They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Shema – Part 3

“And you shall love your neighbor as yourself”
“Ve’ahvta Reacha Kamocha”
Leviticus 19:18 (English & Hebrew)

Most of us are familiar with the story in Matthew 22:34-40, where the expert in the law asked Jesus the question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Jesus answered his question by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 (the Shema). He then added what most of us would have thought was a new twist to their thinking when he continued, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. Jesus seemed to be adding a New Testament requirement of love to the legalistic framework of the law. But, was this the case? Where did Jesus come up with his addition to the Shema, ”to love your neighbor as yourself”? Was this a new idea from our rabbi? What was Jesus really trying to say in answer to the expert’s question? Let’s take a closer look.

It is a surprise to find that Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself comes from Leviticus 19:18 in the Old Testament! To confuse matters further, when asked for the greatest commandment, Jesus gave two! How many great commandments were there, one or two? By looking at the Hebrew meaning of the words, ”and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and by situating them in their original Jewish context we will be able to better clarify what Jesus was really saying and draw attention to a vital point that Jesus was making in his reply. This point is not obvious to a western thinking person only reading the passage in English.

Ve’ahvta – As we learned in our recent study of Deuteronomy 6:5, this means, ”and you shall love”. In fact, this phrase only occurs three times in the Torah, two of them in Leviticus 19 (verse 18 and 34), and the other in Deuteronomy 6:5. This will become an important point later in the study. You can re-read our post on Shema – Part 2 for a more detailed explanation of ve’ahvata.

Reahka – “Your neighbor” – typically means companion, fellow, kinsman, or friend. But, from the Good Samaritan story, we know Jesus expanded the concept of neighbor far beyond kinsman or friend. You can read the post on “The Good Samaritan” for a more in depth look at who our neighbor really is.

Kamokha – “As / like yourself” – literally means, “like yourself”. To love your neighbor as you love yourself is obviously a worthwhile goal. However, this phrase can also read in a different way, “love your neighbor who is like or similar to yourself”. Supporting this interpretation, just a few lines later in Leviticus 19:34, this verse has exactly that sense. To paraphrase this verse, “Show love to foreigners because they are like yourselves – you also were once slaves in Egypt”. This idea of comparing ourselves to our neighbor makes sense when you re-read Leviticus 19:18; don’t seek revenge or bear a grudge, but love your neighbor who is like yourself. When you get angry with your neighbor, don’t forget that you are the same way. We are all flawed and sinful and we all suffer from the same problems. We are all in need of God’s mercy. This brings to mind the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors”. This interpretation takes loving our neighbor to a deeper level and puts our love for the people around us in the proper perspective. We are all flawed and hurting, so try to have compassion and a good word for those around you.

When you examine Jesus’ answer from a Jewish historical perspective, another fascinating interpretation is revealed. The expert in the law was not asking Jesus which commandment was above all the others, but which one best summarized or encompassed all the others. Before and after the time of Jesus, the sages of Israel debated and attempted to formulate a condensed set of principles that would represent the whole Torah. What few verses best summed up the foundational principles that the whole Torah espoused? They debated and some chose Micah 6:8, others Habakkuk 2:4, among others. Jesus’ response to the experts questions was his brilliant answer to this summary principle that the rabbis had so long discussed. Jesus did it by employing a foundational method of teaching in Hebrew known as “gezara shava”, which means a comparison of equals. This method used scripture to interpret scripture. Two texts could be united to one another for mutual interpretation by a word or words that they had in common. To understand the meaning of a verse, you would look in the Torah and see where else that same key word or phrase was used and then use one to interpret the other. In Jesus’ answer, he connects (ve’ahvta) – and you shall love the Lord your God of Deuteronomy 6:5 with the (ve’ahvta) – and you shall love your neighbor as yourself of Leviticus 19:18. Leviticus 19:18 is not a secondary command, but is the equivalent of Deuteronomy 6:5 and each may be used to explain and understand what the other means. Jesus brilliantly links the two scriptures together, so that the two become one! The Shema is fulfilled by the doing of Leviticus 19:18, loving your neighbor as yourself!

Did they catch this brilliant interpretation? Listen to the apostle Paul in Galatians 5:14 as he states what he learned from his Rabbi Jesus. “The entire law is summed up in a single command, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Paul got it! Doesn’t this also sound just like the golden rule of Matthew 7:12? “So in everything do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and Prophets”. Also, take the time to read Romans 13:8-10 which contains the same message. From the master teacher himself we now know that our command to love God with all our heart and soul and might is fulfilled in the act of loving your neighbor as yourself. Everything else is “just commentary”!

