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Shema Yishrael

Submitted by on Saturday, 8 August 2009No Comment


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The “Shema Yishrael” is like the “Panatang Makabayan” of the People of God. It is Moses the Lawgiver who passes it on to the Israelites as the expression of their gratitude for all that Yahweh has done for them and of their fidelity to the covenant.

The declaration that “God is One” does not mean that God is has been put alongside all possible beings and has shown himself alone to be “God”. Rather, given the polytheism of the period, the statement expresses an option: although there are other gods, Yahweh alone is our God. This is called henotheism and is similar to the declaration of a lover about the beloved: “Although there are other women available, it is you whom I choose to be my wife.”

This analogy with marriage is the most appropriate for what is expressed in the Shema. After all, the covenant relationship between the Lord and His people has been described in those terms (cf. Jeremiah 1:14; also 31:32).

Readers of the New Testament would immediately recognize the first line of the Shema as the greatest commandment (see Mark 12:29, Matthew 22:37, Luke 10:27a). To love the Lord with one’s whole heart, soul and strength, is to love Him with all that one is and with all that one has. The “heart” is in the Bible the organ for decision-making; it is where one realizes one’s dreams and hopes. It is the place where one decides for or against God. The “soul” is the “nephesh”, the “I”. It is the person as subject. This is not the Aristotelian “soul” which is the other half of the hylemorphic vision of man. The “nephesh” is the human being in his concreteness. Finally, “strength” here translates “me od” and refers to all that one possesses.

Moses exhorts the Israelites to remember the duty of recognizing the one God and of loving Him by remembering. To this effect, Moses instructs them

  1. to make one’s children remember them
  2. to repeat them always “at home or abroad, whether you are busy or at rest”
  3. to bind them to the wrist, writing them on strips that one can tie on the hand and on the forehead
  4. to post them at the gates and doorposts of the house so that the words are always before one’s eyes

These instructions are educational methods; they are what we now call mnemonic devices that aids one remember. The whole point of these exercises is that Israel does not forget the Lord.

Jeremiah 1:14
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg LXX Hebrew
14And the Lord said to me: from the north shall an evil break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land.
Mark 12:29
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
29And Jesus answered him: The first commandment of all is, Hear, O Israel: the Lord thy God is one God.
Matthew 22:37
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
37Jesus said to him: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind.
Luke 10:27
View in: NAB NIV KJV NJB Vulg Greek
27He answering, said: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind: and thy neighbour as thyself.

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