Deuteronomy 6:4 is arguably the most well-known verse in the Torah. It is recited and has been recited by millions upon millions since Moses first presented these timeless words in the Plains of Moab. Traditionally observant Jews and other biblically oriented people daily speak a form of this ancient affirmation of God’s oneness. It has come to be known simply as The Shema because of its opening word.
Most modern English translations present the words similarly though some translations are more literal in their rendering of the underlying Hebrew than others. For our purposes, we will begin with the translation of these words as they appear in the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation.
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.
But this is a modern English translation. The 1611 King James Version exhibits slight differences due to the evolution of writing and particularly orthography, or spelling. It reads:
Heare, O Israel, the LORD our God is one LORD. [*Note the final “e” attached to the word hear.]
Moses spoke these words in Hebrew, but for the present we will continue our illustration in English.
Hebrew was originally written without vowel signs. Even today, scrolls of the Torah are written without the later developed signs that assist modern readers in the traditional pronunciation of the Hebrew characters. Modern Hebrew is also written without vowel signs. To illustrate this in English, let us look at the verse without vowels.
Hr srl th LRD r GD s n LRD.
The modern English reader knows how to pronounce these words even without vowels. The same applies to modern Hebrew readers when it comes to the Hebrew language.
But English letterforms have changed over time. In order to illustrate this point, here is the same example in an Old English font.
Additionally, Hebrew is read from right to left, and so the following example takes us even closer.
DRL n s dG r drL ht lrs rH
According to tradition, the Torah was originally written without breaks between the words. This is called scriptio continua [continuous script] and we find examples of this in early Semitic writing. Using our Old English font, we will now present the same verse, without vowels, right to left in a continuous script.
With this background, let us now venture into the Hebrew. The Shema appears in a pointed text in this manner:
Without vowel points, the text would look like this:
Without the spaces, the text would look like this:
This is the way it would look in the letterforms of the Mesha Stele (or Moabite Stone) which is dated to the 9th-century B.C.E.
Those who have read my book, The Moses Scroll, are aware that The Shema appears in that manuscript. Interestingly, it occurs BEFORE the Ten Words and with a slight difference. Rather than contain the Tetragrammaton or four-lettered name of God, it uses Elohim. Here is The Shema as it appeared in the manuscript as drawn by an artist in 1883.
The Shema represents the central confession of the oneness of God. It would have originally been written in an ancient Semitic script, right to left, and most likely without spacing.
We are introduced to “God” in the Bible by the Hebrew Elohim. Apparently, the name YHVH was revealed later. The Book of Exodus tells us that the name was not known until it was revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:13-15; 6:2-3).
What were the precise words taught to the children of Israel in the Plains of Moab? One wonders.
Modern orthodoxy substitutes Adonai [Lord] for the Divine name. At least one manuscript, reportedly discovered in a cave east of the Dead Sea, high up on the northern face of the Wadi Mujib, suggests that the earliest version may also have lacked the name that was “not revealed” until later.
The Shema is the central confession of faith and an ancient profession of the Oneness of God. These words should be written on the heart, taught to our children, recited when we are at home or away, when we lie down, and when we rise.
In The Moses Scroll, these words are presented in this form:
Shema Israel, Elohim Eloheinu, Elohim Echad!
Hear O Israel, Elohim our Elohim, Elohim is One!