The Shema: God is Unknowable

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Judaism...a religion based on proofs and reason. A religion where each and every law reflects the infinite wisdom of the Creator. All other religions without exception ask mankind to place his intelligence on hold, and blindly accept unreasonable and even harmful tenets. In truth, God's acts cannot be futile. He created human reason so that it be applied...certainly in this most primary area of religiosity: our relationship to the Creator. 

At the core of Judaism are the fundamentals contained in the Shema: God's unity, and our obligation to love God in all ways possible. We must treasure truth above all else, and treasure God above all truths. And the Shema teaches how we achieve this: Torah study. For this act of study reveals marvels and continued insights that amaze us. Nothing like wisdom can astonish man and captivates us so completely...what we call enjoyment. With each new insight, we gain another glimpse at God's wisdom. 

And as Shema is part of the Torah system, why not start here to increase our appreciation for God's wisdom, and simultaneously give greater meaning to one of the most basic parts of prayer.

An interesting debate is found in Talmud Pesachim 56a. Three views are presented regarding the Shema: 

1) One view says we recite "Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokaynu Hashem Echad", but we do not recite "Baruch shame k'vod malchuso l'olam va-ed" (Baruch Shame). Nor do we pause after the Shema. Rather, we continue in one fluid recital from Shema through V'Ahavta Ase.

2) The second views agrees with the first, differing only in that we pause after the Shema – before V'Ahavta Ase – but again we do not recite Baruch Shame. 

3) The last view is ours: we recite the Shema, we recite the Baruch Shame in an undertone, and we continue on to V'Ahavta Ase. 

From where did the Shema and Baruch Shame originate? The Talmud teaches that at the end of his life, Jacob (Israel) desired to reveal the Messianic Era to his sons, but God hid it from him. Jacob then thought this was due to one of his children harboring an incorrect notion about God. But his sons all responded, "Just as you (Israel) accept the One true God, we too accept this One God", and the sons said this as the original "Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokaynu Hashem Echad", "Listen Israel, God is our God, God is one". Jacob then responded "Baruch shame k'vod malchuso l'olam va-ed", "Blessed is the honored name of His kingdom forever". A number of questions arise...

1) If Jacob said Baruch Shame, why do the first two views above reject our recital? Why aren't we duplicating exactly what occurred?

2) Why does the third view say that it must be recited in an undertone? 

3) What is the fundamental meaning of Baruch Shame...what is Jacob trying to say to his sons, and to no other? For if the sons responded properly according to Jacob's inquiry, what more was necessarily added by Jacob saying the Baruch Shame?

Baruch Shame

"Blessed is the honored name of His kingdom forever". This statement is profound. as a wise Rabbi said years ago, man cannot know God, and therefore, we must only refer to Him by name ("shame" in Hebrew). In fact, this Rabbi taught that when we read God's name in the Torah, we are not allowed to pronounce it as it is written, for this would imply we fully understand God, which is impossible: "For man cannot know Me while alive" (Exod. 33:20) was stated by God to Moses, the most perfect intellect. If Moses could not know what God is, no man can.  Therefore, we demonstrate our ignorance of God's true nature by abstaining from reading His name as written. By doing so, we demonstrate that we cannot know His true essence (His true name) but we merely refer to Him as "Hashem", which means "the name".

Jacob too possessed this fundamental of man's complete ignorance of God. Therefore, when his sons positively stated they accepted the same "One" God as their father with their recital of the Shema, Jacob responded, "Although you have avoided accepting foreign gods or wrong notions of the true God, you must be careful not to assume this idea that God is one, is "positive" knowledge of God. For all we can know about God is His name, and nothing more." 

Thus, Jacob said, "Blessed is the honored name of His kingdom forever". With this statement, Jacob intimated this principle to his sons: we only know His name. 

He also taught that God's perfection demands that He is 'eternally' perfect. For that which can be altered from perfect to another variation, is in fact imperfect. "Perfect" by its very definition means it can never be other than perfect. Thus, Jacob's Baruch Shame ends with "forever".

