The Shema, a Judeo-Christian Prayer?

by William L. Nowell

Part 1: Israel's Creed

Hear, people of Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down, and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

The above passage of Scripture from the Book of Deuteronomy is known as The Shema.

The Shema affirms the belief that there is only one God, a fundamental tenet of Judaism. It is a pledge of allegiance to the one true God: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Shema begins by stating unequivocally that the people of Israel have but one God and His name is Yahweh ("the Lord"). It also describes how they were to relate to Him and how this relationship would impact every area of their lives. Think of the Shema as ancient Israel's Creed, similar to the Apostle's Creed and other Christian creeds formulated centuries later.

Moses addressed the nation with the words “Hear, people of Israel...” The word "hear" in Hebrew is "shema." So Deuteronomy 6:4 reads as "Shema, people of Israel..." Ancient documents were often named by the first word appearing in them. Hence, this passage of Scripture is known as The Shema.

According to the Talmud, Jewish law and tradition, the original Shema consisted only of verse 4: Hear, people of Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Later Jewish liturgy extended the Shema to include verses 5-9. However, by the second century A.D., the Shema developed into a three-part foundational creed consisting of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 plus Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. The Shema is applicable not only to the ancient Israelites and today's Jews, but to all followers of the Lord Yeshua.

In many Christian households, the first passage of Scripture children learn is the Lord's Prayer. In similar fashion, the Shema is the first passage of Scripture many Jewish children learn. Many practicing Jews prayerfully recite the Shema at least twice daily. However, in most Christian circles, the Shema has been replaced by the Lord's Prayer. Because of the root of anti-Semitism brought into the church in Constantine's day, most practices viewed as Jewish have been removed from the church. Nevertheless, the timeless instruction given in the Shema is as relevant for Christians today as it was for the ancient Israelites. Here's why.

The Two Commandments of Yeshua

An expert on the Law of Moses, asked Yeshua this question, “Of all the commandments, which is the greatest [most important]?” Yeshua replied, “The greatest is, 'Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these. The whole Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Mark 12:28-31 / Matthew 22:35-40)

According to Yeshua, the Shema is the most important commandment. He then amended the Shema by adding Leviticus 19:18 as the second greatest commandment. He further stated that the rest of the Law of Moses and the teachings found in the Books of the Prophets stem from, and are but variations of these two commandments. Keep the Two Commandments of Yeshua and you will find that you are obeying all the others.

What's In A Name?

“Listen, people of Israel: (The Lord) Yahweh is our (God) Elohim. (The Lord) Yahweh is one.”

The Bible contains literally hundreds of different names and titles of God. The names and titles of God reveal His nature and character to us. The most frequently used names are Yahweh, Elohim, and Adonai.

Elohim is the first name for God found in the Bible, appearing in most English translations simply as "God." Genesis 1:1 states, "In the beginning, God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth." The name Elohim, which appears more than 2000 times, is most often used when emphasizing God's creative power or judgment.

The name Yahweh (YHWH) is found more often than any other name for God in the Old Testament, appearing nearly 7,000 times. Strictly speaking, Yahweh is the only proper name of God in the Bible. In most English translations, the name Yahweh is translated as "Lord" (all capitals). Jehovah, the English translation of the name Yahweh only dates back to 1520 A.D. and does not appear in any ancient manuscripts of the Bible. The name Yahweh (Jehovah) means "the self-existent one," i.e. without beginning and without end.

The third most frequently used name for God in the Old Testament is Adonai, appearing more than 400 times. In most English translations, the name Adonai is written as "Lord" with the first letter capitalized and the other letters lowercase. Adonai means master. In the New Testament, both Yahweh (Jehovah) and Adonai are translated as "Lord" and applied to Christ.

Getting back to the Shema, we read “Listen, people of Israel: (The Lord) Yahweh is our (God) Elohim. (The Lord) Yahweh is one.” The name Elohim has the unusual characteristic of being plural in form, allowing for the doctrine of the trinity. There are many places in the Old Testament where God is spoken of in the plural. For instance, in Genesis 1:26 we read, 'Then (God) Elohim said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness”.' The name of God used in Genesis 1:26 is the same as that used in Deuteronomy 6:4 of the Shema.

In addition, the Hebrew language has two words that are both translated into English as the word "one." The first word is "yachid" which means "one and only one," i.e., unique. The other word is "echad." Echad, like yachid, can mean unique. However, echad can mean compound unity: a single entity made up of multiple parts. The meaning of echad is determined by its context. A simple example of a compound unity is a family composed of father, a son, etc. It is one family, yet made of several people.

Echad is the word Yeshua used when He said, “the Father and I are one (echad).” (John 10:30) The word used for "one" in the phrase "the Lord is one," is also echad. The context of echad in Deuteronomy 6:4 connects it to the plural form of the name of God, Elohim. Hence, the Shema implies the triune nature of our God.

Hear and Do!

In English, the word "hear" simply means to perceive sound. However, the Hebrew word "shema" carries a much deeper meaning than the English word "hear." Shema means to listen with the mindset to put into action all you've learned. In other words, shema means listen attentively and do.

What did Moses tell the people of Israel to hear and do? He told them to love God with every fiber of their being: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.” In the Bible, love is more than just a warm fuzzy feeling. The word love is nearly always connected to obedience. For instance, Joshua 22:5 says “But be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you: to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to Him, to keep His commands, to hold fast to Him and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” Also, in 1 John 5:3 CJB, we read, “loving God means obeying his commands.” Even Yeshua said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” (John 14:15)

The Shema in Context

“These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.” (Deuteronomy 6:6)

The Shema comes in the middle of a lengthy speech given by Moses to the people of Israel. In his speech, Moses recalled the Ten Commandments of the Lord, and their response to receiving these commandments: "We will listen and obey." So we see the commandments referenced in verse 6 are the Ten Commandments - God's Moral Law. Next, he urged them to make these commands an integral part of every aspect of their daily lives. (Deut. 6:7) He further encouraged them to do whatever it took to remember the commands. (Deut. 6:8-9) Living as six-day sinners and Sabbath day saints was not an option. The Commandments were given to shape the worldview and lifestyle of God's Chosen People

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Three Crosses