The phrase Shema Yisrael comes from the first two Hebrew words of the verse Deuteronomy 6:4 (Hebrew שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל), transliterated as šemǎʿʹ yiś·rā·ʾēlʹ. The words mean “Hear Israel”, and this passage is frequently referred to as the Shema. Strong’s Concordance assigns the number 8085 to the Hebrew word šemǎʿʹ and translates it as “hear”. “Hear” is not passive on the part of the listener, but a command of action: attentively, carefully, intelligently, obedient, perceive, witness.
The Shema Yisrael was the most important confession of faith for the ancient Israelites, and still is the most important confession of faith for modern Jews. Moses spoke to the Israelites:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ESV)
Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Bible, was written by Moses near the end of the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert, after leaving Egypt but before entering the promised land. The Egyptian culture the Israelites lived in for 400 years was polytheistic, or worshipped many gods; the Egyptians had hundreds, if not thousand, of gods.
It was unique for a group of people to limit their belief to only one God. In spite of being surrounded by Egyptian polytheism for over 400 years, Moses knew about the one God before he had the experience with the burning bush:
And he [God] said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:6 ESV)
God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord , the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (Exodus 3:15 ESV)
Moses was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter (Exodus 2:1-10), but for some time was raised by his birth mother. He was educated in Pharaoh’s courts (Acts 7:22 NIV) in later years, but was likely taught the history of the Hebrew people by his birth mother. It should not be a surprise he knew who Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were. If he knew who those three people were, then it would certainly make sense he knew something about their beliefs. That knowledge could have been passed down through the generations.
The first phrase of the Shema is, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” For other cultures at the time, that would have been a bewildering statement. With so many gods available, how could there be just one? The Israelites probably had traditions of a single God, although before the Exodus they worshipped the Egyptian gods (Ezekiel 20:7-8a, Joshua 24:14). During the Exodus the Israelites frequently forgot about the One God and worshipped Egyptian gods (Exodus 32:8). Wandering in the desert for 40 years was a time to teach the Israelites about God and relying on him.
The faith of the ancient Israelites in one God has been inherited by Christians. Not only is the Shema important for the followers of the Mosaic law, but Jesus repeated the first two verses when one of the scribes asked which is the greatest commandment:
Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall 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 ESV)
The God we believe in is a personal and loving God. In return, we should love Him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.
Listen to the first part of the Shema Yisrael in Hebrew.
Sh’ma Yis-ra-eil, A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu, A-do-nai E-chad.
Ba-ruch sheim k’vod mal-chu-to l’o-lam va-ed.