Shema as Creed

Posted by Boaz Willis on

In this post I’ll begin to explore some of the driving forces that led to the development of the early rabbis’ most influential project: The Mishnah. The central focus of my argument is that the rabbinic reaction to the destruction of the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem was one attempt at fulfilling the Israelite creed par excellence (in its preeminent form). That is to say, there were actually many organized (some more so than others) reactions to the various questions that faced communities of Israelite folk living in Roman occupied Palestine during the first and second centuries of the Common Era, and that of the early Rabbis has its own distinct features that allowed for it to flourish and make it worthy of study (more on this in a future post). However, in order to understand how the rabbinic tradition came to be at all, we must first understand what that special bond, shared statement of values, or ‘creed’ between Israelites actually is. Before we turn to Mishnah study then, we must turn to Scripture, specifically, those six words that many Jews know, recite daily, and will be quizzed on should they try and go through airport security to get to Israel: the Shema.

The ‘Shema’ is a declaration of faith, a statement of belief in the designated god of the Israelite clan: יהוה. As with any critical reading, it’s imperative to look closely into language to arrive at a precise interpretation. So here it goes, well, not quite yet. Everything requires context, and in this case, the necessary background information is: who is speaking and who is being spoken to. The ‘Shema’ appears towards the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy or דברים. If you’re having trouble remembering which book of the bible that is and why it’s important here’s the low-down. Deuteronomy or דברים is largely one long speech through which Moses enjoins the Israelite people; directing them in the rightful ways of their Lord, so that they may inherit that great land flowing with milk and honey: the land of Palestine. The very same land which the early Rabbis hope to achieve some level of autonomy within after the destruction of the temple. Now to the actual language of the Israelite creed… 

  1. Hear O’ Israel יְהוָ֥ה is our God, יְהוָ֥ה is one
  2. And you will love יְהוָ֥ה your God with all of your heart, and all of your spirit, and all of your might.
  3. And it is these words that I command unto you this that you shall keep upon your heart
  4. And you will recite them to your children, and speak about them when you return to your household, and when you are going on your ways, and when you lie down, and when you awake
  5. And you will fasten them as a sign upon your hand and they shall be a binding between your eyes
  6. And you will inscribe them on the doorposts of your household and your gates.

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד׃

וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃

וְהָי֞וּ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃

וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ֖ בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃


וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל־יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ׃

וּכְתַבְתָּ֛ם עַל־מְזוּזֹ֥ת בֵּיתֶ֖ךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃ 


The couple of words in the first verse cited here are those that most people would traditionally recall as the ‘Shema’ prayer. In reciting those words, we echo Moses’ appeal to our fellow Israelites to recognize our tribal and communal deity - יְהוָ֥ה - which I’ve intentionally left untranslated, and in its most casual referential form (what some refer to as the ‘Tetragrammaton’). Following this declaration of faith in a single and unified deity, Moses charges his people to do a number of things that seemingly follow suit, to love and think about that deity. However, these charges are hardly actionable through any physical means, rather they seem to convey a desired sense of awareness or conscience that ties one to יְהוָ֥ה.

The first actionable charge that can be carried out by physical means appears in the fourth verse cited and bolded above. God speaking through Moses commands that each Israelite parent has an obligation to recite “these words” to their children. Yet, recitation itself is not enough, “these words” must be spoken about, expounded upon, explained, and worked through over and over in virtually all states of being. The examples given, “when you return to your household etc..” simply function to establish some ungraspable expansiveness to the given command, yet do so within clearly defined parameters of space/time. They ensure that the command can never be fulfilled in its entirety, yet it calls upon its practitioners during specific times and places. It is these words that the early Rabbis take so much to heart in creating their magnum opus, The Mishnah. Accordingly, the opening words of the mishnah in Berachot 1:1 question:

'?מֵאֵימָתַי קוֹרִין אֶת שְׁמַע בְּעַרְבִית'

From what time does one recite 'Shema' in the evening?

The takeaway here is that the rabbis are fundamentally invested in shaping a culture through language and performance. The formation of easily repeatable sentences recounting Jewish traditions and practices is the crown jewel of an educational institution hoping to reinforce the common creed of the Israelite people amidst the tumult of the Middle East from 0-200 CE. Not only this but the manner in which these traditions were disseminated by colleges of elites (whether that be in wealth or intellect) indicates that recitation of Mishnah attempts to fulfill the Shema’s imperative to recite ‘these words’ at all points in the time/space continuum. 

A large part of my project in re-examining The Mishnah will be to analyze it as a fundamentally Oral tradition. That is, its own fulfillment of the physically embodied creed of the Israelite people - something to be heard and subsequently recited, spoken about, expounded upon, looked through, between, under, and around. The Rabbis took Moses to be their teacher, and, only by analyzing and interpreting his statements without end do they gain their own power to recite, be heard, and teach. This process of hearing, reciting, and teaching is one that has kept the Jewish tradition alive and helped it thrive, throughout the tests of time. As contemporary society faces its challenges, we contemporary Jews, will continue to listen, recite, and teach. We will perpetuate the innovative approaches to daily life and religious practice that our ancestors have engaged in for thousands of years. 

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published.