Parshat Va’etchanan: “Shema Yisrael – Hear O Israel”

Rabbi Ishay and Einat Gottlieb are Straus-Amiel  shlichim in Vancouver, Canada, where Yishai is the Assistant Rabbi of the Schara Tzedeck Congregation and Einat is an educator and coordinator of Jewish Life at Vancouver Hebrew Academy

Family Ozer“Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” is one of the most famous verses in the entire Torah – so much so that it was inserted into the traditional prayers and requires special intent when uttered. 

But what is the meaning of this verse?

Sefer HaChinuch defines Shema Yisrael as one of the positive mitzvot, signifying the “unification of Hashem”, the belief in the oneness of God:

“The commandment of the unification of God: That we were commanded to believe that God, may He be blessed — Who is the Mover of all existence, the Master of everything — is One without any combination, as it is stated (Devarim 6:4), “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” And this is a positive commandment, not [just] a statement. And the understanding of “Hear” is: “Accept from me this thing, and know it and believe in it — that the Lord, Who is our God, is one. And the proof that this is a positive commandment is their [our Sages], may their memory be blessed, constantly saying in Midrash, “On the condition of unifying His name”; “in order to accept the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven upon himself” — meaning to say, the acknowledgement of unity and faith.” (Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 417)

The Rambam finds philosophical grounds for the uniformity of God in addition to the mitzvah of the “unification of Hashem”:

“This God is one. He is not two or more, but one, unified in a manner which [surpasses] any unity that is found in the world; i.e., He is not one in the manner of a general category which includes many individual entities, nor one in the way that the body is divided into different portions and dimensions. Rather, He is unified, and there exists no unity similar to His in this world.  If there were many gods, they would have body and form, because like entities are separated from each other only through the circumstances associated with body and form.  Were the Creator to have body and form, He would have limitation and definition, because it is impossible for a body not to be limited. And any entity which itself is limited and defined [possesses] only limited and defined power. Since our God, blessed be His name, possesses unlimited power, as evidenced by the continuous revolution of the sphere, we see that His power is not the power of a body. Since He is not a body, the circumstances associated with bodies that produce division and separation are not relevant to Him. Therefore, it is impossible for Him to be anything other than one.  The knowledge of this concept fulfills a positive commandment, as [implied by Devarim 6:4]: “[Hear, O Israel,] the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” (Hilchot Yesodot HaTorah Chapter 1, Halachah 7)

In light of the above exegesis, Rashi’s commentary on this verse is somewhat surprising, since it deviates from the literal meaning of the text:

“[On the words] ‘The Lord is our God, the Lord is one’ – The Lord who is now our God and not the God of the other peoples of the world, He will at some future time be the One (sole) God…”

Rashi irons out the wrinkles of the verse, as it were, by adding words that lend it a prophetical meaning.  Rashi then goes on to quote Biblical verses that support this interpretation of the verse:

“As it is said, (Tzephaniah 3:9) ‘For then I will turn to the peoples a pure language that they may all call upon the name of the Lord’, and it is further written, (Zechariah 14:9) ‘On that day shall the Lord be one and His name one’.”

Why does Rashi add the words “and not the God of the other peoples of the world” and “at some future time” to the verse in question?  In order to understand Rashi’s commentary, let us also refer to the commentary offered by three other exegetes.

The Ibn Ezra asks why the name of Hashem is mentioned twice in the verse, rather than the more succinct phrasing – “The Lord our God is one”.  And thus he writes:

“That which the ancients [Sages], of blessed memory, transmitted regarding the reading of the shema is true, and there is no need for further investigation. Note that the glorious name (YHVH) is a noun. This being the case, why is it said a second time? The answer is that the word is a noun as well as an adjective…”

In other words, the answer he gives is that the first time God’s name is mentioned it refers to God’s special name (which is a noun), while the second mention is an adjective, referring perhaps to the name of YHVH signifying that God exists in the past, present and future – haya, hoveh v’yihyeh

