The Sh'ma can be recited in any language, so I asked Chat GPT to toss me 20 of them....
- English: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One
- Arabic: الشمعة (Ash-Sham'a) (Mandarin): 殷勤 (Yīnqín)
- French: Écoute, Israël, l'Éternel est notre Dieu, l'Éternel est un.
- German: Höre, Israel, der Herr, unser Gott, der Herr ist einzig.
- Hindi: हे इसराइल, यहोवा हमारा देवता है, यहोवा एक है। (He Israil, Yahova hamara devata hai, Yahova ek hai.
- Italian: Ascolta, Israele, il Signore nostro Dio è unico Signore.
- Japanese: シーマ (Shiima)
Chinese (Mandarin): 殷勤 (Yīnqín)
- Korean: 스마 (Seuma)
- Polish: Słuchaj, Izraelu, Pan, nasz Bóg, Pan jeden jest.
- Portuguese: Ouça, ó Israel, o SENHOR é nosso Deus, o SENHOR é um.
- Russian: Шма Исраэль, Адонай Элохэйну, Адонай ехад. (Shma Izra'el, Adonay Eloheinu, Adonay ekhad.)
- Spanish: Escucha, Israel, el Señor nuestro Dios, el Señor uno es.
- Swahili: Sikiliza, Israel, Bwana Mungu wetu, Bwana mmoja.
- Turkish: Şema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Ehad.
- Urdu: ای اسرائیل، یہووا ہمارا خدا ہے، یہووا ایک ہے۔ (Aye Israil, Yahova hamara khuda hai, Yahova ek hai.)
- Vietnamese: Hỡi Ít-ra-en, Đức Giê-hô-va là Đức Chúa Trời của chúng ta, Đức Giê-hô-va là một.
- Yiddish: שמע ישראל, ה' אלהינו, ה' אחד. (Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad.)
- Greek: Ακούετε, Ισραήλ, ο Κύριος ο Θεός μας, ο Κύριος είναι ένας. (Akouete, Israeel, o Kyrios o Theos mas, o Kyrios einai enas.
- Dutch: Hoor, Israël, de HEER is onze God, de HEER is één.
I then asked Chat GPT to provide 20 different ways to translate the Sh'ma into English. It gave me 19, but I think I interrupted it while it was composing the last one.
Nice try, but it strains credulity to find an Orthodox Jewish translation that would use the term "Yahweh." Then I asked for "rabbinic and more modern" commentaries on the translations of that verse.
Sure, here are 10 different translations of the Sh'ma into English, along with rabbinic and more modern commentaries:
"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." (Standard translation)
- Rabbinic commentary: According to the Talmud (Berakhot 13b), the Sh'ma is said twice daily as a declaration of faith in the oneness of God.
- Modern commentary: This verse emphasizes the unity of God, which is a central tenet of Judaism. It reminds us that there is only one God, who is both the creator of the universe and the God of the Jewish people.
"Listen, Israel! The Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone." (Jewish Publication Society Tanakh)
- Rabbinic commentary: The word "Eternal" (Adonai) is used in place of God's actual name (YHWH), which is considered too sacred to pronounce.
- Modern commentary: This translation emphasizes that God is the one and only God, and that the Jewish people have a special relationship with God as their God.
"Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God is the only Lord." (New Revised Standard Version)
- Rabbinic commentary: The word "Lord" (Adonai) is used here as a synonym for God, emphasizing his sovereignty and authority.
- Modern commentary: This verse reminds us that there is no other god besides the Lord, and that he alone has the power to save us.
"Listen, Israel! The LORD our God is the one and only LORD." (Contemporary English Version)
- Rabbinic commentary: This verse is often recited as a confession of faith, affirming the oneness of God and the Jewish people's commitment to serve him.
- Modern commentary: This translation emphasizes that there is only one God, and that he alone deserves our worship and devotion.
"Hear, Israel, YHWH is our God, YHWH alone." (Hebrew Names Version)
- Rabbinic commentary: The use of God's actual name (YHWH) in this translation underscores the intimacy and personal nature of our relationship with him.
- Modern commentary: This verse reminds us that God is our God, and that we have a special covenantal relationship with him as his chosen people.
"Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is a single Lord." (New American Standard Bible)
- Rabbinic commentary: This verse is sometimes understood to mean that God is one and indivisible, without any division or hierarchy within the Godhead.
- Modern commentary: This translation emphasizes that God is a unified and singular being, with no rivals or competitors.
"Listen, Israel! Yahweh our God is one Yahweh." (World English Bible)
- Rabbinic commentary: The use of God's actual name (Yahweh) in this translation reinforces the Jewish people's deep personal relationship with God.
