The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism as Exemplified in the Shema, the Most Important Passage in the Torah

By Norman Lamm | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
"Israel": The People or the Person?

The plain sense of this word in the biblical verse is fairly obvious: "Israel" here refers to the entirety of the people summoned by Moses to hear the proclamation of divine unity. Similarly, when an individual worshiper recites these words, he is making a public proclamation. He thereby testifies to his belief, as it were, before all Israel.

Indeed, the affirmation of divine unity is not a "private" matter between one person and God alone; it is an affirmation by each individual Jew, who in declaring this faith, integrates into kelal Yisrael, "the whole community of Israel," as well as into the unbroken continuum of Jewish faith and faithfulness. That is why this verse begins with the word shema, "hear," in the singular (rather than shim'u, in the plural): the original words were addressed to the entire people of Israel as one, rather than to a mass of individuals.1

For another interpretation of " Israel," we turn to a midrash ( Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:25) based upon a famous aggada mentioned in the Talmud ( Pesaḥim 56a), concerning our custom of interjecting, after the first verse of Shema, a line not found in the Bible: Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le'olam va-ed, usually translated as "Blessed is the Name of His glorious Kingdom forever and ever." In explaining why this verse has been added to the Shema, the aggada links the Shema to the biblical patriarch Jacob, whose other name was Israel:

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