Declaring the Unity of God and Accepting His Kingdom, Part 1

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

 

TOPICS IN HALAKHA

 

 

DECLARING THE UNITY OF GOD AND ACCEPTING HIS KINGDOM, PART 1

Harav Yehuda Amital, zt"l

 

 

            Keri'at Shema, the recitation of the Shema, is referred to in the Mishna (Berakhot 13a) as kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim, "accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven:” "Why was the section of 'Shema' (Devarim 6:4-9) placed before that of 'Ve-haya im shamoa' (Devarim 11:13-21)? So that one should first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, and then take upon himself the yoke of the mitzvot." Another Mishna later in that same chapter (ibid. 16a) reinforces this notion: "It happened with Rabban Gamliel that when he married he recited the Shema on the first night. So his disciples said to him: Our Master, you have taught us that a bridegroom is exempt from the recital of the Shema. He replied to them: I will not listen to you to remove from myself the kingship of heaven even for a moment." (This link is reinforced on Berakhot 13b and 60b).

 

In contrast, in the kedusha recited in the Musaf service on Shabbat and Yom Tov, Shema is called yichud, "a declaration of the unity of God:" "May He show grace to the people who declare His unity evening and morning, twice every day, and with tender affection recite the Shema." This is also the way Shema is referenced in the Tachanun prayer: "And be gracious to a people, who fervently declare Your unity twice a day, saying: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one." Shema is also associated with yichud in the prayer introducing the reference to Shema in the morning blessings, according to the version of the Ra'ah, cited by the Bet Yosef (Orach Chayyim 46): "And they twice declare Your unity with tender affection, and say: The Lord our God, the Lord is one."

 

Given the sources to indicate that Shema is kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim as well as yichud, the question may be raised as to whether two different ideas are included in the verse, "Hear, O Israel," or whether this is truly one idea that has two expressions.

 

            The Rambam, in contrast to those who enumerated the mitzvot before him, counts two mitzvot in the verse, "Hear, O Israel."

 

  The first mitzva is the commandment to declare God's unity, which is clarified in Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-torah (1:7) and in Sefer Ha-mitzvot (mitzvat asei, no. 2):

 

The second mitzva is the unity of God. By this injunction we are commanded to believe in the unity of God; that is to say, to believe that the Creator of all things in existence and their First Cause is one. This injunction is contained in His words (exalted be He), "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one" (Devarim 6:4). In most midrashim, you will find this explained as meaning that we are to declare the unity of God's name, or the unity of God, or something of that kind. The intention of the Sages was to teach that God brought us out of Egypt and heaped kindnesses upon us only on condition that we believe in His unity, which is our duty. The mitzva to believe in God's unity is mentioned in many places, and the Sages also called it the commandment to believe in the kingdom of heaven, for they speak of the obligation to "accept upon oneself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven," that is to say, to declare God's unity and to believe in Him.

 

The second mitzva is the commandment to recite the Shema, which is clarified in Hilkhot Keri'at Shema, and in Sefer Ha-mitzvot (mitzvat asei, no. 10):

 

The tenth commandment is the reading the Shema. By this injunction we are commanded to read the Shema daily, in the evening and in the morning. This injunction is expressed in His words (exalted be He): "And you shall talk of them when you sit in your home… when you lie down and when you arise" (Devarim 6:7). The ordinance pertaining to this commandment are explained in Berakhot, where it is shown that the reading of the Shema is ordained by the Torah….

 

            And similarly the Semag, following the Rambam’s approach, counts two mitzvot: mitzva no. 2 – declaring the unity of God, and mitzva no. 18 – the reciting of Shema. The Semak also counts these two, in mitzva no. 2 and in mitzva no. 104.

 

This counting raises the following question: are the two mitzvot substantively the same, namely, a declaration of God's unity, with the Shema expressing that notion through a particular recitation each morning and evening, or do they express two different ideas?

 

The Rambam in Hilkhot Keri'at Shema (2:9) writes:

 

One should sufficiently elongate the [letter] dalet in [the word] echad in order to proclaim God's sovereignty over the heaven and the earth, and all four directions.

 

The Rambam's ruling is based on a Gemara in Berakhot (13b). The Gemara there continues:

 

Rabbi Yirmiya was once sitting before Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba, and the latter saw that he [Rabbi Yirmiya] was prolonging [the word echad] very much. He [Rabbi Chiyya] said to him: Once you have declared Him king over [all that is] above and below and over the four quarters of the heaven, no more is required.

 

The Behag (no. 1, Hilkhot Berakhot, chap. 2) has a slightly different version of that Gemara: "He said: All that is required is that you declare Him king over yourself, and over heaven and earth, and over the four quarters of the world." This is also the reading of the Shibolei Ha-leket (Inyan tefila, no. 15). The implication is that with this one fulfills the obligation to accept upon oneself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. And similarly the Ra'ah of Lunel writes in Orchot Chayyim (Hilkhot Keri'at Shema, no. 18): "One must prolong the saying of 'the Lord our God' and think in one's heart that God is our king; this is accepting the kingdom of God.”

