Sunday, January 27, 2013

Teaching the Shema

It was a full and satisfying morning for Sunday School classes today. I went to four classes and in each taught the Shema, the words from Deuteronomy 6:4. As is my practice, here is my record of my impressions.

We sang to the traditional tune and will continue to use that tune. Each class responded completely, the youngest to tone-matching and all eventually just to following and singing together, some children even following my hand signals.

These 6 words never fail to impress me. The text above is how I usually render the meaning in English, but there are other possibilities: Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.  Or it might be parsed as Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. Cythia Miller in her book on The Verbless Clause in Biblical Hebrew, Linguistic Approaches gives even another possible parsing: Hear O Israel, our one God is the Lord, the Lord.  

No complex linguistics in Sunday School classes though - we just concentrate on one word at a time: Hear - and the children's fingers go to their ears; O Israel, and a teacher might comment on how deep into history our tradition goes or for older students, how Israel is a canonical example, or we might briefly relate the story of Jacob's wrestling match at the ford of Jabbok (Genesis 32:22 where Jacob received the name, Israel); Adonai - and we can have a lesson on a name comprised of vowel sounds (Yhwh) that no one pronounces; and one - that God is one just like the circle of students and teacher are one; and our God can begin an introduction to Hebrew grammar. If we read these as poetry, we are aware of the repetition of יהוה and that it surrounds Elohenu. Perhaps this allows Hear O Israel and One to be considered as acting as if in parallel. This could lead to a lesson on Paul's use of the Shema in Romans 3:29-30 and his challenge to the Roman churches to be in unity with each other, or Jesus prayer in John 17:21 a reflection of these words, or to more music from Psalm 133:1 and the unity of kin celebrated there on the 14th step of the Songs of Ascent.

In the classes this morning, many (not all) of these lessons came out, one in one class and another in another. With the older students, the teacher drew out the name of Israel and our historical continuity with this tradition. In another class, the teacher asked the students if Joseph (whom they had been studying) would have known these words. What a great question, leading us to define the five books of Moses and recognize that Joseph lived earlier than Moses to whom these words are attributed. (But there's more to this question than first meets the ear.)

Later at coffee, I had a brief discussion about the music (chironomy or sign language) embedded in the text of the Hebrew. You can see the signs in the text below. In this case the specific signs \, /, ^, and | below the letters. They correspond to G#, F, A, and E respectively. Here is the music as interpreted from these marks of taste or te'amim (thought for the last 1000 years to be punctuation interpreted as linguistic and grammatical conjunctive and disjunctive signs!) 
שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד
This music does not resolve the linguistic question. 

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