There are six Hebrew words that almost all Jews, no matter how rebellious, ignorant or God hating know: Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad. We’ve heard or spoken this line almost every time we’ve been to a synagogue. Some of us have heard our grandmothers instinctively exclaim the first two words of the phrase whenever they hear something scary. Some of us love the ritual of closing or covering our eyes when we speak the words. Lots of us know that it appears in the morning prayer, the evening prayer, the prayer before we go to sleep and other places in the prayer book. Many of us know the translation of the phrase: Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. None of us, however, are attuned to the full range of meanings and associations this phrase offers.
The Jews are a people like all others, which is to say in large part nasty, foolish and shallow. The decision to place this verse as the centerpiece of our prayer-life, however, was the opposite; Generous, wise and deep. I’d like to attempt to convey something of the expansiveness of this verse and a few of the echoes and meanings contained within each of its Hebrew words.
Like any piece of Torah, this verse contains the meaning that the reader gives it. One example of this is the final word in the phrase, echad. The word means “one,” and yet most translations will render the final two words, Adonai Echad: “The Lord alone,” rendering the verse in its entirety as an affirmation of the singularity of God. Our God, the Jewish God, it suggests — is the only true God. A different translation flips the meaning: Adonai echad: God is one. Translating it this way does away with any separation at all, between this god and others, between Jews and gentiles, between us and them, between me and you, and puts us all as part of the same oneness; if God is one then all is one since god is all. I’m presenting it as a translation issue, but it’s not exactly that, but rather a choice that each reader makes as they speak the words.
Let’s back up to the beginning of the phrase.
Sh’ma means “listen” or “hear.” In other places in Torah it means “understand.” Whichever meaning you choose, the first word of the verse demands we pay attention.
Yisrael means Israel. In the first couplet, Sh’ma Yisrael — “Hear O Israel,” we Israelites are…