Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

The Day of Atonement 5771/ September 18, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Shema Yisrael


Prof.   Hayyim Halperin


Department of Physics

The verse “Hear, O Israel!  The Lord is our G-d, the Lord alone” (Deut. 6:4), accompanies Jews throughout life, from birth to death. This verse is recited at the circumcision ceremony; children are taught to recite the Shema from the moment they begin to speak; [1] in our prayers the verse is said aloud twice a day and mentioned several other times; at the conclusion of the High Holy Days, after the Ne`ilah service on the Day of Atonement, the entire congregation declaims this verse together, out loud; and when about to die Jews try to have this verse on their lips.  Below we shall investigate the special significance of this verse.

There is a controversy in Tractate Rosh ha-Shanah (32b) as to whether the verse, “Hear, O Israel,” contains the notion of G-d’s sovereignty:

“Hear, O Israel!   The Lord is our G-d, the Lord alone” – Rabbi Jose maintains this refers to sovereignty.  Rabbi Judah says it does not. “Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the Lord alone is G-d in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other” (Deut. 4:39) – Rabbi Jose maintains this refers to sovereignty.   Rabbi Judah says it does not.   “It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the Lord alone is G-d; there is none beside Him” (Deut. 4:35) – Rabbi Jose maintains this refers to sovereignty.  Rabbi Judah says it does not.

The Halakhah follows the view of Rabbi Jose; hence in the Musaf prayer of the New Year the passage about kingship concludes with this verse, “Hear, O Israel!”  The Sages commonly viewed these words also as denoting acceptance of the Lord’s sovereignty, as expressed in the next verse which they ordained for recitation, both in the daily reading of the Shema and at the end of the Day of Atonement:  “Blessed be His glorious, sovereign Name for ever and ever.”  Commentators, however, dispute whether these words express the Lord’s sovereignty.  Arukh la-Ner [2] notes:

It is somewhat difficult to fathom Rabbi Judah’s reasoning, since the main passage from which learn about sovereignty comes from the words [at the end of the Shema], “I, the Lord, am your G-d” (Num.10:10), as we said above; so we see that deity is called sovereignty.

These remarks of Arukh la-Ner were made in the context of the gemara on the previous page (32a):

What are we to learn from the words, “I, the Lord, am your G-d” (Num. 10:10)?  This comes to teach that wherever we recite Zikhronot (verses about remembering) we also have Malkhuyot (verses about sovereignty).

Meiri, [3] however, writes in his commentary on the gemara that “they [the verses in Numbers] are all about sovereignty and may be said instead of sovereignty, for belief in one G-d (Hashem ehad) is tantamount to accepting His sovereignty and denying dominion to any other.”  We shall discuss this controversy between Arukh la-Ner, who deduced that the notion of the Lord’s sovereignty is subsumed by the words “the Lord is our G-d”(Hashem elokenu) and Meiri, who deduced that it is inferred in the words, “the Lord alone” (Hashem ehad) after we take a close look at the biblical verse and its significance.

One striking feature of this verse, setting it aside from other verses in the Torah, is that it includes the content of the first two commandments:  “I am (anokhi)…” = “the Lord is our G-d” and “You shall have no other gods before me" = “the Lord alone.”  The plain sense of the verse is as explained in Sefer ha-Hinukh (commandment 417), “that we are commanded to believe that the Lord, blessed be His Name, is the mover of all existence, Lord of everything, One and with no partner.”

This idea serves as the foundation for attempts in the natural sciences in general, and in physics in particular, to find an overall theory that provides a single explanation for many varied phenomena, or even a single law that subsumes all the laws of nature.   For example, about 170 years ago electricity and magnetism were not recognized as being interrelated, until Maxwell’s theory united them.  Viewing them in conjunction led to the hypothesis that there exist electromagnetic waves, which in turn led to putting them to use, first in radio and later in television, microwave ovens, etc.  These endeavors led to great strides in understanding the laws of nature. However, the justification for these new laws was only in their practical success or in satisfying our curiosity.  From the outset there was no reason to believe in such meta-theories if the laws of nature are something that appear randomly and were not set by a single Creator.   In the natural sciences this difficulty is generally ignored, since scientists study the laws of nature and their effects, but not their causes, as the Sages observed (Hagigah 11b):

Our Rabbis taught:  “You have but to inquire about bygone ages” (Deut. 4:32) – one individual may ask, but not two people.  A person might inquire about what was before Creation, as we learn from the verse, “ever since G-d created man on earth” (loc. sit.).   May a person ask about what was since the six days of Creation? Yes, as we learn from the words, “about bygone ages that came before you”(ibid.)  May a person ask what is in the heavens above, or on earth below, what lies ahead and what lies behind? No, as we learn from the verse, “on earth, from one end of heaven to the other”(ibid.)  One can ask about what lies from one end of the heavens to the other, but not about what is above and what below, what is ahead and what is behind.

