This verse is the most fundamental statement of monotheistic faith in the entire Bible. Jewish practice is to recite it, and the five verses that immediately follow it, twice a day every day. According to Jewish tradition, it is customary to cover one’s eyes when reciting this verse. We can understand this custom by exploring the deeper meaning of the verse.
Why the repetition?
There are no extra words in the Bible. Every word adds something important. This should be obvious. The Bible is very carefully written. It is the word of God. Any word that is not necessary would not be there at all. Therefore, it is valuable to identify words that appear to be superfluous and investigate what it is that they add.
If the point of this verse is to state the oneness of God, it could have been written as follows. Here O Israel, the Lord, our God, is one. Why does the verse repeat the name of the Lord a second time?
What “the Lord” actually means
The simple answer to the above question is that this verse has a lot more to teach us than the simple fact that there is only one God. What is the deeper meaning of these words?
In Hebrew, the name of God that is translated as “the Lord” is the four-letter name of God, YHVH, which according to Jewish tradition is never pronounced as it is written. In English, this name is often transliterated as Jehovah. English translations always render it as “the Lord” due to the Jewish tradition of not uttering this name. Instead, Jews replace this name with the word Adonai, which means “Lord,” or “my Lord,” as a euphemism for YHVH which is never actually pronounced. Because this practice was already the custom when Jesus and his disciples lived, they, as Jews, used the word “Lord” in place of God’s sacred name.
The name YHVH is made up of a blend of three words:
Yihyeh – “will be”
Hoveh – “Present”, “exists”
Hayah – “was”
A more thorough explanation of the etymology of this name can be found in the note on the names of God at the end my first book, Cup of Salvation. For our purposes, we will keep things simple. God’s name YHVH refers to the fact that God is the cause of all existence; past, present, and future.
What “our God” actually means
The Hebrew word for “our God” is Eloheinu. This is the first-person plural possessive of the name Elohim, universally translated as “God.” The name Elohim or Eloheinu is notable because it is technically a plural word. In fact, the plain meaning of the word is “powers.”
Elohim is the only name of God that appears in Genesis 1, which describes the six days of the creation of the world. Unlike YHVH, this name is pronounced as it is written.
Here are three important points to help us understand this name better:
- Elohim is also the Biblical Hebrew word for “judges” or “courts”. One example is Exodus 22:9 “the cause of both parties shall come before the judges.”
- Elohim is also used when Scripture speaks of false gods, e.g. in the 10 commandments, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” YHVH is never used this way.
- Elohim is technically a plural word, although when referring to God, the verbs accompanying it are always singular. It is treated as a singular subject.
Essentially, Elohim means “powers”. Therefore, it is the name of God in the creation story. All forces of nature are part of God. He is All-powerful.
When the name Elohim, “God,” is used, it describes God as He who controls nature; God as we perceive Him in the world around us. Elohim is also used to describe God as He displays His ultimate and infinite power or enacts judgment.
YHVH and Elohim
Here is another way to look at the two names YHVH and Elohim. YHVH means that God is the sole cause of everything that has ever existed and everything that will exist in the future. In YHVH we acknowledge that all space, time, and matter are all caused by God. In Him, they are all one.
Elohim, on the other hand, describes God as we see Him in the world. We don’t experience reality as a unity. We see good and evil, sickness and health, war and peace. We see different things, people, and times. Our human experience of the world is an experience of diversity. This is the meaning of Elohim. God is the master of all the many different forces and powers in the world.
To sum up, YHVH describes God as He truly is. Elohim describes God as we experience Him.
God is One: But we can’t see it
Now we can understand the custom of covering the eyes when reciting this verse. We are declaring that all creation, everything around us, is a complete unity within God. However, this unity is not what we see with our human eyes when we look out at the world. We cover our eyes because our limited human perception does not experience the unity of all creation that we are declaring with our mouths. By covering our eyes, we acknowledge that God’s unity is beyond our perception and understanding.
The point of the verse is not to simply state that there is one God. For this, the verse could have said, Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one. The name YHVH – the Lord – is repeated to make the point.
The meaning of our verse is this:
Hear O Israel, YHVH is our God [Eloheinu]. All of the disparate forces and beings in creation are part of the unified will of the creator. But lest one misunderstand that we are saying that God is a plural, that He is simply the sum of many disparate powers, the Lord is one; i.e. there are no conflicting forces in God’s creation. Even though we live in a world that appears to include conflicting and disparate forces, the truth is that all these disparate powers are part of the singular will of God. In Him, everything is one.
No matter how multifaceted and even contradictory and confusing we may find the reality of our world, we believe with perfect faith that God is the sole source of everything. All is one in Him.
This article was taken from Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s new book, Verses for Zion. Verses for Zion offers a profound exploration of devotional Bible teachings, intricately woven around the land, people, and God of Israel. Each page is a journey through history and faith, illuminating biblical narratives with insightful interpretations and spiritual wisdom. Click here to order your copy of Verses for Zion now.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and he is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast