Va-etchannan: All in One

by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

The most important sentence in Jewish liturgy appears in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“and I pleaded”). Jews recite it daily in both morning and evening prayers.  We are called to say this sentence before we die, so some of us say it at any time of danger, or at bedtime (just in case). Personally, I feel better if I recite this sentence when I am sitting in an airplane that is just taking off.

If you haven’t guessed, the sentence is:

Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:4)

Shema (שְׁמַע) = Listen! Hear! Heed! Listen up, pay attention! Now hear this!

Jacob Wrestling with an Angel, by Gustave Dore, detail
Jacob Wrestling with an Angel by Gustave Dore, detail

Yisrael (יִשְׂרָאֵל) = Israel, which was the additional name given to Jacob after he wrestles with the unnamed being at the ford, and also the name of Jacob’s descendants (the twelve tribes) and those adopted into the people Israel.  Many personal names in the Bible begin or end in el (אֵל) = god.  An “is” or “of” is implied between the el and the other part of the name. Yisra  (יִשְׂרָא) = he struggles with, he persists with (from the root verb sarah = contended, strove); or upright (from the root verb yashar = was upright, level, straight ahead).

(See below for translations of Adonai, eloheynu, and echad.)

The first two words, Shema Yisrael, tell a certain group of people to pay attention to what comes next.  In Deuteronomy/Devarim, Moses uses the phrase to introduce a fundamental message about God, but it serves the same function as “Hear ye, citizens of Fredonia”, or “Attention, all passengers for Flight 613”.

The only question is which people are being addressed.  Within the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is addressing all the descendants of Jacob, i.e. Israel (including descendants of the non-Israelites who also followed Moses out of Egypt and became part of the people) who arrived at the Jordan River.

By the first century C.E., the Shema was a central part of morning and evening prayers. But only in the past half-century have some Jews have expanded the idea of Yisrael to include everyone who persists in struggling with God.

That means everyone who questions and wrestles with the concept of God, and everyone who strives to follow divine direction, should pay attention to the message: Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad.

Adonai = my lord, my master.  The Hebrew for Adonai does not appear in the actual Hebrew text of the Shema. Instead, the Torah gives the four-letter personal name of God.  In Jewish tradition over the last two millennia, the four-letter name must be treated with the utmost respect; it is never pronounced, and it is spelled out only in prayer-books and the Bible. (It may be a unique four-letter form of the Hebrew verb for “to be” or “to happen”.) When Jewish liturgy is spoken or the Bible is read out loud, a common substitute for the four-letter name is Adonai.

eloheynu (אֱלֹהֵינוּ) = our elohim. Elohim (אֱלֹהִים) = god; gods. (The Hebrew words eloheynu and elohim are in the plural form, but are usually used to refer to the single god of Israel. Three times in the Bible the Philistines say eloheynu in reference to their own god, Dagon.)

echad (אֶחָד) = one; first; single, only, unique; once; the same kind of; united, indivisible.

What does the imperative message Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad mean?

Most Biblical scholars date the book of Deuteronomy to the 7th century B.C.E., and identify it with the holy book “discovered’ in the temple during the 641-609 B.C.E. reign of King Josiah of Judah, and used to lend authority to Josiah’s agenda: expanding Judah to include part of the former northern kingdom of Israel, and eliminating the worship of any other gods in his kingdom. Although Deuteronomy recapitulates much of the history and law in the books of Exodus through Numbers, there are a number of differences.  Most (though not all) of the differences support the theory that Deuteronomy was written just before or during King Josiah’s reign.

An English translation for the Shema in the context of King Josiah’s reforms could be:  Listen up, residents of Judah and survivors of the kingdom of Israel!  Adonai is our god, only Adonai!

The idea that the primary message of the Shema is to exclude the worship of other gods continues in some English translations. Many modern works use the “JPS” translation:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. (Jewish Publication Society, 1962)

But this is not the only possible meaning of Adonai echad.  Even a book written in the 7th century B.C.E. might also declare that God is one-of-a-kind, the only god in the universe.

The book of Amos, written in the 8th century B.C.E., not only credits Adonai with the creation of the universe, but also quotes God as saying:

Like the children of Kushi-im, aren’t you mine, children of Israel? —declares Adonai.

Didn’t I bring up Israel from the land of Egypt,

And the Philistines from Kaftor, and Aram from Kyr? (Amos 9:7)

In other words, although the Kushites, Philistines, and Aramites believe they have their own separate gods, there is actually only one God for them all.

detail by John Constable
detail by John Constable

Many modern Jewish and Christian translations of the Shema into English treat Adonai echad as a statement of monotheism. For example:

Listen, Israel, God is our Lord, God is One. (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, 1981)

Listen, Israel! The Lord our God is the only true God!  (American Bible Society, 1995)

Yet there is a third way to interpret Adonai echad. The word echad is also used in Biblical Hebrew to mean united or indivisible.

A key concept in Kabbalah, presented in the earliest known book on the subject, Sefer Yetzirah (written sometime between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E.) is that the universe was (and continues to be) created through ten sefirot (divine powers or qualities). Later Kabbalist writings changed the sefirot to forces such as compassion or discipline. The various traditions of Kabbalah all emphasize that God is one and indivisible. The sefirot only appear to be separate powers; really they are aspects of the One.

This idea of the unity of everything is part of an unusual translation of the Shema by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014):

Listen you Yisrael person, Yah who is, is our God, Yah who is, is One, Unique, All there is. (quoted in Rabbi David Zaslow, Ivdu Et Hashem B’Simcha, 1997)

When I pray, in Hebrew or English, I want to know what the words mean—not just what the traditional meanings are, but what the words can say to my own heart. Sometimes the personal meaning of a prayer changes over the years for me, as I change.

Here is my own interpretation of the Shema, this summer of 2015:

Pay attention, you who persist in struggling with the idea of God: Being is our god, and Being is all there is.

What is your interpretation this year?

3 thoughts on “Va-etchannan: All in One

  1. First time I have left a comment. This one spoke to me in a personal way since the blessing is very much part of my ritual and means to connect. Learning the meaning of the words and how it comes together it profound…thanks you.

    1. Thank you. The Shema is important to me, too.

      I didn’t mention it in my post, but when I say the Shema, I definitely feel a sequence of three directions. With “Shema Yisrael” I am pulling in to pay attention. With “Adonai Eloheynu” I am expanding to include a relationship with God (which also includes other humans trying to engage). And with “Adonai Echad” I am flinging my arms out to the universe, trying to accept it all at once.

      It’s a profound one-minute meditation.


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