Shema – Part 2

You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
Ve’ahavta et adonai eloeikah, b’khol levavkah,uve’khol naphshekah, uve’khol me’odekah
–Deuteronomy 6:5 (English & Hebrew)

After being commanded by God in Deuteronomy 6:4 to Hear! (to pay close attention to what I’m about to say), in the next verse we now hear what we are supposed to do in response. Let’s explore what God meant when he said to love him with all our heart, soul and might.

First, we should point out that the reason the Shema has such a depth and breadth of meaning is the Hebrew language itself. Hebrew is what is known as a “poor” language because the whole language only contains about 8,000 words. In contrast, English has over 400,000 words! Because this ancient language has so few words, each word must necessarily have much more than one meaning. One writer described this phenomenon by saying that each word in the Hebrew language is like an overstuffed suitcase, bulging with extra meanings and when unpacked many delightful new interpretations pop out.

Many verbs that we read in the text that we think of as only mental activity in English, in Hebrew are also calls to action. For example in Genesis 4:1 it says that Adam “knew” Eve. In English, we thinks of “to know” as only to understand. But, in the Hebrew, “to know” was to have a close relationship, to care for that person and even be sexually intimate. What was only a mental activity in English, was a whole set of actions in Hebrew. You can see from this example (and there are many others in scripture) that one word in Hebrew packs a much bigger punch. We’ll see this play out as we begin to look at the first word in chapter 6 verse 5, Ve’ahavta.

Ve’ahavta – literally, “And you shall love”. At first glance it seems as if God is commanding us to have, what we think of in English, as an emotional feeling towards him. This is where the Hebrew word, ve’ahavta, again has a much fuller meaning. Love in the Hebraic definition is much more than the emotional high and feelings a person gets from worshiping God to praise music. Love of God in Deuteronomy is not only an emotional attachment or inward mental state, but something that expresses itself in action. Love, in the Hebrew, in addition to affection, also refers to loyalty, as in the loyalty of subjects to their kings or slaves to their masters. The command “to love” is here understood as requiring us to act and live in a certain way, a way that sets God’s people apart from all others. The book of Deuteronomy is very clear, you love God by keeping his commandments. We can’t love God just by mental feelings towards him, we must put them in action, just as we love our neighbor by the same process.

B’khol and uve’khol – means “with all” , “and with all” and emphasizes undivided devotion, with everything that you have; total commitment.

Levav – literally, “heart”. This refers to the center of your inner life. In Hebrew, heart doesn’t just describe your emotions, but your mind and thoughts as well. In Western culture, we locate our emotions in the heart and the mind and thoughts in our head. In general, Western culture tends to separate the mind from the emotions and in our Christian experience we often lean much heavier to the emotional side. We believe that worship and prayer are essential to our relationship with God, but take a much more casual approach to filling our minds with His word. Studying and memorizing scripture plays a much smaller role than prayer and worship. In Jesus’ time, to study and memorize God’s word was the highest form of worship. Great emphasis was put on memorization and education in the scriptures. To love God with all your heart does not only mean to worship him and pray to him, but to fill our minds with his words to us and dedicate all our mental abilities to him. Paul says it best in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ”.

Naphshekah – “nephesh” means “soul” or “ life and soul”. We are to love God with all of our lives. The opposite of this would be to love God with only a few hours out of our time on Sunday when we are in church. Often, the rest of our life is spent with the distractions of work, hobbies, sporting events and television, in which God has little place. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities, but if we just put God in as an afterthought or just set aside a few hours of time a week for him, we are not loving him with our life and soul.

M’odekah – A Hebrew teacher once said that there are some word that no one should attempt to translate In Hebrew because the meanings is so rich that to translate it into one or two specific terms greatly diminishes its meaning. M’odekah is one of those words. Literally, it means, “with all your very” or “with all your muchness”, and also means “exceedingly”, “with much force or abundance”, and even “oomph”! Translators, faced with reducing it to a singe word use strength or might. It is almost always used as an adverb, like we would use, “very, very”, but in the Shema it is a noun. “With all your very” can also mean, “with all your increase”, and applies to our money, finances and possessions. We are to love God enthusiastically, earnestly, and with a zeal to please him in every area of our lives.

