Bill Heinrich  -  Dec 22, 2015  -  Comments Off on 13.04.04 THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT: THE “SHEMA.”

13.04.04 Mk. 12:28-34 (See also Mt. 22:34-40; Lk. 20:39-40)




28 One of the scribes approached. When he heard them debating and saw that Jesus answered them well, he asked Him, “Which command is the most important of all?”

29 This is the most important,” Jesus answered:

Listen, Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One (Deut. 6:4).[1]   30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength (Deut. 6:5).

31 “The second is: Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18). There is no other command greater than these.”

32 Then the scribe said to Him, “You are right, Teacher! You have correctly said that He is One, and there is no one else except Him. 33 And to love Him with all your heart, with all your understanding, and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, is far more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

34 When Jesus saw that he answered intelligently, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And no one dared to question Him any longer.


“One of the scribes approached.” Some scholars believe, and this writer agrees, that this scribe could very well have been Saul, later known as the Apostle Paul. This opinion is based on the fact that Saul was living with his sister in Jerusalem while a student of Gamaliel during the ministry time of Jesus (Acts 23:16).[2] While this is obviously somewhat speculative, it must be remembered that he was an aggressive character and fierce defender of the law. It is almost impossible to think that he did not personally see and hear Jesus during his studies in Jerusalem. Therefore, when Jesus said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” that could very well have been a pun, in addition to the literal meaning.


“Which command is the most important [commandment] of all?”  The commandments were listed in priority so the rabbis would have a uniform base of knowledge in the event that there would be a conflict between two commandments.  For example, what should be done if the 8th day of circumcision falls on the Sabbath or on the Feast of Passover? Which law would they observe and which rite would be postponed? Some believed that the failure to wash hands before and after meals was as grievous as murder; others believed the wearing of fringes (or strings) by men was the most important.[3] In fact, some priests and high priests were so passionate about purity that they wore silk gloves when among people or presiding over sacrifices, so they would not become defiled by “those repulsive and degrading common people.”[4] In a religious culture where there were multiple religious rituals, the priorities were important.[5]


In response, Jesus placed all the Old Testament laws under two headings:


  1. Those laws that focus responsibility toward God and


  1. Those laws that focus responsibility toward men.


Therefore, Jesus said that one should first “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with your entire mind” (Mt. 22:37). Notice the priority – loving an unlovely neighbor is not possible without first obtaining the love of God. This was followed by the second commandment: that is to love one’s neighbor as one’s self (Mt. 22:39).  The Apostle Paul affirmed the summary of these laws in Romans 13:10, when he said that love fulfilled the purpose of the law.[6]


  1. Some first century scholars understood the phrase, “all your heart,” to mean control of every lustful inclination for food, drink, and sensual pleasures.


  1. The term “all your soul,” was said to mean a commitment for righteous living that would include martyrdom if needed; and


  1. The term “all your strength” was said to mean all of one’s desires for earthly possessions and riches, which must not reduce or replace the love for God.[7]   




The early Church took the words of Jesus and connected it to a lesson on behavior.  The Church fathers taught that:


The way to life is this: “First you shall love God, who has created you; second you neighbor as yourself.  Whatever you do not want to happen to you, do not do to another.  This is the teaching [that comes] from these words.

Didache 2:2-3a


When Jews and Christians think of the Shema today, they refer to a short confession that is based upon Deuteronomy 6:4-9. It reads as follows:


Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God; the Lord is one.

The Shema[8]


This rendition of the most important commandment Jesus referred to is, in reality, a rendition created around the year 500.[9]  While the concept and message did not change from the days of Moses, the wording did. The Babylonian Talmud recorded Rabbi Hillel who said that, “The Shema is the whole law and the rest is commentary.”[10] This was very close to what Jesus taught.


On an important side note, when the Apostle Paul directed his followers to pray “without ceasing,” “continually,” or “always,” he did not mean uninterrupted prayer, but to observe the regular hours of prayer as they were. The early church recited the Shema morning and evening[11] along with their morning and evening prayer – that was our Lord’s Prayer along with anything else that concerned them. At noon they prayed again but did not necessarily recite the Shema.  This was not a legalistic issue, but one that righteous Jewish believers wanted to do. In addition to our Lord’s Prayer, they prayed for whatever else concerned them.[12]


“This is the most important.” The central doctrine of faith in Judaism is known as “the Shema.”

Reciting the Shema was how a Jewish person acknowledged that he was under the rule of God and, in fact, had taken upon himself the “Kingdom of God.”[13]  It never was “just a prayer” as is often thought of today, but rather, a concept of identity based on series of three biblical passages the rabbis centuries ago felt were significant to Jewish life and identity.[14] Ever since the Exodus it was recited twice a day.[15] The first sentence of the text (below) is the theme (translations may vary the wording) which was cited by Jesus. A common way of referring to a passage in the Second Temple Period was to recite a key phrase of it, and the listeners understood that the speaker referred to entire passage.  Therefore, when Jesus cited only the first portion (Deut. 6:4), He was in effect, conveying the significance of the entire “Shema.” Modern students may conclude that what was not said might not be important, of if anything may only have been a hint or suggestion.  However, at times what is not said may be just as important or more so than what was said. Jesus carefully selected His words and His silence.[16]


4 “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. 6 These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. 7 Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them be a symbol on your forehead. 9 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9


13 “If you carefully obey my commands I am giving you today, to love the Lord your God and worship Him with all your heart and all your soul, 14 I will provide rain for your land in the proper time, the autumn and spring rains, and you will harvest your grain, new wine, and oil. 15 I will provide grass in your fields for your livestock. You will eat and be satisfied. 16 Be careful that you are not enticed to turn aside, worship, and bow down to other gods. 17 Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you. He will close the sky, and there will be no rain; the land will not yield its produce, and you will perish quickly from the good land the Lord is giving you.

