISTIC estimate, only 0.2% of the population of planet Earth would even CLAIM to serve YHWH who is one!
Now, going back to my question in the beginning of this section, do you see why this name and number which identify our god matter so much?
What is Love?
Revisiting the Shema, after we read the identity of our god (YHWH is one), we read the command that we “love” Him. And if we wanted to paraphrase the command a bit more completely – that we “love” Him with everything we know and are and have at our disposal. The next million dollar question is, “How do we love Him?”
“Love” is a horrible word. It really is. It’s not what love means that’s bad, but rather the many, many different competing, confusing, perverted and irrelevant definitions we ourselves invent to try to explain what this word means that sours the word. But what is important for us to understand here isn’t what one of us imagines in his own mind that love is or even how the dictionary defines the word. To make this word useful to us, we have to understand its meaning within the context of the Bible.
Obviously, the Bible is a collection of books spanning multiple languages and a lot of time, but fortunately, there is a very COMMON understanding throughout the canon of what it actually means to “love YHWH.”
Loving YHWH means precisely this: keeping His commandments.
(Ex. 20:6, Deut. 11:1, Josh. 22:5, Neh. 1:5, Dan. 9:4, Joh. 14:15, 1Joh. 5:2)
In the last section, we took the population of the world from 7.2B people down to at BEST about 15M who claim to serve YHWH who is one. Now take a wild guess how many of THOSE actually keep HIS commandments (as opposed to the commandments of men)!
The equally good and bad news is that we don’t HAVE to guess here. We know that as the “Day of YHWH” begins, there are only 144,000 people living in the world who are actually found to be righteous. That comes out to only about 0.002% of the world’s population.
Did you notice the slight discrepancy? We have maybe as many as 15M people in the world CLAIMING to serve YHWH, but only as many as 144k actually DOING it. I propose that the difference is merely a matter of FAITH. YHWH gave us His commandments in the Books of Moses. But too many people DOUBT these words and instead put their FAITH in MEN. They trust in the commandments of Priests and Rabbis and Teachers and even the dictates of their own hearts RATHER THAN the actual commandments that YHWH told His people to obey.
So, if you didn’t already know how important the Shema is, hopefully by this point it’s starting to become (perhaps painfully) apparent.
Hand and Head
Continuing on from the first verse, we read how this understanding (YHWH is one and we keep His commandments) is to be central in our lives and thoughts and speech and teaching. Then at the very end of the passage, we read that they should be a mark upon our HAND and HEAD.
Today, we read this and struggle to interpret it. Some people believe this is something physical such as a visual mark on the skin. Others interpret this verse figuratively and suggest that the head represents knowledge and the hand represents action. This is why it can be so difficult trying to understand words that were written by a people from a vastly different culture in a completely different language and a few millennia in the past!
In ancient, Israelite culture, it was not the head that was the center of thought, but rather the heart. What was on the head actually represented that which OTHER PEOPLE could see when they look at us (Gen. 4:15). This was a place where a gold ornament or a jewel might be worn.
Understanding the meaning of a sign on the head, the hand is not hard to figure out. Whereas the head is what other people can see, the sign on the hand represents that which WE OURSELVES can see.
Public and Private Evidence
Aside from this passage (the Shema) which talks about our head and hand being marked, there are two other verses in the Law which describe the same, and in these, the identity of our god is absent. Taking the three together, it will become much clearer how our heads and hands are (figuratively) marked.
Ex. 13:9 And it shall serve as a sign to you on your hand, and as a reminder on your forehead, that the Law of YHWH may be in your mouth; for with a powerful hand YHWH brought you out of Egypt.
Deut. 11:18 You shall therefore impress these words (the Law) of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead.
Signs of Covenant
It is our obedience to the Law / commandments of YHWH which marks us. Not coincidentally, there are two signs contained within the Law which we are to provide: one which is visible to ourselves only and another which is readily visible to all those around us.
Gen. 17:11 And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.
Ex. 31:12-13 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, “But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My Sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am YHWH who sanctifies you.’”
When we keep the commandments and obey the Law of YHWH, our god, who is one, we will manifest a sign that all can see (Sabbath observance) and a sign which we alone will be able to see (circumcision). Naturally, these aren’t the ONLY commandments we’ll be obeying, but they are SIGNS of our covenant with Him.
“The Shema” refers to a passage of our Bible which in Hebrew begins, “Shema Yisrael…” It identifies the Chosen People according to the identity of their god and their behavior before him.
- They worship YHWH who is ONE.
- They obey His commandments and precepts and decrees and judgments – in short, His Law / Torah.
Obedience of His Law sets His people apart in several ways:
- They do not worship other gods.
- They do not worship their god the way other people worship their gods.
- They do not follow men who would add to or take away from His Law.
- They manifest the signs of covenant with Him.