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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Shema and Decalogue

What is widely regarded as rabbinic Judaism's most famous prayer, the Shema, is in fact a section borrowed from Deut. 6.4–9 , with a second paragraph from Deut. 11.13–21 and a third from Num. 15.37–41 . In the Bible, these are prose passages that are not marked as prayers. In a Hebrew papyrus inscription from the 2nd century BCE named the Nash Papyrus after W. L. Nash, who purchased it in Egypt in 1903, the text of the first two verses of the Shema appears after the Decalogue in a formulation that corresponds closely to the Greek translation of the Exodus version.Whether that papyrus is to be identified as an amulet or as a piece of liturgy, it testifies to a Jewish use of these two biblical texts as something other than a direct quotation, since they do not occur together in the Torah. Such a use was therefore being made before the earliest manifestation of either Christianity or rabbinic Judaism, and further evidence is provided by the Hellenistic Jewish writers, as well as from the Mishnaic traditions of the 2nd century CE. They indicate that both the Shema and the Decalogue had already by then a special and well‐established liturgical significance, apparently because they gave expression to the most central religious ideas of the Jews. Attempts were indeed made to draw parallels between the occurrences of such ideas in the two passages.

In the case of the Shema, there appears to have been a gradual development from the use of one paragraph to the acceptance of three, and to its recitation, in some (as yet unclear) form of special chant, in both the morning and evening prayers. On the other hand, the independent status of the Decalogue led to controversy and a diminution of its liturgical function. It was once so central to liturgical use that it was often included among the biblical texts inserted in the tefillin (“phylacteries”) boxes by such sects as those who lived by the Dead Sea. Later, it came to be regarded with suspicion when it was polemically cited by groups that rabbinic Judaism regarded as heretical. Their argument was that such a central liturgical use permitted the conclusion that only such parts of the Torah were authoritative. Such a challenge encouraged the Rabbis to rule against the liturgical recitation of the passage in spite of its impressive pedigree, a ruling that was widely followed at least in Babylonian Jewry. The finds from the Cairo Genizah, however, document a continuing use of the Decalogue among the Jews in the land of Israel, in a place of honor in the prayerbook just before the commencement of the Shema benedictions. Having apparently brought the practice with them from the Holy Land when they fled the Crusades, they were loath to abandon it in favor of the dominant Babylonian custom, but their rite ultimately all but disappeared. Some authorities in Spain proposed its inclusion but it was not until the early modern period that the passage was again included in the Siddur on a regular basis, and then not as an integral part of the prayers but as an appendix to the morning service for those few Jews who might wish to add voluntarily to their daily recitation of biblical passages.

For its part, the Shema was, by the end of the talmudic period, already surrounded by rabbinic benedictions and liturgical poems, and inextricably bound together with the ʿAmidah both evening and morning. (The texts of these prayers, however, were not yet fixed in this period.) Given that its recitation in the communal context might not therefore take place immediately after rising in the morning, or just before settling down to sleep at night, which had been part of the original intent (see Deut. 6.7; 11.19 ), a secondary use of the prayer for those purposes was adopted. Its two manifestations were referred to respectively as the “Shema of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch” and the “Shema by the Bedside” and they were inserted into the prayerbook. The custom of remaining seated for the Shema, which was initially that of the Babylonian communities, in contradistinction to the requirement to stand for the ʿAmidah, was perhaps a way of expressing the conviction that rabbinic prayers still had a higher liturgical status than the recitation of Scripture. Moreover, the 13th‐century controversy in Spain about whether to recite the Shema aloud or silently might again have had to do with approaches to its communal liturgical significance. The earliest Reform prayerbooks retained the Shema in Hebrew, but there were some more radical versions in which it was severely truncated. In the more recent versions produced by the progressive movements, various options are offered. Since its recitation does not require a minyan (quorum of ten men), Orthodox women's prayer groups include it in their services without major controversy.

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