Monday, August 23, 2010

Euphemisms, Shema, and Paradigms

Nothing groundbreaking here, just something that’s been rattling around inside my head for a while.

When I was a kid, my mother would say Shema with my brother and me before we went to sleep each night. When my wife puts my daughter to bed, she does the same. Lately, my daughter has been asking me to say Shema with her when I put her to bed (which is most nights).

Shema has a central place in Jewish prayer. It is one of the first tefillos we learn as children, and it is supposed to be the last thing we say before we die. Along with Shemoneh Esrei, it’s what daily davening is built around. It is generally taken to be a statement of Hashem’s monotheistic supremacy. Yet anyone who takes a moment to read it literally can see that it makes little sense as such.

I think most people in the frum world, perhaps even in the religious Jewish world, never read Shema literally. As a kid I was taught that Shema translated as, “Hear Israel, Hashem is Hashem, there is one Hashem.” But this is not what it says. It says, “Hear Israel, Yahweh is your god, Yahweh is one.”

It’s read the first way and not the second way because Yahweh and elohim are thought of as synonyms for “Hashem” when in fact Yahweh is a name and elohim is the equivalent of the English little “g” god. Shema is not monotheistic statement about the singular magnificence of God, but a monolatrous definition of a god named Yahweh. It is telling the nation of Israel that Yahweh is their god, and that Yahweh is only one god despite the widespread practice of worshipping his different aspects under different names.

This is something that would never have occurred to me when reading Shema with a frum worldview. It was only after learning about ancient religions that I realized how strangely Shema is worded – which then led me to the realization that it’s not strangely worded at all if you accept that it means exactly what it says.

You may not have noticed, but the post’s title forms the acronym ESP. Too bad I couldn’t think of a clever way to relate that to the post’s subject.


  1. I also always assumed it was a statement of monotheism but then I read the Moreh Nevuchim and realized how the Rambam understood it in a completely different way. To him it means God is in-composite.

    So even before I became skeptical I realized that it probably doesn't mean "God is the only god" thanks to the Rambam.

  2. Another peshat may be: Listen Israel, J and E are one god.

  3. Replace the word יקוק with the word "Existence" or "Primal Existence" and it should be easier to understand what the intent is.

  4. Daniel, first, semantics: Yaweh is a name, not a word.

    Hear Israel, Primal Existence is your god, Primal Existence is One

    Interesting interpretation. Read this way, it’s a pantheistic statement, no? And a profoundly spiritual one, too.

    Given the milieu in which the pasuk was written, though, I think my interpretation is probably closer to the original intent.