The Shema by Shawna Dolansky

“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.

Shawna Dolansky, "The Shema", n.p. [cited 2 Jul 2022]. Online:


Shawna Dolansky

Shawna Dolansky
Associate Professor, Carleton University

Shawna Dolansky is Associate Professor of Religion and Humanities in the College of the Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of two books and numerous articles on the Bible and ancient Near Eastern religions. Her current research focuses on gender and sexuality in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.

A charm or ornament worn for magical or spiritual protection.

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

Characterized by the worship of one deity as chief among a pantheon of other deities. An example is the worship of Marduk as the chief deity of the Babylonian pantheon.

A religious system characterized by belief in the existence of a single deity.

Of or related to a religious system characterized by belief in the existence of a single deity.

The period of Israelite and Judean history before the Babylonian exile, from circa 1000 B.C.E. until 586 B.C.E.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

The name of Israel's god, but with only the consonants of the name, as spelled in the Hebrew Bible. In antiquity, Jews stopped saying the name as a sign of reverence. Some scholars today use only the consonants to recognize the lost original pronunciation or to respect religious tradition.

Deut 6

6 Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross ... View more

Deut 6:12-13

12 take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13 The Lord your God you shall fear; him yo ... View more

Deut 4:19

19And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them ... View more

Deut 6:4

4Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.

Deut 6:12-13

12 take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13 The Lord your God you shall fear; him yo ... View more

Deut 6:8-9

8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Num 6:24-26

24The Lord bless you and keep you;25the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;26the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you p ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.