“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Deuteronomy 6:5
In the book of Deuteronomy, God gives Moses (and us) His greatest commandment. I’m sure you’ve heard it.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
You might even recall Jesus repeating this commandment in Matthew 22:36, but He adds a bit more.
“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
It’s obvious here the Great Commandment is seriously important. But, unless you are Jewish, you probably don’t know what came before God gave this commandment.
It’s called Shema.
What is Shema?
The Shema (pronounced “shmah”) is considered the most essential prayer in all of Judaism. Reciting it daily with your eyes covered is even considered by devout Jews to be a Biblical commandment.
The Shema is central to daily morning and evening prayers, but it’s also spoken at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year, during Shabbat (Sabbath) services, and when one is close to death. Many parents recite the Shema during bedtime prayers with their children.
The Great Commandment
The Shema begins in Deuteronomy 6:4 just before God gives His Great Commandment to the entire nation of Israel. He calls to them directly because He’s about to give it to them straight. He says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” In Hebrew it’s “She-ma yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad.”
Reading from right to left in Hebrew, this first line looks like this:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד
One line that is repeated right after is not in the Torah/Hebrew Bible, and it says, “Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.” In Hebrew it’s “She-ma yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad.” Written it’s…
בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד
The rest of Shema picks up again with Deuteronomy 6:5-9.
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in our house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
In Judaism, these six verses are repeated twice daily in fulfillment of Biblical command. In Hebrew, they look like this:
וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽך
וְהָי֞וּ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ
וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ֖ בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ
וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל־יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ
וּכְתַבְתָּ֛ם עַל־מְזוּזֹ֥ת בֵּיתֶ֖ךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ
Following this first part, there are two more “blessings” to pray- “Revelation” and “God Alone is the Eternal Redeemer.” I highly recommend reading all three parts. It’s a beautiful prayer despite its lengthiness. But to get to the true heart of Shema, we’ll just focus on Blessing One.
Blessing One: Hearing
Blessing One (Deuteronomy 6:4) begins with God using the word “hear.” Some translations use “listen.” In Hebrew, “hear” is “shema,” and it has a deeper meaning than what we have in the English language.
Most of us will think God is using “hear” as how Dictionary.com defines it: “to perceive by the ear.” But in Hebrew, Shema means listening, paying attention, understanding and comprehending, obeying, and responding with action.
Later in the New Testament, Jesus would often say, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear (Mark4:9). What He was really saying was, “If you have ears that work and have heard Me, respond by obeying.”
Remember that we are called to be doers of the Word, not just listeners.
Following His command for us to shema (listen), God reminds us of who He is. He says, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one!”
The Hebrew word for “one” is “echad.” It can also mean alone, single, unique, or unified.
But the Jewish Bible says, “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” Why is that a big deal?
Replacing “one” with “alone” changes the meaning of the verse. Now, instead of simply proclaiming there is only one, singular God, He is telling us He alone is God and there is no other. He alone is the one we should worship and serve.
Shema is Love
Next, God tells the Israelites to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” In Hebrew culture, love isn’t just an emotion, it denotes an action or a response. In this case, love means faithfulness and commitment.
Remember “shema” means listening and obeying. Put shema with love and you have someone who listens and faithfully responds out of obedience and loyalty to the Lord. Not because of some old covenant legalism, but because we are actively seeking Him in our lives.
We long for His commands. We want to listen and respond. Not because we can’t think for ourselves as some might argue, but because His ways are smarter, better, and have a more long-term perspective than ours, and we know it.
If you had a loved one or friend who you knew was way smarter than you about something, wouldn’t seek their advice and help? Why should it be different with God, the Creator of everything?
We are not called simply to believe in His oneness, but to respond by putting Him in the center of our lives out of love and loyalty.
In Lois Tverberg’s book, Walking in the Dust with Rabbi Jesus, she sums it all up like this: “If the Lord alone is our God, and we worship no other gods, then we can love Him with all of our heart and soul and strength. The two sentences together become one commandment.”
How to Love God
In Deuteronomy 6:6, God commands us to…
- Teach His words diligently to our children
- Talk about them when we sit down, go for a walk, lay down, and rise up
- Bind them as a sign on our hand
- Put them as frontlets between our eyes
- Write them on the doorposts and gates of our homes
Why does God tell us to do so much? Why can’t we just declare our loyalty without all the work? The answer is it’s because He’s trying to drive us to put Him first in our lives. He needs to be at the center of everything we say and do all day, every day.
If we can’t put God first, then it is very difficult to listen and respond to Him, or to show our dedication to Him. And quite frankly, it can mean that perhaps we have put something or someone else ahead of Him. That would be idolatry. Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:32-33,
“Therefore, whoever confesses Me before men, him I will confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.”
And I pray none of us simply gives it the old college try and doesn’t truly put God first. Jesus addressed those kinds of Christians too in Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”
It’s very important to put God first in our lives and give Him the respect and honor He deserves.
Christians and the Shema
So, should today’s Christian pray the Shema?
Some people might suggest or argue that we don’t need to. After all, it’s a Jewish thing to do, right? But I think we should. Praying the Shema is more than just declaring the Lord’s greatness and sovereignty, it’s also about creating a daily habit of praying.
Many of us already pray every day. But how many of us use our prayer time to reaffirm our allegiance to God and nothing more?
John 14:21 says, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.”
And, why do we love the Lord? Because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). This is why the Shema is so important. When we pray it, we are saying we recognize that God first loved us, so we listen to His commands and respond out of love to Him knowing His ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Following God and serving Him is always out of gratefulness and humility for all He has done to save us from sin and death. It’s simply all about love.
Our children swear allegiance to our country’s flag five times a week. Surely we can swear allegiance to the Lord—the one who died for us and rose again—at least that much.
Praying the Shema
If you’re interested in incorporating the Shema into your daily prayer life, start with bite-sized pieces as you memorize it. Maybe just a couple of sentences at a time, and before you know it you’ll be reciting it without a moment’s hesitation.
If memorizing the Shema proves to be too difficult, just keep your Bible handy. Jewish Temple priests expected everyone to memorize the Shema, but God doesn’t specifically say it’s required. What He’s more concerned with is your attitude and your heart.
So, why not open your Bible to Deuteronomy 6:4 and read it out loud to the Lord tonight? What a beautiful way to tell Him how much you love Him and that He truly is first in your life!
The Bible Project put together a very short, easy-to-understand animated video explaining the Shema. Take a look at it here.
I also LOVE Lois Tverberg’s book, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus. She is a highly respected and world-renowned author and teacher of ancient Jewish culture. All her books provide amazing insight into what the Hebrew world was like when Jesus walked here. You can easily find it on Amazon and Christianbook.com. Check it out today. I cannot recommend it enough! I promise, you will be blessed.