Love in the Shma: Two Radically Different Approaches

Rav Uri C. Cohen, Former Rosh Kollel – Syracuse

Familiarity may not breed contempt of the tefillot (prayers) we say every day, but it certainly makes us feel overconfident about how much we understand. After all, isn’t knowing the words by heart the same as knowing their meaning?

If only!

Before we look at two ways to understand the first paragraph of the Shma (Devarim 6:4–9), let’s do a quick review of how it’s usually understood. Here’s a good translation:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. These words which I command you today shall be on your heart. Teach them repeatedly to your children, speaking of them when you sit at home and when you travel on the way, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be an emblem between your eyes. Write them on the doorposts of your house and gates (translated by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Siddur, p. 98).

If you asked the average person what’s involved in love, they might say it’s doing nice things for the one you love, showing that you care, and so on. But that’s not what the Shma says. What’s love got to do with the detailed actions described here?

 Approach One: Being Loyal

One possibility is to read the Shma in political terms that could have been familiar to Bnei Yisrael or anybody else living in the Ancient Near East (ANE). In ANE loyalty oaths or treaties, between a suzerain (ruler) and a vassal (subject), the word “love” appears. For example, in the El Amarna letters, the king of Byblos (in present-day Lebanon) writes to Pharaoh, “Behold the city! Half of it loves the sons of ‘Abd-Asir-ta [who rebelled against Pharaoh], and half of it loves my lord” (cited by Prof. Joshua Berman, “God’s Alliance with Man,” Azure 25 (Summer 2006), In this context, “love” doesn’t mean affection but rather loyalty.

Accordingly, the first paragraph of the Shma might be understood as follows:

Be loyal to the Lord your God with all your resources, to the point of self-sacrifice, and with all your armies. You should internalize this contract which I command you today. Make sure your children continue the contract. You should talk about it wherever you go. Wear a sign of allegiance on your arm and where you can see it. Display a copy of the contract by your front door.

Along these lines, the late Prof. Moshe Weinfeld (1925-2009) suggested that the tefillah of Emet VeYatziv, which we say right after the Shma in Shacharit, contains expressions that are direct parallels to the loyalty oaths which started in the ANE and continued in Greek and Roman times (when the tefillah was composed). It seems that Chazal understood the Shma to be the conditions of Hashem’s contract, so they created Emet VeYatziv to be our acceptance of those conditions (“The Loyalty Oath in the Ancient Near East,” Ugarit-Forschungen 8 (1976), pp. 379-414).

 Approach Two: Being Lovesick

A second possibility is to read the Shma in romantic terms. The Rambam declares that the ideal fulfillment of the mitzvah to love Hashem is by being in love with God:

 What is that proper love [which a person is to love God]? A great, exceedingly intense love, until his soul is bound up with love of God and he finds himself immersed within it. It is as if he is lovesick, when a man’s mind is never free of the thought of that woman, and he thinks of her perpetually – whether sitting, standing, eating or drinking. Greater than this should be the love of God in the hearts of His lovers, pondering upon Him perpetually, as we have been commanded: “with all your heart and all your soul.” It is of this that King Shlomo allegorically has said: “I am lovesick,” and all of Shir HaShirim is an allegory for this (Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:5, translated by Rav Reuven Ziegler, “Teshuva: Repentance and Return,”

Notice that the Rambam refers explicitly to the Shma’s words (bekhol levavkha uvekhol nafshekha). Accordingly, the first paragraph of the Shma might be understood as follows:

Be in love with the Lord your God with the most love that’s humanly possible, to the point of self-sacrifice, and wanting to give more even after giving everything. These words which I command you today should be heartfelt. Tell them to your children over and over. These words should be all you talk about, wherever you go, morning and evening. Wear a symbol of them on your finger, and tack the words up by the door.

What a contrast in approaches! Is it the legal or the emotional? Is it being loyal or being lovesick? The beauty of the Shma is that both are possible. These and those are the words of the living, loving God.