- Modern commentary: This verse reminds us that there is only one God, and that we must love him with all our heart, soul, and might.
"Hear, Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one." (Conservative Judaism)
- Rabbinic commentary: The word "Eternal" (Adonai) is used here as a reminder that God is eternal and unchanging.
- Modern commentary: This translation emphasizes that God is one and indivisible, and that we must worship him with sincerity and devotion.
"Listen, Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is unique."
What is the purpose of this exercise? It points to the strengths and weaknesses of Artificial Intelligence in its state of infancy - as well as the power of this particular prayer. The Sh'ma speaks to the ultimate Oneness that imbues the universe - a unity of God, of humanity, of language itself. I could have asked for the translation into a thousand, but it always brings us back to the singular Hebrew original. At the same time, this unique prayer proclaiming Oneness has an infinite number of shadings and meanings. From the one, many and from the many, one. Demonstrating that in a matter of seconds is a great strength of Chat GPT.
But the commentaries offered here are weak, pedantic, run of the mill, and so many classic Jewish replies are not included here.
Here are ten ways that I understand the Sh'ma - the verse and the prayer. All could have been part of the Chat GPT response. None were.
1) The Sh'ma as Witness:
The Hebrew verse has two letters that are enlarged, the ayin of the first word (Sh'ma) and the daled of the last word (Ehad). Why?
a) Those two letters spell the word "Ayd," which means "witness." In saying the Sh'ma we are bearing witness to the unity of God and creation
b) Those letters are enlarged to keep us from mispronouncing those two words. A daled looks much like a resh, which could lead us to say "Aher" (other) instead of "Ehad," implying that there is another God.
When it comes to bearing witness, we Jews are the world champs. Theologian Art Green asks, why does the Sh’ma say “Adonai Eloheynu,” Adonai OUR God? Adonai, he states, was what was there before each of us came into existence. Adonai becomes Eloheynu - OUR God - for the brief instant that our lives flash across the screen. But then we let it go, and it is Adonai, once again, endless being. Our individual existences are merely the blink of an eye – but we are linked to an eternal life force, and we are eternal witnesses to its power, and to the role that our people have played in the unfolding of the divine drama.
Just think about that – Sh’ma Yisrael….Adonai-Eloheynu-Adonai…echad. Each of us is living in that one narrow window of time, that brief, fleeting moment of Eloheynu, shoehorned in between the two Adonais – the eternities that preceded our birth and that will follow. For this brief moment, we inherit the mantle of being a witness to all that has come before, all of that becomes ours, all that sanctity becomes Eloheynu, Our God. What are we going to do with that gift.
Yes, much of our Jewish experience has been painful, but that has given us the unique ability to feel others’ pain because we ourselves have felt it. We have the responsibility to love the stranger, as the Torah instructs us more than 30 times, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We have that certain instinct, radar to detect prejudice, an instinct that few others have. We can bear witness to all suffering. Because we have felt that pain.
2) The Sh'ma as a prayer of transformation and transition:
The Sh'ma is the perfect transitional and transformational prayer. The one that helps us mark the change from evening to morning, from past to future, from lying down to rising up, from home to away, from childhood to Bar Mitzvah to parenthood, from life to death, from comfort to martyrdom, from periphery to witness, and all by uttering the name of God, Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey – the name that is breath, the One that is One, proclaiming that all life is, in fact one – as long as we are breathing. You WILL Love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. B’kchol nafshecha – with all your nefesh. That word nefesh means more than soul. It is that sacred breath of life, breathed into us by God, which we breathe back out into the world. To breathe is to testify to the gift of being alive, of constantly becoming, constantly growing.
The God I believe in is a God of change. Our lives are governed not by stagnancy but by flow. The only constant is change, and we need to adapt, constantly adapt to it. We need to Grow with the Flow. Like nature itself, we are not perfect. We make mistakes. But perfection is the road to extinction. When we become perfect someday, we’ll all have become robots. Perfection is not a goal to aim for; it is an illusion to dispel.
3) The Sh'ma and the power of ritual:
How often do we recite it? We say this prayer up to five times in a given day, more on Yom Kippur. Why do we recite it and not the Ten Commandments? In fact, the fringes of the tallit, the tzitzit, which are discussed in the third paragraph of the Sh'ma prayer, symbolize all 613 commandments, and not just the Big Ten. So the Sh'ma is therefore number 1.