 

            According to this, one might want to suggest that according to the Rambam and the Semag, the novelty in the mitzva of Shema is accepting the kingdom of heaven which is not included in the mitzva to believe in God's unity. This, however, must be rejected, because in mitzva no. 2 in Sefer Ha-mitzvot, which deals with the mitzva of believing in God's unity, the Rambam writes: "And the Sages also called it the commandment to believe in the kingdom of heaven, for they speak of the obligation to 'accept upon oneself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven,' that is to say, to declare God's unity and to believe in Him." This expression to which the Rambam refers, "And the Sages also called it the commandment to believe in the kingdom of heaven" – can only be a reference to the recitation of Shema, as only this mitzva is referred to by that phrase in Chazal. Thus, it seems clear that according to the Rambam the two mitzvot are applications of the same principle.

 

Another point that can be inferred from these words of the Rambam is that the very belief in and declaration of God's unity is considered acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, and that the latter is not an obligation beyond the mitzva of declaring His unity, as is implied by the Behag and the Orchot Chayyim. And indeed the Rambam writes in Hilkhot Keri'at Shema (1:4): "We begin with the section of 'Shema Yisrael,' since it contains [the concept of] the unity of God, [the commandment of] loving Him and the study of Torah, it being a fundamental principle upon which everything is based." Here the Rambam is paraphrasing the words of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha in the Mishna in Berakhot 13a: "Why was the section of 'Shema' placed before that of 'Ve-haya im shamoa'? So that one should first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, and then take upon himself the yoke of the commandments." Thus, we see that according to the Rambam, accepting the yoke of heaven is identical with believing in His unity.

 

            Similarly, the Semag records the Gemara’s statement that "One should elongate the dalet" in reciting Shema [to emphasize the acceptance of the yoke of heaven] in mitzva no. 2, the mitzva of declaring God's unity, rather than in his discussion of the mitzva of Shema (mitzva no. 18). We thus see that according to the Semag as well, the two mitzvot in the verse – reciting Shema and declaring God's unity – are based on the same principle.

 

There is, however, a certain difference between the Semag and the Rambam. The Rambam in Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-torah (1:7), with respect to the mitzva of belief in God's unity, writes: "The knowledge of this concept is a positive mitzva, as it is stated: 'The Lord is our God, the Lord is one,'" and he does not bring the opening words of that verse, "Hear O Israel." In contrast, the Semag writes (mitzva no. 2): "There is a positive commandment to believe and to hear, i.e., to accept that He is one in heaven and on the earth, and in the four quarters of the world, as it is stated: 'Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.'" This difference stems from the different understandings whether the mitzva is to know or to believe. The Semag writes in the first mitzva (belief in God): "There is a positive mitzva to believe…," and he writes the same in describing the mitzva of God's unity: "to believe." In contrast, the Rambam writes, regarding the existence of God and concerning His unity (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 1:6-7): "The knowledge of this concept is a positive mitzva, as it is stated: 'I am the Lord, your God,'" and "The knowledge of this concept is a positive mitzva, as it is stated: 'The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.'"

 

            It seems that this discrepancy between the Rambam and the Semag might be connected to another very basic dispute between the Rambam and the Semag, regarding the meaning of "one" in the verse "Hear O Israel." One approach would be to claim that the statement “God is one” asserts an arithmetic, numerical truth, that there is one God. Alternatively, one could claim that this statement is a unique concept that is not arithmetic but rather a descriptive attribute. This latter approach stems from the assumption that positive attributes cannot be properly assigned to God (as will be explained immediately), thus this description is merely a negative attribute. As Rabbi Yehuda Halevi writes in the Kuzari (II, 2): "As regards the negative attributes, such as 'Living, One, First and Last,' they are associated with Him in order to negate their opposites, but not to establish them in the sense we understand them…. In the same way we take the term One, namely, to negate plurality, but not to establish unity as we understand it." This position of the Kuzari was also that of the Rambam, as will be demonstrated below.

 

In contrast, the Semag appears to have understood "one" as a numerical concept, for he brings the following in support the words of Rav Sa'adya Gaon (mitzva no. 2): "And Rav Sa'adya wrote to counter the heretics who say that there are two or three gods, that if one [god] cannot do a certain action without the help of another [god], then surely the two of them are weak…."

 

It stands to reason that the mitzva of declaring God's unity is to be understood in differing terms depending on which of these two positions one adopts. According to the Semag, the idea of "one" is that there is no other beside Him, i.e., there is no other God. This idea is found in many verses in the Torah, as the Semag himself emphasizes at the end of the section:

 

He [Rav Saadya Gaon] went on at great length about the matter of [God's] unity, but there is not such a need to go on at length, for all of Israel are strongly rooted in the belief that the Creator of all is one and unique, as it is stated: "The Lord is one" (Devarim 6:4); and it is stated: "To you it was shown, [that you might know that the Lord He is God; there is none else beside Him]" (ibid. 4:35); and it is stated: "Know therefore this day, and consider it [in your heart, that the Lord, He is God in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath; there is no other]" (ibid. 4:39), and it is stated: "I, even I, am He, and there is no god with Me" (ibid. 32:39). And in Scripture there are many verses like these.