18 “Imprint these words of mine on your hearts and minds, bind them as a sign on your hands, and let them be a symbol on your foreheads. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 so that as long as the heavens are above the earth, your days and those of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your fathers.

 Deuteronomy 11:13-21


37 The Lord said to Moses, 38 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them that throughout their generations they are to make tassels for the corners of their garments, and put a blue cord on the tassel at each corner. 39 These will serve as tassels for you to look at, so that you may remember all the Lord’s commands and obey them and not become unfaithful by following your own heart and your own eyes. 40 This way you will remember and obey all My commands and be holy to your God. 41 I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am Yahweh your God.”

Numbers 15:37-41


The highest endeavor of any Jewish man was the study of the Torah.  Centuries earlier, upon return from Babylonian exile, Jewish scholars studied and analyzed the Mosaic Law and wrote many commentaries.  They weighed, measured, and classified every word and letter, creating subtleties[17] and associations that were never intended by the author.  They concluded that there were 248 divinely inspired affirmative precepts, just as there were 248 parts of the human body created by God. They also concluded that there were 365 negative precepts, the same number of veins and arteries in the body.[18] (Clearly the Jewish scientific mind was somewhat undeveloped at this time.) The total number is 613, the same number of Hebrew letters in the Decalogue.[19] The Talmud preserved these insightful gems:


There is nothing else that is good but the Law.

Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zarah 19b



If one studies the Torah, painful sufferings are kept away from him.

 Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth 5a




Jewish scholars noted that Moses commanded Jewish men to wear tassels, a/k/a fringes (Heb. tsitsith, tzi-tzi,  or tzitzit) with blue threads on their garments (Num. 15:38).  At no time did Moses ever indicate how many threads to a fringe or how many knots had to be tied in every fringe, yet by the time of Jesus, the Pharisees said that not tying the strings properly was equal to breaking the laws of Moses.[20] Furthermore, there is no evidence that tassels were worn during the First Temple Period. Nonetheless, the scholars managed to add all the threads and knots, plus the number of Hebrew letters for the word tsitsith and have a total number of 613. How inspiring!  To them this was a confirmation of God’s favor upon His people.[21]  Yet the Pharisees added additional laws, their own contribution of religious legislation, for a total of 1,521 commandments.[22] And to make life more complex, various Jewish sects emphasized their own petty regulations while being heavily engaged in theological discussions with leaders of other sects.[23] Little wonder then, that Jesus got upset at their legalism.

[1]. See video comments messianic scholar Timothy Hegg on the “the Lord is One” as symbolized on the tzi-tzi in video 08.06.05.V. The words LORD and God can be somewhat confusing for modern readers. When Hebrew names are applied to the passage, it reads as follows: Hear, O Israel; YHVH our Elohim is one YHVH (Deut. 6:4, KJV).


[2]. See also Bookman, When God Wore Sandals. CD Trac 12.


[3]. Mishnah, Shabbath 62.1


[4]. Geikie, The Life and Words of Christ. 1:89.


[5]. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 1:121-23.  


[6]. See also Rom. 7:5-6, 10:4; Heb. 7:11-19, 8:13; Col. 2:14; Eph. 2:11-3:6; Gal. 3:17-19.


[7]. Henaut, Oral Tradition and the Gospels. 197.

[8]. http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Scripture/Torah/The_Shema/the_shema.html. Accessed September 28, 2013. The words LORD and God can be somewhat confusing for modern readers. When Hebrew names are applied to the passage, it reads as follows: Hear, O Israel; YHVH our Elohim is one YHVH (Deut. 6:4, KJV).


[9]. Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus. 67 n5.


[10]. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 31a.

[11]. See discussion on “evening” in Appendix 16.


[12]. Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus. 72-73.


[13]. Lang, Know the Words of Jesus. 228.    


[14]. http://www.jewfaq.org/prayer/shema.htm Accessed February 10, 2012.


[15]. Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.13; Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus. 68-69.


[16]. Spangler and Tverberg, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. 80-82, 211-212.


[17]. Subtleties are fine points or nuances.


[18]. Several sources indicate the number of veins and arteries of the body, but those sources are of a later period and there is no evidence that this was the opinion of first century Jewish people. Certainly it is not reflective of modern medical knowledge.


[19]. Farrar, Life of Christ. 352-53.

[20]. The knots had alpha-numeric values which represented the recepts of the Law. Geikie, The Life and Words of Christ. 1:189-92.


[21]. Farrar, Life of Christ. 352-53.

[22]. Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew. 132.

[23]. Wilson, Related Strangers. 18.


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