God is One

When we say God is "one", we rely on a physical sense of "one"...for we have no other choice but to comprehend "one" within the physical world in which we exist. But as God is unrelated to the physical, our concept of "one" cannot truly apply to God. Why then can we say He is one? This is to negate any plurality predicated of God. Meaning, when we say He is "one", this means that He and His abilities are not two or more things...that He and His knowledge are not added or components. For such a structure of "components" is of the physical, created world. And God is not akin at all to His creations. Thus, He has no parts, and He is a complete unity. We cannot imagine this type of "one", since we always associate our ideas to some physical semblance. But as we must know that He is not plural, we say He is one. 

This idea that God is not related at all to the physical is a Torah fundamental, and a reasonable idea. For as God created the physical universe, He preceded it, and cannot in any way be subject to its design or characteristics, which only came in to being subsequent to Himself! He controls His creation; He originated all physical objects and their traits like shape, color, density, location, and weight. Thus, these characteristics cannot be attributed to God. And since division too is a physical trait, it cannot be said that God possesses parts, components, or any change. For this reason, we cannot say "part of God", as many wrongly feel "part of God" is in man. That is a heretical notion. Parts or division can only exist in physical entities, which God is not. 

Ramban teaches that the Shema is placed in Deuteronomy after the Ten Commandments, as Shema explains the first command: "I am God". Meaning, God's existence (command #I) is explained as "God being one". That is, God defines His existence as oneness. He is the only existence that is truly one.

Talmudic Debate

So what are our three Rabbis debating above in the very opening of our discussion? 

The Talmud says that if the Baruch Shame were recited, it would be adding to what Moses wrote in Deuteronomy, and wrong to do, as we cannot alter the Torah. That is the first and second position: the Baruch Shame is omitted and we read the Shema and the V'Ahavta Ase exactly as in Deuteronomy, one after the other, and without interruption. The talmud then says if we do not recite Baruch Shame, then we reject these words of Jacob. That is position three...our practice. What is the deeper meaning behind the Talmud's concern over following Moses or Jacob"?

The Talmud means to say that both Moses' and Jacob's positions have much merit: Moses' Torah was written word-for-word from God's dictation, and there is no Baruch Shame in the Torah. The sequence of verses is the Shema, then V'Ahavta Ase immediately follows. 

The first position is that although now in prayer (Shema) and not engaged in Torah study, we still must duplicate Torah verses exactly. Prayer is not a more lofty act than Torah study, and thus, does not give man license to change the verses. We cannot even pause between the verses according to the first opinion. Furthermore, the Torah's verse may have been based on Jacob and his sons' words. But now that Moses has received God's ordered verses, this structure overrides Jacob's declarations. God imbued Jacob's words with a higher character, and therefore we must not alter God's arrangement. Why? Because His arrangement of Jacob's words offers man greater perfection. So although Jacob said baruch Shame right after his sons said Shema, we do not, since God omitted it from the formal Torah text. 

Of course, we have now made the position that we follow quite difficult to justify! How can there be a Talmudic position that suggests that we do not follow God's verses, and interrupt Deuteronomy's sequence with Baruch Shame?


Prayer is a human right. As such, it predates Torah, and we see the patriarchs and matriarchs prayed, despite the fact that prayer is not one of the Noachide laws. Thereby, prayer emerges as a unique institution, whose character does not rely on Torah. As one Rabbi put it, its character stems from man's innate right and need as a creature of God, to reach out to God. Viewing prayer as something that originated prior to Torah, we now find support for our third opinion, the very manner in which we recite the Shema: including the Baruch Shame. 

Since prayer's original form was pre-Torah, the Talmud views Jacob's formulation including the Baruch Shame, as equally tenable to Moses'. Justification for both formulations of the Shema now emerge – with and without the baruch Shame.

Human perfection is the objective and both Talmudic views embody it. The question is, what framework do we discuss? If we analyze the correctness of Shema through the lens of Torah, then we must side with the first two opinions that prohibit any alteration of the verses. But if we assess prayer through the lens of its original it is truly defined, then this would be modeled after the initial form in which prayer was instituted. 

 The Talmud's solution that we follow is to accept both views: we recite the Baruch Shame in an undertone, thereby differentiating those words from Moses words so as not to alter his Torah, while also retaining the Baruch Shame so as not to differ with Jacob.