SHMA ; To  Hear/Understand

Biblical Word Study for the Torah Portion of MISHPATIM Exodus 21:1–24:18.

Moshe Kempinski

Judaism Shema recitation at airport
Shema recitation at airport
צילום: PR

The people of Israel declare their readiness to accept G-d's Torah at three separate  times-Exodus 19:7-8, 24:3,and 24:7  but it is only in the third that we hear them declare that they would not only do what Hashem asked but would also  (Nishma ) Listen and understand .

The word SHMA/Hear in the Biblical context relates to a deeper spiritual hearing and understanding.

Hearing has an advantage over seeing in that it brings that which is heard inside the person himself by way of the ear, while seeing is from the outside.  (Sefat Emet, Shavu'ot, 5635).

Our "sight" is accosted with a totality of what is before our eyes. We see many things at exactly the same time. In some ways, we have a sense that we are able to comprehend “the full picture “of an event at one instant in time.

Yet our sense of hearing necessitates absorbing the experience in a sequential fashion. Listening is a physical action that necessitates listening to one note after another. It perceives the world in a comprehensible fashion and it does so with sensitivity to the nuances of sound and melody. We therefore have to fashion , build and somehow organize all the information we receive from our ears. We do not only hear the particular sounds, but sense the emotions connected to them as well.

To listen is then is to understand and to spiritually absorb. “ Hear  (SHMA) O Israel Hashem is G-d Hashem is one.”


So why didn’t the first two declarations of obedience include the aspect of “Nishma”?

Furthermore there is another related question. We read of their "acceptance"  the first time the following words;

“Moshe came and summoned the elders of Israel and placed before them all these words that Hashem had commanded him.  And all the people replied in unison and said, "All that Hashem has spoken we shall do!( (NAASSEH) " and Moshe took the words of the people back to Hashem.(Exodus 19:7-8)

In the second time we read the following;  “So Moshe came and told the people all the words of Hashem and all the ordinances, and all the people answered in unison and said, "All the words that Hashem has spoken we will do( NAASEH)." (Exodus 24:3)

Yet in the third instance we read in the Torah portion of Mishpatim (Exodus 24:7):

“And he ( Moshe) took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: 'All that Hashem hath spoken we will do, and we will listen( Nishma) .'” In this time we do not hear the words all the people answered in unison ?

Why would that be?

The revelation at Mount Sinai was so incredible that it frightened and overwhelmed the people.

"And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar."(Exodus 20:15)

In the book of Deuteronomy we hear their fears;

Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of Hashem our G-d any more, then we shall die..... You go near, and hear all that Hashem our G-d may say; and you shall speak unto us all that Hashem our G-d may speak unto you; and we will hear it and do it.' " (Deuteronomy 5:21-23)

It is then that Hashem tells Moshe;

And Hashem heard the voice of your words, when ye spoke unto me; and Hashem said unto me: 'I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken unto thee; they have well said all that they have spoken. Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear Me, and keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!"( ibid 24-25)

This helps explain the words that begin this week’s Torah portion;

“And these (Ve-Eileh) are the ordinances that you shall set before them.” (Exodus 21:1)

Rashi explains that the words ”, “And these,-Ve-Eileh” are meant to add another dimension to what has been previously stated. (Tanchuma Mishpatim 3).

That is to say, that just as the momentous words spoken at Mount Sinai were spiritually elevating and dramatic so are these words which focus on mundane issues of daily life and existence that are described in this Torah portion,  intended to be .

Just as the commandments that G-d revealed with the ten declarations at Mount Sinai were to be a revelation of G-d in this world, the same would be true of these statutes and ordinances . We reflect G-d by living out a loving relationship with our environment as we were commanded:

After Hashem your G-d shall you walk, and Him shall you fear, and His commandments shall you keep, and unto His voice shall you hearken, and Him shall you serve, and unto Him shall you cleave. (Deuteronomy 13:5).


The Talmud asks “Is it possible for a person to walk after Hashem and be cleaved unto Him? Is He not a consuming fire? Rather,the Talmud suggests, follow in his attributes of chessed, clothe the naked, visit the sick, consol the mourners (Sotah 14a). In another tractate we learn” Just as He is merciful, so should you be merciful “ (Shabbos 133b).

When Moshe first describes that Hashem desires their obedience. Their immediate response is a unanimous” All the words that Hashem has spoken we will do(NAASEH).” Yet those words were said in awe and trembling after the supernatural experience they had encountered.

Yet after Moshe describes how the will of G-d could and must be translated into the daily experiences of our lives in the natural. It was then that they understood how the natural is only the clothing for the spiritual. Only then could they declare the words” All that Hashem hath spoken we will do, and we will listen( understand) .”


Now they “understood”!

Yet , as we have noted ,those words “we will do, and we will listen ( Nishma) ” were not declared in the unanimous voice as described by the words” all the people answered in unison “as  in the other two declarations.

This is o because the fulfillment of the details of Hashem’s wills as expressed in his commandments and his ordinances can and should be achieved by all in the same way. Agreeing to fulfill those commandments could be accepted in “one” voice.

Yet spiritual understanding is another thing altogether. Each soul is different and each heart is unique. As a result the listening and the understanding is unique to each one of His creations.

We are commanded then to take the world and its physicality and elevate them to their ultimate Divine purpose and role.We need to take that task into our hearts. That can only be done with action that is followed by contemplation.

That is the way to truly repair this world.

Lerefuat Kol HaPtzuim ve Hacholim
Lerefuat Yehudit bat Golda Yocheved and Yehudit bat Chaya Esther