By looking closely at the Hebrew meanings of the words that make up the Shema in Deuteronomy 6, we have greatly increased our understanding of what God is requiring of those who want to serve him. The last piece of the puzzle is the phrase that Jesus added to the Shema in the gospels. Next week we will look at the phrase, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself”!


”Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord Alone”
“Shema Yisra’el,YHVH Eloheinu, YHVH Ehad”
– Deuteronomy 6:4 (English & Hebrew)

The words of Deuteronomy 6:4 and the instructions that follow in verses 5-9 are perhaps the most crucial Old Testament texts for the foundational teachings of both Jesus and Judaism. These verses were so important to the lives of the early Jewish people that they became the centerpiece for Jewish daily worship since well before the time of Jesus. In fact, early sources confirm that Deuteronomy 6:4 would have been the very first portions of the Hebrew Bible that Jesus would have committed to memory. Jewish boys were taught this biblical passage as soon as they were old enough to speak. This early teaching was always done by the father, so Joseph would have taught his son the these verses on his knee as a very young boy. It is also important to note that this pivotal set of verses was located as an introduction to the first paragraph of the instructions that God gave to Moses in the book of Deuteronomy. The book of Deuteronomy was by far the most popular text during the time of Jesus. More copies of the book of Deuteronomy were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls than any other book. Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy more than any other book and in the beginning of his ministry, when he was tempted three times by the devil in the wilderness, he quoted three separate verses from Deuteronomy in response (Read Matthew 4:1-11).

These powerful verses from Deuteronomy 6 are referred to by the Jewish people as “Shema”, which literally means “hear” or “listen”. Most Western Christians have never even heard of the Shema. However, these verses were so central to Jesus’ faith that when a teacher of the law asked Jesus what he believed was the most important of all the commandments, his answer was the Shema from Deuteronomy 6 (see Mark 12:28-31). If these verses were the most important commandments in the Bible that Jesus knew, we probably should be more aware of what they say and mean. Let’s take a closer look at each of the six Hebrew words and try to determine what God is saying.

Shema – Literally, “to hear” as a verbal imperative to start the verse. It is much more than just to perceive sound. It means, “listen!” “Focus your attention and heed the following!”

The Mesha Stele

The Mesha Stele bears the earliest known reference (840 BCE) to the sacred Hebrew name of God – YHWH.

YHVH (or YHWH) – Also called the Tetragrammaton (Greek τετραγράμματον), meaning having four letters. These four letters are the unspeakable name of God and occur over 6,000 times in the Hebrew Bible. As the pronunciation of God’s name was supposed to remain a mystery, his name is written without vowels between the letters. The Mishna states, “He who pronounces the Name with it’s own letters has no part in the world to come” (Sanh. xi. 1). The Jewish people had such a reverence for the name of God that they would not pronounce his name out loud. Instead, they substituted, “Adonai (the Lord) or “Hashem” (the Name). This paints an amazing picture! Our God is invisible, immortal, indescribable and his name is unspeakable! This is why many writers in English, when writing about the Lord, leave out the vowel and write, G-d, to show reverence for His unspeakable name. Although the Bible doesn’t specifically prohibit us from saying His Name, it does warn against using His Name in the wrong way or casually. This knowledge certainly gives us more of an awe when we recite the Shema! Instead of saying His unspeakable name we substitute Adonai and say, “The Lord (Adonai) is our God, the Lord alone”.

Eloheinu – First person possessive and means, ”our God” and puts the proper relationship between Israel and YHVH. He alone is Israel’s God.

Ehad – Means, “one” or “only”. There is not enough space to cover it here but the JPS Torah Commentary Series (Deuteronomy, pp. 76-77) translate “ehad” as, “alone” and explains why that is the best translation.. The Lord alone is the God of Israel and not the myriad of gods that were worshiped by the Egyptians and other cultures. YHVH was a jealous God and was to be their only deity. Israel was to recognize YHVH alone.

To summarize, the Shema is much more than just a creed that we recite to define our faith or a prayer to be repeated. It is an oath of loyalty to the King of the Universe and call to action on his behalf! When we recite the Shema, we are committing ourselves to the Lord alone and to the way of life that He commands. Now that we have been called to attention and proclaimed that the Lord is our God, the Lord alone, let’s see what the Lord asks us to do. We’ll tackle verses 5-9 of Deuteronomy in our next lesson.

