Core Beliefs of Second Temple Judaism: Shema

The belief in only one God is the most basic aspect of Judaism. As expressed in Deuteronomy 6:4-6, the shema. The first four of the Ten Commandments clarify how Israel was to worship God (worship God alone, without a graven image, without using his name in vain, by honoring the Sabbath). The first four of the Ten Commandments clarify how Israel was to worship God (worship God alone, without a graven image, without using his name in vain, by honoring the Sabbath).

shema israel inscription

The Shema was fundamental to daily practice of Jewish. The word refers to Deut. 6:4-5 (which begins “Hear O Israel,” shema is Hebrew for “Hear.”) The passage directs Jews to keep the commandments upon their heart and to teach them to their children. These commands are the Ten Commandments which immediately precede this command, but essentially the whole law is to be kept in mind and taught to the next generation.

Tamid 5.1 The superintendent said to them, “Say one blessing.” They said a blessing, pronounced the Ten Commandments, the Shema [Hear O Israel (Dt. 6:4–9)], “And it shall come to pass if you shall hearken” (Dt. 11:13–(21), and “And the Lord spoke to Moses” (Num. 15:37–41). They blessed the people with three blessings: True and sure, Abodah, and the blessing of priests. And on the Sabbath they add a blessing for the outgoing priestly watch. (Translation, Neusner)

Although the practice of reciting the shema is well-known in rabbinic sources, it is not possible to date those sources earlier than the second century. Avery-Peck, for example, suggests “there is no reason to posit a long history of legislation concerning its recitation” (Alan J. Avery-Peck, “Oral Tradition: Early Judaism,” ABD 5:35). Tan, on the other hand, argues the practice of reciting the shema dates to the pre-A.D. 70 period on the basis of b.Berakhot 21a.

However, there are several indications in the New Testament that the shema was used as a prayer even in the first century. Jesus alludes to the shema in Matt 22:34–40//Mark 12:28–34, Paul alludes to the 1 Corinthians 8:4, “there is no God but one” (See Erik Waaler) and James 2:19 appear to quote the shema. This is not evidence of twice-daily prayers, but the prayer was familiar neough to appear in three diverse contexts in the New Testament,

According to Berakhot 1.1-3. The shema was placed in doorways (the modern mezuzot) and in tephillin, boxes strapped to the hand and forehead during prayer. We know the tephillin were used in the first century since the pharisaical practice of making wide straps is criticized in Matthew 23:5. Aristeas 158 refers to the “words” posted on gates and doors and Josephus refers to the practice of binding scripture on the arm (Antiq. 4.213).

At the very least, the evidence suggests Jewish people in the Second Temple period recited the shema regularly and were ultimately committed to the idea of one God. There are obviously ramifications of this belief (rejection of other gods, for example). But there are other implications as early Jewish Christians described Jesus as divine (Phil 2:5-11, for example). How did Second Temple Jewish believers integrate their new believing Jesus into their understanding of “one God”?


Bibliography: Kim Huat Tan, “Jesus and the Shema,” pages 2677-2707 in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (ed. Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter; Leiden: Brill, 2011); “The Shema and Early Christianity,” Tyndale Bulletin 59 (2008): 181-206. Erik Waaler, The Shema and the First Commandment in First Corinthians: An Intertextual Approach to Paul’s Re-reading of Deuteronomy. WUNT 2/253. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008).

25 thoughts on “Core Beliefs of Second Temple Judaism: Shema

  1. Phillip,
    You wrote QUOTE: “Jesus alludes to the Shema in Matt 22:34–40//Mark 12:28–34”
    “The Shema was fundamental to daily practice of Jews. The word refers to Deut. 6:4-5 (which begins “Hear O Israel,” Shema is Hebrew for “Hear.”)”

    Yes, good observations.

    Jesus was asked twice which Commandment is the greatest or most important one, (Matthew 22 and Mark 12)

    Jesus responded directly, and quoted two commandments from the Law of Moses. Jesus said that one of these two commandments is the first and greatest most important one. Which one is it?
    .1) The Shema, (The one in Deuteronomy 6:4-5) ?
    .2) or the one in Leviticus 19:18 ?

    “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “ is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ [Mark 12:29-30, Deuteronomy 6:4-5]

    Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” [Matthew 22:37-38, Deuteronomy 6:5]

  2. I think that because tefillin were found at Qumran it is evident that the Shema was very important (recited?) at that time (aka first centuries B.C. and pre-A.D 70). See conveniently “What Makes the Ten Commandments Different?” by Moshe Weinfeld. Bible Review 7:2, April 1991

    • Thanks for this, I appreciate the reminder. I had thought to include the Nash Papyrus in this post, but for some reason left it out. I think it was in a footnote in my original document.

  3. In regards to the Shema, the Shema is the belief of one God respectively. In analyzing Second Temple history there is no doubt that the concept of adhering and believing in one God was the central tenet of belief for the Jewish people. However; even, with the documented following of the Shema, there are many times within Second Temple history where the belief in one God would have been challenged to a significant extent. Especially when you look at 4th Maccabees (5:1- 6:30) and the fact that Eleazar was killed because he would not eat the pork. The fact that a person could lose their life simply because they would not disown the core tenets of their belief was most certainly apparent. Influences from Hellenization as well have been documented through various statues of various Greek Deities constructed by Herod the Great (Tomasino, 267). Therefore; while, the Shema was very present within Second Temple history among Jews, It’s fair to say that many Jews also had significant challenges and influences to avoid, in order to keep this mindset alive. Those who stuck to the concept of Shema in my opinion were very strongly engrained with their faith.

  4. I do wonder if the Shemah had such prominence further back into history, whether or not it was actually used in daily prayers. If it was a well known verse back in the time of judges the Jews certainly weren’t listening to it.
    I learned the transliteration of the Shemah’s first verse in Hebrew. I imagine it would be quite beautiful to hear it all recited well.

  5. When people look at the differences between Christians and Jews, the major factor is whether or not they view the New Testament as canonical/in Jesus’s sacrifice as the savior. Some might make the point that Christians aren’t monotheistic like Jews are, because of the Holy Trinity, but both believe in the same God and share the comparison of being monotheistic. We see monotheism as being centric to the shema, and while one usually looks at the ten commandments as one of the singular or all ten of them (depending on the conversational or moral use), the shema isolating the first four serves its own purpose in demonstration. Reciting it daily shows devoutness and the intent to not forget what they were called in Israel to adhere to. With keeping the shema and having it exemplified throughout households and daily prayer, it’s hard to ignore the rest of the commandments that follow suit in respecting the God that they are worshiping.

    • Hi Rowan,
      Am I correct in understanding that
      you are Jewish, and
      you happen to agree with Jesus that “The Shema” should be considered the first and greatest, most important commandment?
      (I’m not asking if you “follow” or “believe in Jesus” – just if you agree with Jesus on this point.)

      • Correct! I wholeheartedly agree, when it comes to terms of worship and honoring him. The Shema is like a clear set of guidelines to do so. I also take into account that Jesus lived ‘the perfect Jewish life’, therefore he would know the importance of it.

      • Rowen – Great ! We both agree with Jesus.
        Do you also agree then that in Galatians 5:14 and Romans 13:8-10, Paul was wrong, since Paul contradicted Jesus?

      • Mr. Perri;

        I looked up the particular verses you referenced, and I’m not sure that Paul is completely contradicting Jesus. But alas, I am not a Pauline expert. From what I understand, Jesus preached very much of love, and loving ones’ neighbor. Jesus addresses both the importance of the Shema and the “golden rule” (I think it’s called) in Mark 12;

        29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

        I would raise the question that, in referring to the most important of the commandments and being “one”, the Shema itself is four, and loving ones’ neighbor is one (though not in the original law directly). So perhaps Jesus is referring to both being the most important?

      • Dear Rowan,
        In Matthew 22 and Mark 12

        Jesus responded and quoted TWO commandments from the Law of Moses.
        .1) The Shema, (The one in Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
        .2) and the one in Leviticus 19:18

        Jesus said identified The Shema as the first and greatest most important one, we both agree with Jesus on that.
        Jesus then identified the command in Leviticus 19:18 as The Second.

        In contrast to Jesus,
        Paul wrote in Galatians 5:14 and Romans 13:8-10 that Leviticus 19:18 was the ONE commandment. Paul ignored The Shema completely.
        You can see this in the text, right?

