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Shema

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    Shema

    The first word of Deuteronomy 6.4 in Hebrew, “Shema” is used as the name of the verse as a whole (“Hear, O Israel, YHWH is our God, YHWH alone/is one”). While acknowledging that the Shema was a central confessional statement of ancient Israel, modern scholars do not agree on its interpretation. If it is connected with the centralization of the cult in Jerusalem during the reforms of Josiah in the late sixth century BCE, then it could mean that there is only one acceptable manifestation of YHWH, namely in Jerusalem. The Shema could also imply that among all gods Israel is to worship only YHWH (henotheism), or that YHWH is the only God (monotheism). It is in this latter sense that the Shema has become the central Jewish declaration of faith in one God. The Shema in its expanded form includes Deuteronomy 6.5–9 (love of God); 11.13–21 (rewards and punishments for observance); and Numbers 15.37–41 (duty of remembrance). It is recited by observant Jews as part of the morning and evening prayers (Deut. 6.7), as well as before going to sleep. Deuteronomy 6.4–9 and 11.13–21, written on parchment, are also to be found in phylacteries (Exod. 13.9, 16; Deut. 6.8; 11.18) and on doorposts (mĕzûzôt; Deut. 6.9; 11.20). Following the lead of Rabbi Akiba (died ca. 135 CE), the Shema is to be recited before death, especially in cases of martyrdom. The early and great importance of the Shema is underlined by Jesus' reference to it as the greatest commandment (Matt. 22.34–40 par.).

    Carl S. Ehrlich

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