The Sh'ma reminds us of the importance of ritual. V’shinantam l’vanecha, the Sh’ma says, “Teach your children and speak of these sacred words.” But it doesn’t really say "teach.” V’shanantam means repeat. Don’t just teach this to your child once. Do it a second time. Repeat. Again and again. We have another word for repetition. Ritual. Daily prayer, weekly Sabbath, seasonal holidays, annual gatherings like this – that’s the Jewish way of dealing with the chaos. Discipline, repetition and focus.
4) The Sh'ma helps us to live with focus, passion and intensity:
The Sh'ma is one of oldest prayers – it was found in tefillin from the1st century! Tefillin are alluded to in the Sh'ma - The amulet shows that our connection with God is one of great passion and intensity, like a marriage. The straps around the finger symbolize a wedding ring. (Click here for more about tefllin.) And then there is the mezuzah, the put on the doorpost to help us focus on making a home a sacred space. The Sh'ma is all about focus. In the Talmud, we hear that when the time for the Sh’ma arrived Rabbi Yehuda would cover his eyes, because he was engaged in other activities. The recitation of the Sh’ma was seen as a moment of deep inward turning and intense concentration. It remains a custom to cover our eyes today when reciting the Sh’ma. There is no multitasking with the Sh’ma. This intense concentration is how we turn a set prayer, one recited at a set time, into something more purpose-filled.
5) The Sh'ma helps us to gain control of time.
When and how do we say this prayer? The paragraph states, "when you lie down and when you rise up."The very first discussion among rabbis in the Talmud was about when to recite the morning Sh’ma. Hillel and Shammai also argued about whether one should be standing or sitting. And when exactly should it be recited in the morning? How do we seize control over time? It came down to one of two things – either when it’s light enough to distinguish different colored threads of the tzitzit or for us to recognize the face of a casual acquaintance at a distance of about 6 feet. Maimonides fixed that time as being about 6 minutes before sunrise. The window for the morning Sh’ma extends for about three hours, for that is when, according to the sages, princes and kings would arise. Even royals were tied to the clock. Even they had to answer to a higher authority. Saying the Sh’ma at the right time was considered by our sages to be a more meritorious act even than the study of Torah. And then again, just before bed – when we are most fearful. And how should we say these words? We should say the Sh'ma with Kavvana (concentration), which is why many close their eyes, with the intention of accepting the burden of the "sovereignty of heaven."
But, you may ask, hasn’t technology liberated us from the tyranny of time? Isn’t it true that now we don’t have even to set appointments? After all, if we’re running late - which we always are - we can simply text the other person so that both of us can arrive late. Spontaneity has taken over as we’ve lost our ability to schedule. Time can be adjusted to suit our own particular needs. Dinner hour? Who’s kidding whom? When you work 24/7, you don’t dine, you graze. There is never a set time to eat anymore.
6) The Sh'ma promotes Jewish unity and continuity:
Who wrote the Sh'ma? The Sh'ma is ascribed by some to King Josiah, who sought to unify his southern kingdom and draw people away from the idolatry that was rampant. The Sh'ma was the credo established to bring about that unified response, much like our Pledge of Allegiance. 6) Others ascribe the verse to Jacob's children at his deathbed, pledging to carry on the faith before their father, also known as Israel. "Listen, Israel (Dad), the Lord who you worship, who is also our God - is one and the same. We'll carry on the faith!"
7) The Sh'ma enables us to see the universe as an integrated whole, to see God in everything and everyone. See this Marge Piercy poem: Piercy translates it this way:
Hear, Israel, you are of God and God is one.
Praise the name that speaks us through all time.
So you shall love what is holy with all your courage, with all your passion
with all your strength.
Let the words that have come down
shine in our words and our actions.
We must teach our children to know and understand them.
We must speak about what is good
and holy within our homes
when we are working, when we are at play,
when we lie down and when we get up.
Let the work of our hands speak of goodness.
Let it run in our blood
and glow from our doors and windows.
We should love ourselves, for we are of God.
We should love our neighbors as ourselves.
We should love the stranger, for we
were once strangers in the land of Egypt
and have been strangers in all the lands of the world since.
Let love fill our hearts with its clear precious water.
Heaven and earth observe how we cherish or spoil our world.
Heaven and earth watch whether we choose life or choose death.
We must chose life so our children's children may live.
Be quiet and listen to the still small voice within that speaks in love.
Open to that voice, hear it, heed it and work for life.
Let us remember and strive to be good.
Let us remember to find what is holy within and without.
8) The Sh'ma escorts us from birth to death:
This prayer is the first thing Jews learn as kids (traditionally recited at bedtime) and the last thing on our lips before we die. This is the prayer recited by Rabbi Akiva as he was martyred two thousand years ago, and by Jews dying at Auschwitz.
