Hear, O 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 might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. [Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (ESV)]
My morning’s reading took me to Deuteronomy 6 and the words that Jesus cited as the first, and most important commandment. Known as the Shema and found in verses 4 through 9, it is the essential declaration of the Jewish faith. Its name comes from the first Hebrew word of the verse, shema, which means “hear.” Observant Jews recite its words twice a day (morning and evening), on the Sabbath and religious holidays, and as the last words before death. The Shema is so entrenched in Judaism that a story is told about Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog who, in 1946, went searching for Jewish children who’d been hidden by Christians during the Holocaust. As he walked through European convents, monasteries, and orphanages, the rabbi would start to recite the Shema. He easily found the Jewish children because they immediately joined in saying the sacred words.
The Shema’s first words sum up the essence of Judaism—there is only one true God and He is Israel’s God. During the time of the Temple, a second line was inserted into the Shema. After the priest recited, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” the congregation replied, “Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever.” In acknowledgement that this phrase is not part of the original Scripture, it usually is said in an undertone. The rest of the original prayer then follows.
When Moses passed these words along to the Israelites, they had spent centuries surrounded by people who worshipped many gods. The Shema’s daily repetition impressed upon them that love, obedience, and faithfulness to their one true God was the only way to live. These words may have been passed to the Jews some 3,500 years ago but its message holds true for all of God’s children—there is one true God and He is ours!
The rest of the original Shema details how that belief in the one true God is to be lived and its words continue to apply to Christians as well as Jews. We are to love Him with our whole being, teach his word to the next generation, make His words part of our daily conversation, and impress His word into all aspects of our lives.
In verses 8 and 9, we find the command to bind the God’s words to our hands, foreheads, doorposts, and gates. Taking the words literally, Jews wore black leather boxes (tefillin) containing scripture on their heads and arms and placed mezuzot, containing part of the Shema, on their doorposts. Observant Jews continue to do so today.
Even when taking those instructions figuratively, it’s not difficult to understand what is meant by placing God’s word between our eyes or on our arms. God’s words must affect the way we think and see as well as our every action. While we don’t place Scripture on doorways and gates, when stepping into a Christian’s home or workplace, God’s presence and influence should be felt by all who enter. For the Christian, the Shema’s words mean that we are to write God’s words in our hearts and minds and love Him with our whole being!
Because the words of the Shema were important to Jesus, they are important to us. Whether Christian or Jew, I can’t think of a better way to start or end my day than with these words: “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 might.”