      • I see that Leviticus 19:18 addresses not holding a grudge/loving ones’ neighbor, but I do not see Paul mentioning the Shema, no. Though Paul was an advocate for Jew-Gentile equality, so perhaps he did not expect Gentiles to adhere to the Shema?
        Also as my original comment says, not all people consider Christians monotheistic do to their belief in a trinity, and the Shema is central to the idea of there only being one God. So if one group believes in there being a Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and Judaism speaks only of one Father/God, is the Shema relevant to the others? (I am not aware of how Christians perceive the Shema, if it is mentioned in their theology as such/not isolating the first four commandments from the rest. I see you agreeing with the Shema being important– is this perhaps overlooked by some Christians?)

      • Rowan,
        “I do not see Paul mentioning the Shema, no.”

        Good observation of fact about the text of Paul’s letters.

        “I see you agreeing with the Shema being important– is this perhaps overlooked by some Christians?”

        Yes and Yes – what an understatement 😉
        Most self-described “Christians” are really following Paul the false apostle – not Jesus the Jewish Messiah. They generally listen to the voice of Paul, while they tend to marginalize, twist, cast aside, ignore, or flat out deny the words of Jesus speaking for Himself.

        It’s commonly understood, (correctly I believe,) that
        The Shema ( Deuteronomy 6:4-5) “summarizes” the first 4 of the 10 commandments, while
        Leviticus 19:18 “summarizes” commandments 6-10….

  6. It is interesting to read about the Shema and how it applied to Jewish culture during the second temple period. As you said, the Jewish people seemed to be committed to the Shema and the concept of monotheism. They believe in solely one God, so he fact that Jesus was God incarnate must have been opposing their belief in the Shema? I like what Rowan said about how even though Jews and Christian’s views differ (in regards to monotheistic views and trinitarian) it is apparent that we both believe in the same one God. As it says in Philippians, early Jewish Christians viewed Jesus as Divine; therefore, the Second Temple period Jews must have struggled with the idea of Jesus being God. I am sure there was much disagreement over the matter.

  7. It does seem probable that reciting the shema was practiced during and before Jesus’ time although I do not know how much more or if was practiced before the exile. But it is interesting how after the exile the Jews start to seem to get more things right than before (at least as far as following the rules is concerned). Obviously there still is a plethora of issues that they struggle with but staying faithful to one God is one of the major sins that led to their judgment of the exile (Jeremiah 32:29).

  8. This is one of the reasons I hope to return to Israel so I can purchase phylacteries and have the Shema for my doorframe. I think that some of these concepts have been carried over to Christian culture because people hand out in droves colorful bracelets of WW JD, and college students on campus often get their favorite Bible verse tattooed. I believe that this is a beautiful tradition because it shows our flawed humanness in trying to more and more sincerely, follow Yahweh first. God is brilliant with the manner of how he reveals himself. Because if he revealed the Trinity before revealing judeo monotheism we would be in more trouble. Man would not be able to come up with this concept on his own. It is a concept that many would say is a contradiction and often I would be told by shop clerks when I was in Israel to remember that there is only one God. They would say this hoping in someway that they were giving me a burn, but I would just smile and agree. They cannot see that we worship one God because they do not know or desire to understand the revelation of the Trinity. Also this reminds me that Dr. Long needs to share the story of me and the one ring in Israel.

  9. The Shema was a daily reminder for the Jews that there is only one God and that they were to obey and follow Him and the laws that He gave them. I think that the Jews themselves may have had a hard time comprehending that Jesus was God at first but I think that after a while it started making more sense to them. I think that the new Christian believers understood that Jesus was both 100% God and 100% man. It is a hard thing to sometimes comprehend that God is three in one. The fact that the Jews and Christians may have believed differently about Jesus during this time, I think that this may have caused some issues between them and that tensions were high.