9) The Sh'ma and Love
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO LOVE GOD? . We are first commanded to internalize the mitzvot — to literally take them to heart. And that is the means that bring us to the end - love of God. How then, can you command love? Well, it’s not really a command, as professor Reuven Kimelman has pointed out. Read properly, “V’ahavta is a response. An instinctive reaction projecting love out into the world. Projecting back what we have received.” In both the morning and evening liturgies, the Sh’ma is immediately preceded by a prayer about love. In the morning, that prayer is Ahava Rabbah – “A Great Love,” a transcendent love, an UNCONDITIONAL love. The word for love, “Ahava,” appears in various forms no fewer than six times in that single prayer, including the first, middle and last words. Love, love, love, love, love, love. Six times! Like a mantra. We are loved by an unconditional love – a boundless love, as we say at night, Ahavat Olam. When you’ve been loved in that way, when the world has loved you in that way, the only way to respond is to give love in return.
You’ve undoubtedly heard that old bit of wisdom from Dorothy Law Nolte, “Children learn what they live”
If a child lives with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If a child lives with praise, they learn to appreciate.
If a child lives with security, they learn to have faith.
If a child lives with acceptance, and friendship, they learn to find love in the world.
This is a popularized version of Erik Erikson’s idea of basic trust. The psychologist conducted an enormous amount of research showing that children who have a secure attachment with loving, sensitive caregivers come to know a world that is predictable and reliable. The Sh’ma is saying that such a world is at the root of the Jewish concept of love. A loving parent is doing God’s work. A nurturing community becomes God’s place - which is, by the way, what Temple Beth El aspires to be, an ever-embracing community, from womb to tomb, a conduit of divine love, nurturing our temple family and then projecting it out into the world.
Well, our prayers seem to be telling us that we have lived in a child’s paradise. A world of freely given love, an unending flow of love. And all we have to do is recognize it – and return it. And return it with ALL our heart, which for the ancients meant with our intellect, and ALL our soul, our nefesh, which is life itself, and with all our might, all our physical and material capacity. Love the world as best you can, in any way that you can, because we’ve been loved.
We take that love and hurl it right back at ya’ God, right back at ya’ to the world. That’s what we are here to do as Jews. We are here to love. Not because we are commanded to – rather because, when we have been enveloped by so much love, it is natural to want to give love back. The Sh'ma and V’Ahvata, then, to summarize, is not a command but a natural response to a lifetime of nurturing.
10) The Aspirational Sh'ma
We can also look at the Shma as a question rather than a proclamation. This is an interpretation with both Kabbalistic and modern shadings, We have to answer it – we have to MAKE God One.
Any of these commentaries could have been mentioned by Chat GPT - clearly it has a long way to go before it can replace rabbis and other Jewish educators.
“Hear/listen/pay attention Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One (Sole/Unique/Indivisible).”
Then he asks a series of questions:
- Who are we actually addressing by “Israel?”
- What do we mean by the word we translate as “Lord?”
- What do we mean by the word we translate as “our God?”
- What’s the difference between “Lord” and “God?”
- Why do we say “our God,” and not simply use the expression “the Lord is God?”
- What are we saying we when we claim God “Sole/Unique of Indivisible?”
- Wouldn’t it have meant the same thing if the verse had simply stated, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is One?”
- By attempting to answer the first six questions, we may arrive at the answer to our seventh question when we encounter the Shema.
And he answers them:
1. Who are we actually addressing by “Israel?”
Our verse is found in the Torah, in the book of Deuteronomy 6:4. This book comprises a series of three speeches that Moses, our great teacher, gives to the Israelites about a month before his departure from the world.
In this context, “Israel” could be understood as his referring to the assembled Israelites and a way of emphasizing the importance of this statement. However, the value of the Torah, as sacred literature, goes beyond its literal context.
The purpose of preserving these words was to provide a powerful message to future generations. In this context, “Israel” would refer to all Israel (i.e. the “Jewish People”) regarding future generations.
I remember a teacher suggesting that since “Israel” is a general way of referring to a person of Jewish extraction, we might substitute our own names for “Israel.” In this way, we would use this phrase as a meditation to ourselves; helping us focus on what follows. (For example, in my case, I would be saying to myself, “Hear/pay attention, Mordecai, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”)
2. What do we mean by the word we translate as “Lord?”
The word used in the Torah is the Tetragrammaton. (The Hebrew letters, Yud – Hei – Vav – Hei). As young children learning Hebrew we are taught that, out of deep respect, we don’t actually pronounce these letters as they are written. Instead, we pronounce them as “A-do-nai.”1
In analyzing the letters that make up this term for the God, we see that they can form the words “hayah,” “hoveh,” and “yihyeh,” meaning “was,” “is,” and “will be.” In other words, “Eternal being!” One who exists beyond the scope of time and is the Ultimate Cause of everything else that exists.
