A Jewish Vow of Love Survives through the Centuries
One of the most influential tenets of Jewish life and history – used to this day – is commonly referred to as the “Shema Prayer”. The name is derived simply from the first word of the prayer, which means to listen and obey:
“Listen (shema), Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your might.” (Deut. 6:4-5.)
This declaration of faithfulness is a type of marriage vow if you will, as well as a hymn of praise to God, originating in the book of Deuteronomy as a part of a speech from Moses to the Israelites.
Claiming the Inheritance
The people were about to enter into the Promised Land. This context is key, because Moses’ speech sets the groundwork and establishes a protocol for how the Israelites were to live and interact with each other and with God.
He won’t continue into the Promised Land with them, so he’s doing his part to set the people up for success. He says in verse 3: “so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly.” The words of the Shema likewise set us up for success.
These covenantal words weren’t issued solely for the Israelites for one moment of history; they are for all God’s children throughout all time.
To begin, Moses specifically declares that there is one God and one God only. The Israelites have a significant history of being surrounded by people worshipping many different gods. From their early days in Canaan, through many years in Egypt, to the 40 years wandering the wilderness, they have been enclosed by polytheistic cultures.
It is made absolutely clear to the people that loyalty to, obedience of and love for their one true God is the only way from here on out. Divided allegiance could be a huge threat to Israel’s future, therefore Moses lays the foundation with this guiding truth.
Many translations of Deuteronomy 6:4 use “hear” for the word “shema”. However, the English understanding of “hear” doesn’t quite do this Hebrew word justice, nor does it help us to internalize its meaning.
In Hebrew, the word “shema” means hearing but also the effect of it – taking heed, being obedient, and moreover doing what is asked.
In Hebrew, “hearing” and “obeying” are essentially one in the same. Moses isn’t just telling the people, “hey, listen up!” (although it’s certainly part of it!), he’s saying, “live these words, embody them, fulfill with all your being and with all that you’ve got”.
James 1:22 perfectly echoes this sentiment by imploring us with these words:
“Don’t just listen to the Word of Truth and not respond to it, for that is the essence of self-deception. So always let his Word become like poetry written and fulfilled by your life!” (The Passion Translation)
Taking a Vow
Moses wants the people to understand that their commitment to God is active and is demonstrated by how they choose to live. Just as a man and a woman, when exchanging their wedding vows, pledge the action encompassed in their words, so the speaker proclaiming the words of the Shema Israel Prayer.
The Shema has, in some ways, preserved Israel.
The words of commitment have sustained the test of time and today the Shema is still taken quite literally. It’s recited daily by many Jewish people as part of their morning and evening prayers. Most notably, Shema Israel is recounted in weekly Shabbat services in Israel and around the world.
One of the first things Jewish parents teach their children, as a partial fulfillment of “teach them diligently to your children” (Deuteronomy 6:7), is reciting the Shema.
You may have seen Jewish men with a set of small black boxes tied with leather straps to their arms and head. These boxes with straps are known as tefillin. This tradition derives also from the Shema, specifically the verse:
“Commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these words of mine. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders” (Deuteronomy 11:18, New Living Translation).
Above all Else
The level of commitment to the Shema is expressed by many pious Jews who hope these Biblical verses are the last words they speak before they die. Jewish martyrs, including Holocaust victims, have uttered the Shema as their final confession of faith in the one true God and their devotion to Him.
Jesus reiterates Moses’ words in Matthew 22:37, “Love the Lord your God with every passion of your heart, with all the energy of your being, and with every thought that is within you.”
Again, similarly to marriage vows, these words implore us to love God wholeheartedly, each and every day we have breath. If we allow it, the Shema can serve as an ever-present reminder of the marvelous things God has done, as recorded in Scripture, throughout history and in our own lives.
These words can be our keeping, too.
“Listen, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your might.” (Deut. 6:4-5)