The Good Samaritan

Jesus’ parable of the “Good Samaritan” is one of the best known and loved stories in all of scripture. A careful reading of this account will reveal a very different perspective than what you might have thought was the moral of the story. When you look at the story in a Jewish context, the question that Jesus asked, “Who is my neighbor”, takes on a very different cast.

In verse 25, the man who asked Jesus the original question, was an “expert in the law”. He was probably a member of the Pharisee sect of religious people. This group had a tremendous love and respect for the Torah. The verses he quoted in verse 27 came out of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18 and was called the “Shema”, which means , “to hear”. It was a set of verses that every Jew knew by heart and was said several times a day. These same verses were quoted by Jesus in Matthew 22:34-40, in response to the question, “which is the greatest commandment”? The significance of the question and the answer is that total devotion to God is demanded.

In Verse 29, the expert tried to throw Jesus a curve by asking, “Who is my neighbor” (as in love your neighbor as yourself)? He was trying to get Jesus to say which of the different classes of people in society that you were required to be friends to. He was saying, “How far do we have to go in this ‘love your neighbor’ business?”. He received a surprising answer from Jesus.

In verses 30-37, it says that the priest and the Levite both walked by on the other side. Who are they and why would they walk by and leave a man who was obviously in trouble? The impression is almost always given that they were an uppity, high brow, hypocritical type of person that had no use or respect for this common man. The reality is, however, much different.

The priests were a very godly, highly respected group of men in Jesus day. There were set apart by God and were totally committed to their priestly duties. They were in charge of the Temple and all the feasts, sacrifices and the rituals associated with them. They had a very strict code of do’s and don’ts given to them by God in Leviticus. These priests served in Jerusalem on a rotational basis. The head of the priests was the High Priest, who represented the whole nation before God. The priests were responsible for interpreting and explaining the Mosaic Laws. They devoted their whole life to the text.

The Levites were also a part of the priesthood and their job was to serve in the Temple. They worked on the Temple grounds and assisted the priests in carrying out the daily business of the Temple. Only Levites and priests could enter the Temple interior. Even Jesus was not allowed to enter the Priest’s court.

The reason the Priest and the Levite went around the beaten man had nothing to do with their personalities, but instead was a matter of the Law, which they had to uphold. The priests, according to Leviticus 21:1-4 and Numbers 19:11-16 (esp. v16), were not allowed to touch any dead body or anything with blood on it because it would make them unclean. In this hypothetical situation, they had to choose between helping the man or breaking God’s Law. It was a tough decision for them, but since they were to be totally devoted to God, they chose to uphold the law. Jesus was trying to point out the mistake the Jews were making of being so intent on the law that they would ignore the correct thing to do. They kept the “letter of the law”, but ignored the “heart and intent of the law”.

How about the Samaritan? What is his significance in this story? To a Jew, they were the most despised and hated of all the races of people. The Samaritans were a pagan, half breed race of people who were placed in the middle of the Promised Land by the hated Assyrians, who had conquered Israel several centuries earlier (See 2 Kings 17:24-40). They brought their pagan religions and practices with them, and in the Jewish mind had polluted a whole section of the country that God had given the Hebrews. Most Jews would not even go through Samaria or speak to them or help them in any way.

Now do you see who the neighbor was? We’ve always been taught that it was the guy in the ditch, help out your neighbor who is in trouble. Be a “Good Samaritan” and help the guy in trouble. That is still a good observation and a moral in the story, however, that is not what Jesus’ point of the story was! Jesus’ real point was that the “Samaritan” was the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor”? Look how the man answered Jesus ‘question. ‘”which one of the three was a neighbor to the man”? He had to agree that it was the Samaritan, but he couldn’t even bring himself to say the word Samaritan! He just said, “The one who helped him”! The “expert in the law” did not want to have to be nice to a Samaritan and treat him as a neighbor! It killed him to say it! The person, the race, or group of people who are politically different, someone who you despise is also your neighbor. If you are going to love your neighbor as yourself, it applies all the way down to the person you hate the most. Jesus’ parable sure makes these two commandments a lot harder to keep! Who or what group is your Samaritans? Are you able to love that neighbor as yourself? By looking at this story through the eyes of the people that lived during the Bible time period, it sure makes the meaning a lot different than what we taught in this children’s story. It also makes keeping the two commandments that Jesus said were the most important, a lot harder to keep!