How Anglo Jewry began to listen

For generations, Anglo Jewry began the Shema with 'Hear, Oh Israel,' until Rabbi Sacks gave a new translation.

A sofer writes verses from the Shema prayer on a 'klaf' with a quill pen (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
A sofer writes verses from the Shema prayer on a 'klaf' with a quill pen
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
For generation after generation of Jews in Britain and across what was once the British Empire, later the commonwealth, this was what the first words of the Shema, Judaism’s central prayer, meant. They were as if set in stone, for this is how they appeared in the first edition of Anglo Jewry’s Authorised Daily Prayer Book in 1890, translated by Rabbi Simeon Singer.
Over the succeeding century, Singer’s – as it came to be affectionately known – underwent more than 30 reprints, revisions and expansions. The “thee” and “thou” of the Victorian age were, somewhat late in the day, converted to “you.” Yet the words chosen by Singer to convey the meaning of the opening of the Shema remained unaltered, even in the revision of the much expanded Centenary edition produced in 1992 under the editorship of the new chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks.
But by then Sacks was hard at work on his own complete revision and re-translation of the Authorised Daily Prayer Book. What appeared in 2006 was a totally re-conceived and much enlarged publication, including new and insightful commentaries and notes and an introductory essay: “Understanding Jewish Prayer.” To the surprise of some and the dismay of others, the old, familiar, hallowed opening words of the Shema in English had vanished, to be replaced with: “Listen, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
In an attempt to preempt adverse comment, Sacks, through his online “Covenant and Conversation” website, provided a full and reasoned explanation of why he had taken this radical step.
He began by pointing to the profound difference between the two civilizations of antiquity that shaped the culture of the West ‒ ancient Greece and ancient Israel. The Greeks were the supreme masters of the visual arts: depiction, sculpture, architecture and the theater. Jews, as a matter of profound religious principle, were not. For Jews, God, the sole object of worship, transcends nature, cannot be seen and is revealed only in speech. After all, the world was created by speech (“God said, “Let there be light;” and there was light”).
Sacks maintained that Greece – and Rome following it – saw reality as the clash of powerful forces, indifferent to the fate of mankind. A world confined to the visible, he said, is an impersonal world in which we are temporary interlopers who must protect ourselves as best we can against the random cruelties of fate. He cites Judaism as the supreme example of the opposite. The patriarchs and prophets of ancient Israel were the first to understand that God is beyond the visible world ‒ hence the prohibition against graven images, visual representations and icons. The essential element at the heart of Judaism, he argued, is speech.
Time and again, Moses, warning the Israelites against worshiping any physical representation of the divine, reminds them that at Mount Sinai: “The LORD spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but perceived no shape – nothing but a voice.”
Sacks quotes the great encounter between God and the prophet Elijah at Mount Horeb:
“‘Come out,’ He called, ‘and stand on the mountain before the LORD.’ And lo, the LORD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound.”
And it was in that “still, small voice,” as it is generally known, that Elijah encountered God.
In short, the supreme religious act in Judaism is to listen. Ancient Greece was a culture of the eye; ancient Israel a culture of the ear. The Greeks worshiped what they saw; Israel worshiped what they heard.
Having established the quintessential importance of speech in Judaism, Sacks turned to the meaning of the Hebrew word “shema.” He maintained that it is untranslatable into English, pointing to its many meanings: to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand. It is, he wrote, the closest biblical Hebrew comes to a verb that means “to obey.”
So, he maintained, “Shema Yisrael” does not mean “Hear, O Israel.” It means something like: “Listen. Concentrate. Give the word of God your most focused attention. Strive to understand so that you can obey.”
It was a convincing rationale for his new translation. And this is the point at which I claim a brief footnote in the story. In the first edition of the new Sacks Authorised Daily Prayer Book, the first line of the translated Shema appears as: “Listen, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” – punctuated like that. Ever a stickler for grammar and punctuation, it seemed to me that the correct way to punctuate that vital sentence ‒ especially in line with Sacks’s own reasoning about listening ‒ would be to follow “Israel” with a colon. So, chutzpadik, I wrote to the chief rabbi, via the chairman of the editorial committee involved in publishing this new volume. In the second, and all subsequent editions of Sacks’s new siddur – and also his machzorim – published a few years later, the sentence appears as “Listen, Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
Whether I am truly responsible for that vital colon, I do not know. But I never open a Sacks siddur or machzor without a tiny glow of satisfaction.

The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016 and he blogs at www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com.