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The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism

by Norman Lamm

Bibliographic information

TitleThe Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism
AuthorNorman Lamm
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2001


The Shema has been described as the "central watchword" of Jewish faith. For centuries, Jews have pronounced this single sentence affirming God"s unity as their final words before dying, as well as beginning and ending each day with this prayer on their lips.

Using the Shema as his focus, Norman Lamm, prominent Orthodox scholar and long-time president of Yeshiva University, explores the relationship between spirituality and law in Judaism. The book represents an extensive commentary on the words of the Shema, drawing upon the wide range of traditional sources and the author’s own reflections. Included in Dr. Lamm’s study are the teachings of Maimonides, the Maharal, Shneur Zalman, Zadok Hakohen of Lublin, and Samuel David Luzatto.

About the Author 

Norman Lamm ---

Norman Lamm, a prominent Orthodox scholar, is the president of Yeshiva University and author of many books including Torah Umadda, The Shema, and the Hasidic Religious Thought. His books have been translated into Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese, and Marathi. Dr. Lamm is also contributing to Hebrew and English language journals in the United States and abroad. He is the founder and editor of Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought; associate editor of Hadarom, 1957-60, and of the Library of Jewish Law and Ethics.




A Note on Translations and Transliterations

The Shema

Part I: The First Verse

1. Spirituality, Law, and the Shema

2. "Hear": To Listen, To Listen To

3. "Israel": The People or the Person?

4. "The Lord Is Our God": Names Make a Difference

5. "The Lord Is One": The Eschatological Interpretation

6. "The Lord Is One": All and Only

7. "The Lord Is One": The Kabbalistic Interpretations

8. "One" and Contemporary Science

9. "Blessed Be the Name of His Glorious Kingdom Forever and Ever": The Interloping Verse

Part II: The Second Verse

10. Maimonides on "You Shall Love"

11. Maharal on "You Shall Love"

12. R. Shneur Zalman on "You Shall Love"

13. R. Zadok Hakohen of Lublin on "You Shall Love"

14. R. Samuel David Luzzatto on "You Shall Love"

15. Does God Need Our Love?

Part III: Verses 3–6

16. "With All Your Heart and All Your Soul and All Your Might"

17. The Torah, The Heart, and Education

Appendix: A Halakhic Analysis of the Shema




Zadok Hakohen, who passed away at the dawn of the twentieth century, is only now being “discovered” as a master of creative, original Jewish, especially hasidic, thought. A man of spiritual gifts and a solid halakhic scholar as well, he left behind various works that sparkle with insight and wisdom. Although R. Zadok’s development of the theme of love of God is less systematic than R. Shneur Zalman’s, his novel comments are exceedingly illuminating and deserve our attention and reflection. In particular, let us focus on two such insights.

Using a different terminology from that of R. Shneur Zalman and a different set of definitions, R. Zadok identifies three kinds of love: ahavat olam and ahavah rabbah, both discussed in the previous chapter according to R. Shneur Zalman, and ahavah zuta, literally, “minor love,” derived from a passage in the Zohar (II, 244). Ahavat olam and ahavah rabbah complement each other, referring to Israel’s love for God and God’s reciprocal love for Israel. Ahavah zuta, in contrast, is unidirectional and refers exclusively to Israel’s or humanity’s love for God. R. Zadok’s ahavah zuta parallels the Tanya’s ahavah tiv’it u-mesuteret, “Natural and Hidden Love.” Unlike ahavah rabbah, which bursts into consciousness with a consuming passion, this “Minor Love” lies concealed within the human heart as a natural property.

Ahavah rabbah is clearly superior to ahavah zuta, just as “Revealed Fear,” yirah be’hitgalut, is superior to fear hidden in the heart. Drawing upon the verse in Proverbs 27:5, “Open rebuke is better than secret love (ahavah mesuteret),” R. Zadok identifies “open rebuke” as “Revealed Fear,” which is superior even to “Hidden Love,” despite the accepted teaching that “love is greater than fear.” However, while we can elevate our “hidden” fear of God from its state of concealment or mere potentiality to a state of revelation (i.e., to awareness in our own consciousness) by external means—in this case, “open rebuke”—we cannot do the same with our hidden love: ahavah rabbah remains a gift of God, and without such grace no amount of effort can raise the ahavah zuta to the level of ahavah rabbah. Here R. Zadok diverges from R. Shneur Zalman, who held that intellectual contemplation can in fact stir the embers of “Natural and Hidden Love” into open and flaming love. According to R. Zadok, both ahavah zuta and ahavah rabbah are divine gifts, beyond our own manipulation.

R. Zadok tempers this categorization with a legitimate caveat: these distinctions should not be too tightly drawn because spiritual emotions often include one another and overlap. Although it may be easy for us to analyze and define such ideas philosophically, representing our own religious experience is not so simple. In actual religious life, R. Zadok realistically concedes, the various forms of love and fear coexist; the distinctions we make when we talk about them are more intellectual than practical, referring mostly to matters of emphasis.

Historically and typologically, Abraham possessed and symbolized ahavah rabbah. Isaac, in turn, symbolized fear in its highest, revelatory form, that which is in our hands to create by ourselves, for, as the Talmud teaches, “all is in the hands of Heaven, save the fear of Heaven” (Berakhot 33b). However, though his fear was revealed, his love was concealed, in the form of ahavah zuta. Lastly, Jacob—often referred to as “the choicest of the Patriarchs”—represented ahavat olam, a love that endures under all circumstances.

Of these three spiritual states, ahavat olam is the greatest. For ahavah rabbah, significant as it is, is ephemeral—although it passionately bursts into brilliant flame, it soon dies down, as does a flame—but ahavat olam is more like a banked fire that keeps on burning steadily, offering light and heat. Ahavat olam serves “both in good times and bad,” which is why (according to the standard prayer book adopted by the Hasidim, known as nusah. Sefarad), the evening Shema is introduced by ahavat olam: As we enter night, the symbol of danger, violence, and foreboding, the ahavat olam of Jacob endures.2 It is only in the morning, as day dawns upon us with promise, that we can speak of ahavah rabbah—a sublime experience virtually impossible to attain during the dark night of suffering. Indeed, teaches R. Zadok, since the destruction of the Temple—and the beginning of our long night of exile—ahavah rabbah has not been accessible to Israel; only at the Redemption will it reappear and be available again. It is a form of religious experience that has been lost to us and that will return to us at a much later period.

A second passage by R. Zadok in the same work3 focuses on the various kinds of human love, only one of which is the love for God (analyzed in the previous passage). R. Zadok identifies three kinds of love that humans experience: the love for God, the love of Torah, and the love of Israel.

Our love for God is the source, albeit “concealed,” of the other two loves. For without it, our love for Israel—that is, for our fellow Jews—is merely a social phenomenon, our natural craving for human community or ethnic fellowship with no redeeming transcendent dimension. And our love for Torah without an accompanying love for God is merely a quest to satisfy our intellectual curiosity and is devoid of any true spiritual content.

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