 

            A similar approach can be found in a responsum of the Rashba (V, no. 55) which opens with the words: "You also asked that I should explain to you the idea of the section of Shema. I have already told you that I do not deal with hidden things…." He concludes by saying:

 

[The Torah itself] has already explained all that we have said with the words: "Know therefore this day, and consider it in your heart, that the Lord, He is God in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath; there is no other" (Devarim 4:39). "Know therefore this day" – this includes learning and understanding; "and consider it in your heart" – through [intellectual] investigation; "that the Lord, He is God" – including belief and tradition. For investigation leads to the knowledge that there is none other beside Him, master in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath; there is no other.

 

            In contrast, if we understand the term "one" as an attribute, we are given information about God's being – His being, and not, God forbid, His essence – something that is not explained elsewhere in Tanakh, even if it is only a negative attribute. The Rambam points this out in Moreh Nevukhim (1:59):

 

The more of the negation [of attributes] that you understand regarding Him, may He be exalted, the closer you come to understanding. You will then have approached proper understanding more than one who has not arrived at the negation that you have comprehended.

 

            Now, before we analyze the Rambam's philosophical arguments that prevent him from understanding the term "one" as a numerical concept, let us first demonstrate that the Rambam has an additional reason not to interpret it in such a manner. If "one" is a numerical concept, then all that is stated in the verse is that there is no other god, an assertion already known from the verse: "You shall have no other gods beside Me" (Shemot 20:3) as the Rambam understands it. While Rashi (ad loc.), based on the Mekhilta, understands this verse as a prohibition to own idols, and the Ramban explains it as a prohibition to accept upon oneself another god – see his commentary to the Torah (ad loc.) and his commentary on negative commandment no. 5 – the Rambam understands it as follows (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-torah 1:6):

 

The knowledge of this concept is a positive commandment, as it is stated (Shemot 20:2) "I am the Lord, your God." Anyone who presumes that there is another god transgresses a negative commandment, as it is stated (ibid. v. 3): "You shall have no other gods before Me" and denies a fundamental principle [of faith], because this is the great principle [of faith] upon which all depends.

 

            It turns out that the entire substance of the mitzva of Shema, as the Semag and the Rashba understand it, is already included in the prohibition of "You shall not have," according to the Rambam (and see Semag, negative commandment no. 1, who explains how he responds to this difficulty). Hence, on the Rambam’s understanding, the verse "Shema Yisrael" comes to provide us with new information about God's being. It should be noted that whereas the Semag writes in the name of Rav Sa'adya Gaon, that the assertion of yichud comes to counter the heretics who say that there are two or three gods, the Rambam writes in halakha 7: "This God is one. He is not two or more, but one." He does not write: "They are not two," for he has already rejected the plurality of gods in halakha 6, but rather he says about God's being that He is an indivisible one, and not two, that is to say, unity is an attribute regarding His being.

 

            A number is only meaningful when it relates to something that can be counted. Regarding something that cannot be counted, one cannot use the term "one" in the numerical sense. This idea is suggested by R. Shmuel Ibn Gabirol, who preceded the Rambam, in his Keter Malkhut: "You are One, but not like a unit to be grasped or counted, for number and change cannot apply to You nor can description or appellation." Rabbenu Bechayei also expresses this notion in his Chovot ha-Levavot (Gate of Unity, chap. 8).

 

Based on this philosophic understanding, the statement, "God is one," taking the word "one" is a numerical sense, is incorrect. The very concept of God precludes the possibility of there being more than one, given that God is absolutely omnipotent and there cannot be two absolutely omnipotent beings. Therefore, even raising the possibility of multiplicity, even if you reject it and assert that there is really only one – this is no longer a description of God but rather something else. Thus, when we say that God is one, it cannot mean that He is one, as opposed to some other number.

 

The Rambam, in his commentary to the Mishna, expresses this idea as follows (Sanhedrin, introduction to chap. 10 {Chelek}, second principle): "He, may He be exalted, is one, His unity being unlike any other, indivisible, unlike the singularity of any other type which is composed of smaller elements…. This second principle is indicated by the verse, 'Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.'" And in Moreh Nevukhim (1:57), the Rambam proves that one cannot attribute unity to God in the numerical sense, and in chapter 58, he writes: "This Being [God] is unlike any other and about whom we say that He is one, which means a rejection of multiplicity." That is to say, all we can assert is a negative attribute. And if we ask ourselves, what has been added to our knowledge about His being, see Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-torah (1:7), and Moreh Nevukhim (1:35), where we learn that His unity includes: 1) A negation of all corporeality, and all that follows from it. 2) His immutability. 3) The negation of any possibility of comparing Him to one of His creatures. These ideas are not included in the verse, "and consider in your heart…;" they are found only here, and are to be understood by arriving at a proper understanding of the word, "one."

 

(Translated by David Strauss)