“You shall love GOD, your God, with all your heart.”
— Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:5
Found in this week’s portion (Devarim/Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11), these words and surrounding verses* are among the most famous in the Torah. They’re frequently among the first Bible words taught a Jewish child. The siddur (prayer book) calls for reciting them each morning and evening — in keeping with the instruction (6:7) to speak of them on “retiring and arising.” The additional “bedtime Shema” also includes these verses.
With words so often repeated, it can be a challenge to keep them from becoming meaninglessly rote. On the other hand, with words included in so many prayer books, there are many different approaches to consider.
One powerfully different approach is offered by Siddur Birkat Shalom from the Havurat Shalom Siddur Project (Somerville, MA). This siddur offers fresh perspectives on the Shema, one presented as “meditation” and one as an “adaptation.”
Love God with everything you have: your heart, your soul, your strength. These words which I give you here and now, take them to your heart. Teach them to those who follow you. Speak of them often: at home, at work, and on the road; at the beginning of your day and at its end. Hold them like a sacred chant that whispers inside you, spilling out into song. Feel the words in your fingertips, keep them at the front of your mind, in the small space above your eyes. Let them guide your vision to rest in new places; let them soothe and disturb you. Look up ocassionally, the words will appear in the place you call your home. — from Siddur Birkat Shalom***
Siddur Birkat Shalom also offers an adaptation of the Hebrew which can be instructive in the context of this week’s portion and Moses’ overall address to the people.
Readers who rely primarily on English translation and/or were taught the Shema without a focus on grammar are not always aware that these verses are addressed to an individual listener: “Hear, O Israel…You (singular [masculine]) shall love your (singular [masculine] God, with all your (etc.) heart,…”**
For some female readers, however, truly “listening” to the Hebrew commands requires mentally “translating” the Hebrew. This means that female readers are not addressed as directly in the Torah or in the siddur as are male readers. The latter is problematic for some Jews, a non-issue for others. But taking the time to “hear” the Shema in both its masculine and feminine forms can provide a new perspective.
v’ahavt et HASHEM [Love (fem. sing.) HASHEM]
elohaich [your (fem. sing) God]
b’chol l’vaveich [with all your (fem. sing.) heart]
uv’chol nafsheich [and with all your (fem. sing.) soul]
u’v’chol m’odeich [and with all your (fem. sing.) strength]….
v’amarta aleihen [and say to them (fem. plur.)],
v’asu lahen tzitzit [make for themselves (fem. plur.) fringes]
al canfei bigdeihen [on the corners of their (fem. plur.) garments]
l’dorotan [in all their (fem. plur.) generations]….
Ani HASHEM eloheichen [I am HASHEM, your (fem. plur.) God]
— from Siddur Birkat Shalom***
*The Torah reading known as “the Shema,” is composed of Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:4-8, 11:13-21; and Numbers/Bamidbar 15:37-41. In common discussion, the phrase “the Shema” sometimes references only the first verse: “Hear, O Israel, HASHEM is your God, HASHEM is one.” Many Reform prayerbooks omitted the second and third paragraphs; the 2007 Mishkan T’filah restores them.
**In English translation, much of Devarim/Deuteronomy, including the verses of the “Shema,” is ambiguous on two points which are definite in Hebrew:
Number: “you” and “your” in English might encompass one or many;
Gender: in English, “you” might be female, male or a group including both.
In the Hebrew, however, the commandments to love God, etc. are addressed to one male: this is determined by the verb form (v’ahavta is masculine, singular) and by possessive endings on “God” and “heart” (cha is a masc. sing. possessive).
***Material from Siddur Birkat Shalom may be copied with attribution, provided it is not altered or reproduced for sale. Copyright, 1991, Havurat Shalom Siddur Project, 113 College Avenue, Somerville, MA 02144; http://www.thehav.org
See also an earlier discussion of gender and sex in the siddur.