“Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” A central prayer in Judaism, this was also the dying statement of many Jewish martyrs in history. In both cases, it is understood as an affirmation of a monotheistic faith that was unshakeable even in the face of persecution and torture.
What did this statement mean in its biblical context?
Part of a larger exhortation found in Deut 6, this statement reminds the ancient Israelites of their covenant loyalty to YHWH (English: the LORD): they are to love YHWH their God with all their heart, soul, and strength. Deut 6:12-13 further urge them not to forget YHWH; to serve him, to swear only in his name, and not to follow other gods. From the perspective of monotheistic Judaism, this seems strange—how could the Israelites forget the only God? In whose name would they otherwise swear? And why would they follow other gods if there are no other gods to follow?
In fact, in the preexilic world in which much of Deuteronomy was composed, the idea of monotheism hadn’t fully emerged. The Israelites believed that YHWH was their God; this doesn’t mean that they believed that no other gods existed. A close read of Deuteronomy and other preexilic compositions from ancient Israel makes this evident (see, for example, Deut 4:19). How then to understand Deut 6:4 within this context?
Although translated in Jewish tradition as “YHWH our God, YHWH is One,” the Hebrew wording of the Shema is fairly ambiguous and could equally be rendered: “YHWH is our god, YHWH alone.” Rather than a monotheistic statement expressing the belief that there is only one God in the universe, this translation would reflect a monolatrous belief—the idea that while many gods exist, YHWH is the one that the Israelites are to worship. Given the monolatrous statements in Deut 6:12-13 and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, this makes sense.
When did this statement become an affirmation of monotheism?
Some Jews in the Second Temple period began to develop the idea that YHWH was the only God, and they reread and reinterpreted their earlier texts in this light. We see evidence for this in the earliest translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek: the Septuagint translates “YHWH is one,” as does the Nash Papyrus from the second century BCE.
Whether understood as a statement of monotheism or covenant loyalty to one God, one thing that stays the same in early and late contexts is the apotropaic use of the Shema. Deut 6:8-9 commands Israelites to “bind” these words “as a sign on your hand; and they will be as symbol between your eyes, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” This is meant literally: the words themselves were understood to have protective power. We have many examples of biblical texts being used in this way, from a seventh-century BCE version of the Priestly Benediction (Num 6:24-26) incised on tiny silver scrolls, to a Roman amulet from the sixth or seventh century CE with the same priestly blessing on it. The Shema likewise appears on amulets throughout Jewish history; most famously, the commandment to “write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” leads to the custom of affixing of a mezuzah on Jewish houses from antiquity to the present day. Mezuzot (plural) are amulets with tiny scrolls inside, upon which the words of the Shema are carefully copied.
Although the meaning of the words of the Shema has changed over time as it has been read, chanted, and interpreted in different cultural and historical settings, its sacred status has been maintained.