Day 073: Seriously Geeking Out on Hebrew (Deuteronomy 8-10)

10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord,
    “and my servant whom I have chosen,
that you may know and believe me
    and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
    nor shall there be any after me.
Isaiah 43:10

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about the mezuzah–the scroll of the shema that is rolled up and placed in a box on the doorpost of every Jewish home. And if there’s anyone who just wants to geek out a little on Hebrew and Jewish culture, here’s another fun fact:

The first line of the scroll is Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one (Shema Israel, adonai elihenu, adonai echad.) You can see this going from right to left (because Hebrew reads from right to left).

This shema scroll has two letters that are disproportionately larger than the others: the ayin of the first word, shema, and the dalet of the last word, echad. (I circled them in red on the image above). I thought at first that this might have just been a mistake on the part of the scribe, but, oh, no. If you watched these guys work, you would know that they don’t make mistakes. If they do, the parchment and the pen are both destroyed. It turns out that EVERY Shema scroll has these two letters larger.

So how come?

Here’s what I found on another great Jewish learning site (chabad.org). One explanation is that it makes sure no one makes pronunciation errors that would change the entire meaning of the prayer:

If the word shema, שמע, would be read with an aleph—which sounds very similar to the ayin—the meaning of the word would change from “hear” to “maybe,” changing a firm declaration of belief into an expression of doubt.

In other words, the meaning would change from “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God” to “Maybe, O Israel…”

Which is not what you are going for.

The article goes on:

Similarly, if the ד (dalet) of the word echad, אחד, would be mistaken for a ר (reish)—as the two look almost identical—then echad (“one”) would be read acher (“other”). This would make our belief in one God look like a belief in two gods.

Again, the scribes wanted two make certain no poor kid accidentally read “Maybe, O Israel, the Lord our God is other” on his bar mitzvah.

That would be bad.

There is yet another reason given for emphasizing these two letters. Together, these two letters together spell עד (eid), the Hebrew word for “witness.” When we recite the Shema, we attest to His primacy. This reflects the words of Isaiah 43:10:

 “You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord,
    “and my servant whom I have chosen,
that you may know and believe me
    and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
    nor shall there be any after me.

I’m in awe of the reverence the Jewish people have for the Torah. And beloved, as you continue this Bible Recap journey this year, the Lord is growing you in your reverence for His word. Stay with it!


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