The Ramban gives another explanation as to why Moshe uses this special phrasing, which highlights the grammatical object of the verse:

“Now you must contemplate [the fact] that Scripture changed [the normal usage] here by saying “our” God and did not state “thy” God as it says everywhere else, for example: ‘Hear, O Israel: thou art to pass over the Jordan this day… Know therefore this day, that “thy” God etc.’; ‘Hear, O Israel, ye draw nigh this day unto battle… for “your” God is He that goeth with you…’ And such is the case in all sections where [Moshe] spoke to Israel, he uses “your God” or “thy God,” and even here [in this section] he said, ‘And thou shalt love “thy” God’. However, in this declaration of the unity [of God] Moshe said “our” God because God Himself had done great and awesome things with Moshe to make for Himself a glorious name.

Owing to the great importance of this declaration, Moshe did not wish to exclude himself from the people, and uses the formulation of “our God’  in chapter 5, verse 2 as well, right before he repeats the Ten Commandments: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Chorev”. 

The Rashbam takes the word “one” to mean “exclusive” rather than “unified”, and writes as follows:

“Hashem alone is elokeynu [“our God”]; there is no other kind of divinity which is a partner to Him.”

After examining the interpretations provided by the three exegetes above, let us look again at Rashi’s interpretation:

“The Lord who is now our God and not [Ramban] the God of the other peoples of the world, He [Ibn Ezra] will at some future time be [Rashbam] the One (sole) God…”

In other words, since Moshe uses a unique phrasing – “our God” – instead of [the more common] “thy God” or “your God”, one might interpret it as a particular call [meant for the People of Israel only] “and not the God of the other peoples of the world”, as explained by the Ramban.  As to Rashi’s words “will at some future time”, these are very much in keeping with the interpretation given by the Ibn Ezra, who explains that the second mention of the name of God (YHVH) is an adjective denoting God’s existence at all times – past, present and future – much like Moshe’s description of God to the Israelites [when he first approached them in Egypt]: “Ehyeh [“I am”] has sent me unto you” (Shemot 3:14). “God is One” – in the sense that He alone will be recognized as a Divinity. 

Rashi supports his reading of the verse by quoting other Biblical verses

“For then I will turn to the peoples a pure language that they may all call upon the name of the Lord” (Tzephania 3:9) and “On that day shall the Lord be One and His name one” (Zechariah 14:9).  These verses attest to the fact that when the other nations accept the Divinity of God, He alone shall be King. 

There is an essential difference between the Rambam’s approach and that of Rashi. The Rambam views the Shema Yisrael verses as a philosophical attestation to the presence of God in the world (in a sociological-cultural sense), which all humans must acknowledge, as expressed in the Midrash Targum Yonatan [originally in Aramaic]:

“It was, when the time came that our father Yaakov should be gathered out of the world, he was anxious lest there might be an idolater among his sons. He called them, and questioned them: Is there such perversity in your hearts? They answered, all of them together, and said to him: ‘Hear Israel our father, the Lord our God is One! Yaakov made response, and said: ‘Blessed be His Glorious Name for ever and ever.'”

Put more simply, Yaakov’s sons turn to him by name [Yisrael] and declare that they acknowledge the presence of God in the world. 

Rashi, on the other hand, sees the Shema Yisrael as expressing a national-historical calling, i.e., one disseminating the idea of the oneness of God (by the People of Israel) among all peoples until the ultimate goal is achieved in the End of Days.  In other words, Moshe’s words to the People of Israel should be read in the following manner: “Hear O [People of] Israel – observe and understand (to use the words of Sforno on the verse) – the Lord is our, God the Lord is One – your role is to fulfill this missionI

The Schara Tzedeck Congregation in Vancouver, Canada is the largest Orthodox community in British Columbia and comprises some 1500 members.  The community was incepted 115 years ago, and today it is a vibrant Jewish center with daily minyanim, Torah lessons and activities for youth, students and families. 


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