(eg. If we are capable, as humans, of thinking, what we term as God would be the cause of our thinking. This applies equally to every aspect of existence, from distant galaxies to the depths of the ocean, to every single creature and to our own bodily functions!)
The belief in such a “transcendent” Existent One arises from our own sense of wonder at the glory, variety and complexity of the Universe in which we live.
While there may be many who might chose to deny the existence of this dimension of reality, there others who do sense and believe in this aspect of our existence. Believing that there is a Sole, Unique, Indivisible Transcendent Existent One is the basis of believing in A-DO-NAI.
3. What do we mean by the word we translate as “our God?”
4. What’s the difference between “Lord” and “God?”
5. Why do we say “our God,” and not simply use the expression “the Lord is God?”
These questions are actually all connected.
The basic meaning of the word “Elohim” that we translate as “God,” is “judge.” So when we say “A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu,” we’re actually declaring that we accept A-do-nai as our judge.
In other words, we accept God as the one who is the sole and ultimate arbiter of our fate as human beings. It automatically means that we accept upon ourselves that we are individually – and collectively as members of the Jewish people – accountable to the One who is the Source of all Existence. That’s why we use the term “our” in referring to “E-lo-him.”
As Children of Israel, we recognize that while many others may believe in One God, that doesn’t necessarily mean they accept the relationship that was initiated by Abraham and Sarah.
Belief in a Divine Creator is one thing; Accepting Divine Authority is another. That is exactly where the mitzvot play an essential role.
Again, accepting Divine Authority in general is one thing; accepting Divine Authority by performing specific acts; in other words, performing Divine Commandments takes the concept of this loyalty to a completely different level.
So declaring the words “A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu” is actually a pledge of loyalty to accept upon ourselves the performance of the mitzvot! This clearly implies finding out what those mitzvot are, and devoting ourselves to understanding how we would put them into practice – a task of a lifetime.
6. What are we saying we when we claim God “Sole/Unique of Indivisible?”
I believe this deals with the setting of our priorities. (To what degree do we consider God’s will in the decisions we make?)
In other words, “considering God’s will,” is taking into consideration our own relationship to the world in which we find ourselves. It takes us past our own self-interest and quite possibly to a place where we can find deep satisfaction with the role we play through the opportunities life presents us.
It also speaks to trust in “Something” far greater than ourselves.
Essentially by declaring what we have up to this point and stating our recognition that there is only One, Ultimate Source of our being and the very existence of the Universe, we can work towards the belief and practice that that Source that created us and this complex, amazing world is the Source of Kindness.
To quote our patriarch, Abraham, “Shall the Judge of all the earth, not perform justice?” Or a verse often quoted in the Psalms, “Acknowledge how good A-do-nai is, for His kindness endures forever!” We can decide how we wish to interpret the events of our lives and find ways to learn and develop – if we choose to believe.
Returning to question 1, above: More recently, I’ve come across one more interpretation of these six words, also based on a traditional interpretation of “Yisra’el.”
Our patriarch, Jacob’s, name was changed to “Israel.” The suggested interpretation of “Shema Yisra’el” is “Hear, O Jacob (Israel)! A-do-nai is our E-lo-him, A-do-nai the One.”
In other words we are declaring, over the millennia, that we remain loyal to the God of our ancestors both in our belief and in our practice – despite the long course of our checkered history and that “God” is One and the Same; our relationship to that God is one and the same and that the entire world is somehow linked together as the expression of God’s creative power.
The Shema, indeed, is a declaration of our Faith throughout history of our relationship to our ancestors and our God.
7. Wouldn’t it have meant the same thing if the verse had simply stated, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is One?”
I will let you answer that question!
1 Actually, we even go a step beyond this in showing respect for the Divine. We are only supposed to use these terms to denote God in prayer. Instead of “Ado-nai,” we substitute the term “Adoshem,” or simply “HaShem” (= “the Name”), and instead of “Elo-him,” we use the term “Elokim.” This principle is expanded to other names used for God. Our ancient rabbis introduced the term “HaKadosh Baruch Hu,” meaning “The Holy One, blessed be He,” to refer to God in common parlance.
So you can see, Chat GPT may someday be able to impart great eternal truths to us, but for now, it needs to go back to the basics and reflect on the multitude of possible meanings found in this one simple prayer.
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