The opening lines of the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) are among the most famous, and the most important, in Jewish liturgy. Drawing on comparisons to the writings of the ancient Near East, Benjamin Sommer attempts to explain them in their historical context. (Interview by Joanne Palmer.)
[W]hen you look at ancient Near Eastern treaties and contracts, they have a certain number of stock elements—boilerplate language. There is a particular formula for the contract between the emperor and his vassal kings. It often has been noted that the books of Deuteronomy, Exodus, and Leviticus have these elements [of] ancient treaties [throughout, implying that] the entire nation Israel has been put into the role of a vassal king—men, women, and children. [The Sh’ma], very succinctly, is a contract between an emperor and his vassals. . . .
In the ancient world, the treaty had to be read aloud to the vassal king on a regular basis. Part of the vassal’s responsibilities was to hear it recited. In the Sh’ma’s first paragraph, we are [likewise] told that we have to recite it morning and evening. . .
[When they] say that accepting the commandments is “accepting the yoke of heaven,” the rabbis are preserving a much older interpretation. Even when the form was forgotten, the meaning was passed on in the oral tradition. . . . Often the rabbis were preserving an older tradition that goes back to the Bible itself.