August 17, 2019. Professor Perry Dane delivered this talk at Temple Beth Hillel – Beth El, Wynnewood, PA.


This talk explores two mysteries about the Shema, the great motto of Judaism, which begins “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.”

The first mystery is familiar. What does it mean to say “Adonai Echad”, which literally means something like “God One”? The most familiar translation of the phrase is “God is one,” thus understanding it as a declaration of monotheistic belief. But this customary interpretation is both trivial and misleading. Some Biblical scholars translate the phrase as “God alone” so that it is a vow of loyalty to only one God. Or it might mean “God is unique.” Jewish mystics have taken “Adonai Echad” to be a token of the Unity between God and the universe. Or, as I suggest, Echad might be one of the names of God, a descriptive name to be sure, but not merely a description.

The second mystery is why the first paragraph of the Shema is the piece of scripture inscribed in mezuzot and included (along with other passages) in tefillin. The standard answer is that these are the very passages that describe the commandments of mezuzot and tefillin. But we’re so used to this that we might not realize how odd it is. These are instructions about how to remember and memorialize God’s commandments. And we claim to obey those instructions by reciting and inscribing and packaging the instructions. In some sense, the Shema is like a Quine, a self-replicating computer program, or like an Escher staircase that goes up and up and lands on itself. It is an infinite regress.