“Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day! Study them and observe them faithfully!” (Devarim 5:1) These words introduce the main section of sefer Devarim, Moshe’s long speech exhorting the people to keep the mitzvot of the Torah, many of which are mitzvot we have not yet heard about. It is thus most understandable that the speech begins with Moshe telling the people that G-d’s covenant – expressed through the Aseret HaDibrot – was not a one-generation event meant for their parents; rather, it was for you, the children of those who stood at Sinai. “It was not with our ancestors that G-d made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today” (Devarim 5:4). Reinforcing this point, Moshe then repeats the Aseret HaDibrot[1]. What follows almost immediately afterwards is the shema. There is perhaps no more important verse in the Torah than that of the shema. Considering its primary importance, it is rather surprising that the shema was not mentioned earlier in the chumash. Why was it not mentioned together with the Aseret HaDibrot in parshat Yitro? Why not include the shema as part of the original divine revelation

The linkage between the shema and the Aseret HaDibrot is highlighted in a fascinating comment within the Jerusalem Talmud: “Why does one read these two sections every day?...Rebbi Levi said, because the Ten Commandments are contained in them.” Originally, the daily prayer service included the Aseret HaDibrot, but due to the claims of the heretics that the only important mitzvot of Judaism are the “Ten Commandments”, they were removed from the siddur. Rabbi Levi notes that the inclusion of shema in the siddur[2] – a declaration of faith rather than an actual prayer – was a way to get the Aseret HaDibrot back “secretly”. The Talmud then goes on to show how each of dibrot is reflected in the shema with “Shema Yisrael” being a reference to the first of the dibrot, “Anochi Hashem”.

If sefer Devarim is the book of preparation to enter the Land of Israel and the shema is mentioned only in sefer Devarim, it follows that the shema must be connected to the Land of Israel. Yet, on the surface, there is little that connects it to the Land. Proclaiming that there is one G-d who we must love and serve, that we must teach our children Torah, and that we must have a mezuzah on the doorpost are just as relevant outside the Land as inside…or so it appears. Yet, as the Ramban explains, all mitzvot – even those that have nothing to do with the land – are meant primarily for the Land of Israel. The Torah admonishes us to keep the mitzvot even in chutz la’aretz, but mainly as practice so we will be fully prepared to observe them when we are in the Land. Hence, in the second paragraph of the shema, the Torah warns that if we sin, we will be driven from the land, and then says we should put on tefillin and have a mezuzah. Noting the strange juxtaposition, our Sages declare: “Even after you have been exiled, be distinguished by the commandments. Put on the T’fillin, attach a Mezuzah so that they will not be novelties to you when you return to the Land.” And so, Scripture states (Yirmiyahu 31:21): Set up signposts.

More specifically, the mitzva to love G-d is best expressed in Israel. It is only there where so many mitzvot can be observed, where we can build a Temple to G-d and where the divine presence is most felt. Israel is the place where it is easiest to develop our relationship with G-d.

If the shema is connected to the land of Israel, then the Aseret HaDibrot are linked to Egypt. It was in Egypt that our nation was formed. Yet the impurity of Egypt required that we leave Egypt in order to enter the covenant with G-d. That covenant was in many ways a rejection of the Egyptian way of life, replacing it with a life imbued with holiness. Pharaoh knew many gods but not the G-d of Israel, hence the first of the dibrot that “I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of Egypt.” If the Egyptians had many gods, we were to have “no other G-d”. In Egypt, one had to work seven days a week – hence, the reason we keep shabbat is “because we were slaves in the land of Egypt” and freedom means one can “work” only six days a week. Egyptians had no issues throwing Jewish babies in the Nile – but we dare not murder. The Torah introduces its laws of sexual ethics with the command: “like the actions of the Egyptians you shall not do” (Vayikra 18:2) – hence the 7th command against adultery. The torah commands that: “You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin. I am your G-d who freed you from the land of Egypt.” As Rashi notes – al menat ken, for this purpose. We were taken out of Egypt so we would not cheat others, hence Lo Tignov. Pharaoh lied over and over again regarding freeing the slaves – hence the 9th commandment of not bearing false witness.

The placement of the shema immediately following the Aseret HaDibrot – and only in sefer Devarim – is not only to record some of the most important laws of the Torah. It is part of the narrative of our journey from Egypt to the Land of Israel.


[1] As is well- known, while mostly minor, there are many differences between the Aseret HaDibrot as presented here in comparison to the actual recording of the historical event in parshat Yitro. While not a popular approach today, the Ibn Ezra simply notes that when one repeats something, one never repeats it word-for-word and hence there is little significance to the differences.

[2] This follows the pshat, simple reading, of the text where the mitzva “when we sleep and when we rise” refers not to the saying of the shema but to the mitzva of Talmud Torah, it being introduced with the phrase “and you shall teach them to your children”. Hence the Talmudic view that reciting shema is “only” a rabbinic mitzva. While the halacha accepts the view that reciting shema is a biblical command, that is a derasha, an additional layer of understanding the text.