  10. At first the question at the bottom of the blog was a bit confusing to me, so it took me a while to decipher what it was you were looking for. From my understanding, the Jews who were at the ending of the Second Temple Period were introduced to Jesus and His ministry. When in practicing the Shema the Jews hold “Hear, Oh Israel; The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” very seriously and is not to be taken lightly. The meaning behind this is that no other gods, nor an individual claiming to be God should be worshipped. So when Jesus is introduced claiming to be part God, there was some speculation raised; especially because Jesus himself was a Jew and practiced the Shema as well. As time goes on in the New Testament throughout Jesus’ ministry we see that many Jews deny Christ as being the promised savior mentioned in the Old Testament. This is what introduces the Messianic Jewish Community, the Old Testament promises a savior and when Jesus is introduced to this of people adopt Him as the messianic savior. As time goes on there are a multitude of things that are being changed like laws not being followed and feathers being ruffled by Jesus. Evidence provides (ex the miracles, and a huge amount of knowledge on Scripture and things only rabbis know) these new Messianic believers that He is the one who is promised to save their people. I am unsure how they integrated it with their culture though, I can only imagine that it was hard but there were believers alike that held each other up with the same values. I have done some research around this specific subject in the past because I was also mind-boggled about their practices traditionally and how they worship Jesus as part God. I found this website that helped me understand a lot more and how the Messianic Jewish Community works today.

  11. I have heard a few people recite the Shema and did not really know what it was. It makes a lot of sense to me now to know that they are reciting a passage from the Bible. I think that this is a really good passage to learn and recite because it is a good reminder that there is only one God. There are other passages that talk about there only being one God though, so I do wonder why this is the passage that was chosen. One of the things that really fascinates me about this though is that some people put the Shema on their doors and strap it to their hand and forehead during prayer. The door makes sense to me because that would be an easy place to see it often, but not all the time. It could be used as a good reminder as someone walks in and out of their house. Putting on their hand could also be used as a reminder, but I do not know why they would have to have it on them when they more than likely have memorized the Shema. I also think it is cool to read that it was said during the time of the New Testament because it shows that it is an old tradition to say and memorize it. Regardless, I think that it is very fascinating and I would like to learn more about the Shema and some of the reasons that it is being recited by many people.

  12. I found the last question in Phil Long’s blog post very interesting to attempt and understand – How did Second Temple Jewish believers integrate their new believing Jesus into their understanding of “one God”? Today Christians have an easier explanation on how Jesus can fit into the “one God” category and that is the concept of the Trinity – a Christian doctrine of explanation on how there can be one God, but He is three in one (father, son, holy spirit). The Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4, says that “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The addition of Jesus to the faith must have been quite hard to comprehend for the second temple Jews as they believed in one God, yet there was no explanation as how Jesus could also be God in the current time – the Trinity is not in the Bible and wasn’t made a concept until years after the Bible was completed. Philippians 2:15 is the explanation on how Paul saw Jesus as a humbled servant, but still God in the flesh. I think a lot of second temple Judaism struggled to believe the existence of a trinitarian God because of their commitment to the Law – the same with sabbath and other traditions. However, when being so committed to the law, they forgot the prophecy made in the Old Testament and condemned Jesus as a liar, and impostor. This is the mistake us modern day Christians cannot make. We cannot be so committed to the doctrine of Christ that we neglect his message and example for our lives’ and others’ lives.

  13. The Jewish understanding of the shema is clear – that Yhwh is one being. One essence; one person. No allowances are made for technicalities such as three persons of the same essence (I can make three statues from the same block of clay, and I would be wrong to call them one statue. However, given that God is mind, not matter, perhaps the physics are different, especially in terms of division and multiplication). Jesus affirms the shema (without suggesting any changes when he confirms it to the pharisees (who of course would have taken a nontrinitarian perspective) in Mark 12:28-34. Though biblical authors attribute divine characteristics to the spirit and divine titles/qualities to Jesus, the doctrine of the trinity (God is three distinct persons of one essence) was solidified later with church fathers like Tertullian and Athanasius. This is the current position of nontrinitarians, and these points are subject to much debate. The biblical arguments for/against the trinity seem to be roughly counterbalanced, as are the philosophical arguments (future paper coming regarding Rasmussen’s principles of arbitrary limits, divine ontology, and the subsequent philosophical problems of the current evangelical trinitarian perspective)

    Anyway, the shema is a foundational principle of Judaism, and it is the greatest commandment according to Jesus. It is the cornerstone of our faith. As a disciple of Jesus, we should seek to take after him, and he seems to affirm the shema and its historical Jewish interpretation.

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