How Rabbi Akiva Saved the Shema for the Jews

In 1898 the secretary of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, Walter Nash purchased four fragments of a sheet of papyrus from a dealer in Egypt. Written on them were the Ten Commandments and the Shema. Dated probably to the 2nd or 3rd century BCE, the Nash Papyrus confirms the statement in the Mishnah (Tamid 5:1) that the Ten Commandments and the Shema were recited together. The Mishnah is referring to practices in the Temple; the Nash Papyrus (which may have come from a set of tefillin) shows that these two passages were also regarded as a single unit outside the Sanctuary.

However, we do not read the two passages together any more. Indeed, the Ten Commandments is never recited as part of our regular liturgy; those prayer books which do include it, do so as a sort of appendix to the morning service. Both the Babylonian and Yerushalmi Talmuds tell us that the reading of the ten commandments was dropped because of the ‘claims’ (טענות  in Y. Berachot 3c) or ‘rebellion’ (תרעומת in B. Berachot 12a) of the minim.

According to the Yeruhalmi, the minim, who are never identified in the Talmud but are generally assumed to be an early Christian sect, were saying that the Ten Commandments were singled out to be read because this was the only part of the Torah given to Moses at Sinai.

The rabbis disagreed. Although there is no Talmudic consensus on which parts of the Torah were given on Sinai, and which, if any, during the forty years in the wilderness, the idea that the Ten Commandments were somehow superior to the rest of the Torah was unpalatable. Even those who held that the Torah was given in stages as the Israelites travelled through the wilderness (e.g. Gittin 60a) did not elevate the Sinai- given commandments above the rest of the Torah.

To prove the point the rabbis detached the Ten Commandments from the Shema, and stopped its daily recital. There is no indication when this happened, but the Talmudic citations are in the name of 3rd century Amoraim.

That Christianity regarded the Ten Commandments as fundamental to their faith is evident from Matthew (16-19).

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” he inquired. Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’”

The rabbis removed the Ten Commandments from the Shema to demonstrate that it was not superior to the rest of the Torah.

The Shema was also fundamental to early Christianity. In Mark a Pharisee asks Jesus which is the most important commandment. Jesus replies by quoting the Shema (Mark 12, 28-30). And a little over a century later, the church father Justin, in his dialogue with the fictional Jew Trypho, appropriates Jesus’s reply to claim the supremacy of Christianity over Judaism:

And hence I think that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ spoke well when He summed up all righteousness and piety in two commandments. They are these: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy strength’, and ‘thy neighbour as thyself.’ For the man who loves God with all the heart, and with all the strength, being filled with a God-fearing mind, will reverence no other god; … whoever, says the Scripture, loves the Lord God with all the heart, and all the strength, and his neighbour as himself, would be truly a righteous man. But you were never shown to be possessed of friendship or love either towards God, or towards the prophets, or towards yourselves, but, as is evident, you are ever found to be idolaters and murderers of righteous men, so that you laid hands even on Christ Himself; and to this very day you abide in your wickedness, execrating those who prove that this man who was crucified by you is the Christ.

Unlike the Ten Commandments however, the rabbis could not abolish the daily recitation of the Shema. The very text itself mandates its daily recital, “when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up”. So, since they could not abolish the Shema, they had to do something else with it. They had to elevate it, to ensure that it was seen as an exclusively Jewish text, to demonstrate that what it affirmed lay at the heart of Judaism alone, not at the heart of any other religion.

This is where Rabbi Akiva comes in. Justin lived in the first half of the second century. His dates overlap with those of Rabbi Akiva. Akiva may not have seen the passage from the dialogue with Trypho but he would certainly have been familiar with the sentiment. In Akiva’s day the Shema was being turned into a Christian text, and used to castigate the Jews.

It looks as if the Shema was not Akiva’s only problem with Christianity. We can read his famous statement about Bar Kochba “this one is the King Messiah (Y. Taanit 4,5)” with the emphasis on “this one (דין הוא)”. “This one (and no other) is the Messiah.” In other words, Akiva’s statement may have been less about proclaiming Bar Kochba as Messiah, than denying that anyone else was.

We may detect something similar in his attitude to suffering. Christianity had based Jesus’s suffering, through which the world was redeemed, on Isaiah’s suffering servant. Akiva’s pioneering of the phrase “beloved is suffering” (חביבין יסורין- Sanhedrin 101a), later taken up by Rabbi Yohanan, could well have been an effort to reclaim a theology that he saw as exclusively Jewish.

But it is in his treatment of the Shema that we can see Akiva’s response to Christianity most clearly. The Mishnah is a product of Rabbi Akiva’s students; Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, its final editor, building on the work of Rabbi Meir. Indeed the reference in M. Sanhedrin 3,4  to “the Mishnah of Rabbi Akiva” implies that Akiva may even have compiled the earliest version himself.  And the Mishnah makes no bones about the pre-eminence of the Shema. Its opening book is the agricultural treatise Zeraim. But Berakhot, the first book in Zeraim is not agricultural at all; it deals with prayers and liturgy. The opening sentence in Berakhot asks “from when do we read the Shema in the evening.” The first sentence in the great Akivan compilation of Jewish law is not about Shabbat, or Kashrut, or anything to do with the Temple. It is about the Shema.

Akiva’s emphasis of the Shema as the fundamental Jewish text comes across strongly in the Mishna’s commentary on it (attributed in the Tosefta to Akiva’s student Rabbi Meir, and in Berakhot 61b to Akiva himself).

And you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul and with all that you have.” (Deut. 6:5) “With all your heart” – with your two inclinations, with the inclination of good and the inclination of evil. “And in all your soul” – even if he takes your life. “And with all that you have” – with all your money. Alternatively, “With all that you have” – with every measure that is measured for you.

But of course the most powerful evidence for Akiva’s advocacy of the Shema comes from the story that is told of his death at the hands of the Romans.

When they took Rabbi Akiva out to be executed, it was time for the recitation of Shema. And they were raking his flesh with iron combs, and he was reciting Shema, thereby accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven. His students said to him: Our teacher, even now, as you suffer, you recite Shema? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by the verse: With all your soul, meaning: Even if God takes your soul. I said to myself: When will the opportunity be afforded me to fulfill this verse? Now that it has been afforded me, shall I not fulfill it? He prolonged his uttering of the word: One, until his soul left his body as he uttered his final word: One. A voice descended from heaven and said: Happy are you, Rabbi Akiva, that your soul left your body as you uttered: One. (Berakhot 61b)


© 2020 Harry Freedman Books