Now we return to the verse, “Hear, O Israel,” and analyze its words, which can be divided naturally into three phrases:

Hear, O Israel – the word “hear” [Heb. shema`] expresses not only hearing with the ear, but also listening, understanding and accepting, [4] as in the verse, “And if you obey [sh-m-`] these rules” (Deut. 7:12).   The need for such an introduction to what follows is explained by Rabbenu Bahya: [5]

Since a person might utter words, sometimes with close attention, sometimes without attending, therefore shema is included, this being a word that means hearing with the ear and understanding with the intellect; i.e., that a person should pay attention to the words being said regarding G-d’s oneness, as these words are voiced so as to be heard by the ear.

The Lord [Y-H-W-H] is our G-d – the special name of the Holy One, blessed be He, is not read aloud as it is written (save for extremely special occasions in the Temple), just as one does not call a king by his private name.  We read this name as if it were written Adonai [lit., my Lord], i.e., we recognize that the Holy One, blessed be He, is our Lord, yet at the same time we think about the written Name, whose root is that of existence, signifying that the Holy One, blessed be He, brings all into existence and also exists forever.

Our G-d – the name, Elokim (G-d) means the Omnipotent, hence it is also used to denote judges.   But what is meant by such expressions as “our G-d” or “G-d of the earth”?  The most straightforward sense follows Ralbag’s explanation of this verse, that the addition of the suffix denoting possession in the first person plural expresses that He is the Omnipotent One who guides us and watches over us.

The Lord alone – these words mean several things.  On the simplest level they mean that the Holy One, blessed be He, is our only G-d and that we worship none other, as in the commandment:  “You shall have no other gods besides Me” (Ex. 20:3).  A deeper meaning of the word ehad (= “one,” rendered here as “alone”), according to Maimonides, is that He is not like a book which contains many pages or chapters, each of which can be taken as a part unto itself, or a single body comprised of many limbs, each of which has a special function; rather the Lord is One and unparalleled in His quality of being single and indivisible. [6]   But to convey this it would have sufficed to say, “The Lord is our One G-d,” without repeating the words, “the Lord [alone].”  Through this repetition we proclaim far more, namely that the Lord is the only Mover of the universe and that there is no independent force acting on anything else in the world. [7]   This notion has many far-reaching and important implications, as explained by Luzzato, although this is not the place to go into further detail.

Returning now to the difference of opinion between Arukh la-Ner and Meiri, if we pay close attention to their words we see that Arukh la-Ner only mentioned the Lord’s sovereignty, and Meiri, only acceptance of the yoke of His sovereignty.  Perhaps there is no contradiction in their interpretation of this verse, both acknowledging that declaring the Lord to be our G-d, the Omnipotent who guides and watches over us, is tantamount to declaring His sovereignty.   However the addition that He, blessed be His name, is the only One (ehad) who does so is essential to accepting His sovereignty.  Pagans believed that there is more than one god and that each deity reigns over a certain aspect of existence, and therefore there is no reason to obey only one of them.   Only with the recognition that the Lord is the sole guiding force comes the obligation to act only according to His will, i.e., to accept His sovereignty.  In this regard, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote in his commentary on the prayer book: [8]

“Accepting the sovereignty of Heaven” means effacing our entire being as one, along with our entire world, and subjugating it to the sole sovereignty of Heaven – this, according to the Sages, summarizes the content of the Shema.


[1] Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De`ah, 245.5.

[2] R. Jacob b. R. Aaron Ettlinger, Germany, d. 1872.

[3] R. Menahem b. R. Solomon Meir, southern France, d. 1315.

[4] Abarbanel, Deut. Ch. 6; Hovot ha-Levavot, ch. 1, introduction.

[5] Rabbenu Bahya, Deut. 6:4.

[6] Maimonides, Hilkhot Yesodei Torah, 1.7, and the commentary there.

[7] According to R. Moses Hayyim Luzzato (Ramahal), Da`at Tevunot, 48ff.

[8] Siddur Tefillot Yisrael, with commentary by R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (Mossad ha-Rav Kook, Jerusalem 1992), p. 68.