Hebrew Words: Hear and Guard
It may come as a big surprise to many but even though the Torah of YHVH is full of laws, there is no Hebrew word that means “obey”. Instead, the Torah uses the word Hebrew shema. Another surprise is that nowhere in the Torah we are told to keep all laws. What do we mean by that? It is the object of this work of Hebrew study to explain the Hebrew words for “hear” and “guard”, as we will interpret their literal translations and meanings not distinctly explained by the traditional commentators. This work has also a second object: to expose certain misconceptions concerning these two words that still exist today. We will explain the reason for this in due course.
The most pronounced example of this issue is found in the Book of Exodus. At Mount Sinai the Sovereign Creator entered into a marriage covenant with the children of Israel, and Israel became the “wife” of YHVH, according to the King James’ version of the Bible, saying,
Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. (Exo 19:5-6, KJV)
While this is the common translation of the verses as rendered in KJV, the reader must be cautious that it is indeed important to be aware of what the Torah really means, but the simple explanation of the words is primary to our understanding.
In order to read these verses this way, the Hebrew words for “obey” and “keep” must be translated as if they say “Obey all laws no matter what” which is not what they say. Another difficulty in these verses is that according to translations like this KJV, God demands the people to obey Him regardless and blindly keep His Law. Perhaps, the last thing we would expect the Torah to ask would be to do the commands without understanding. However, was this what Elohim said to Israel on Mount Sinai?
These two words beg for an explanation. Although this is the common translation of the verses, we can offer a different interpretation in which we will try to show that the question of how to translate two Hebrew words is far from being trivial, as this will be further explained below. The matter will become clear once we understand the literal meaning of the Hebrew words behind “obey” and “keep”.
The Hebrew verb behind the English “obey” in KJV is שָׁמַע Shama. While this Hebrew word is often translated as “obey”, it literally means to hear and act accordingly”. More literally, shama word means to listen up, pay attention, reflect on, and internalize on what you have heard. At the end of his life Mosheh told his people in the words of the Torah,
Listen up, Israel! Yehovah our Elohim, Yehovah is one! (Deu 6:4)
Mosheh does not ask us to just hear what he has to say but much more than that. This is more than a mere affirmation that there is but one deity. It is a statement of faith on the non-existence of everything else except for YHVH Elohim, i.e., there is non-existence beside Him.
But YHVH wants not blind obedience to His Torah, as perceived in mistranslations like KJV and others, but discernment and response to do it (see also Deu 30:14 below). Because, if שָׁמַע shama means to obey, then we are facing another problem. Think this way: when the Almighty “heard” the cries of the Israelites in Egypt, he did not obey them, but He remembered the Covenant with their fathers and acted according to His promise by rescuing them from the slavery.
Similar is the problem with the word “keep” in Exo 19:5-6. The Hebrew word שָׁמַר shamar (commonly translated as “keep”) rather means to guard and protect, as seen in Psa 127:1 of King Shlomo,
If Yehovah does not build the house, its builders have labored in vain. If Yehovah does not guard the city, the watchman has stayed awake in vain. (Psa 127:1)
It is interesting that in Hebrew the same word is used for “watchman” which couples with the word shamar, to guard, as watchmen guard the city during the night. The parallelism here between “guard” and “watchman” helps determine the plain meaning of the word shamar. Hence, in keeping with the rules of parallelism, to guard is to do what watchmen do.
When we keep these considerations in mind, we will now understand the literal and plain translation of the Hebrew words shema and shamar. We can read Exo 19:5-6 anew, this time correctly,
Now therefore, if you will listen up to my voice [and act accordingly] indeed, and guard my Covenant, then you shall be a peculiar treasure to Me above all people…
“Mere theoretical knowledge without practical fulfillment has no value”. Rav Hirsch
Now, some thoughts for reasoning, as we read again from KJV.
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. (Jas 2:10)
This verse has been wrongly interpreted to mean: “if you break one law you have broken the whole Law. Why do you bother to keep the Law?”.
Ya’akov correctly understood the words of Yeshua in his sermon on the mount that he had not come to destroy, that is, to invalidate the Torah, not even one letter or a stroke of the pen. On a deeper level of Hebraic understanding, Ya’akov’s teaching is this: “whosoever shall guard the whole Torah, and yet not guarded one commandment in it, he has done this to commandments. He has not guarded the whole Torah”.
Remarkably, this is what the Rabbis teach in Midrash, wherein we find the similar line of thought: “If you destroy one life, you have destroyed the whole universe”. What does it mean? If one person is killed, not only is his life destroyed, but also the lives of his descendants that have been destined to come from him. The opposite is also true: if one life has been saved, all lives after him have already been saved. And indeed, one individual can repopulate the whole world, as Noach did after the flood.
Therefore, nowhere in the Scripture are we commanded to “obey” and “keep” the laws but to listen up carefully and guard the Word of YHVH from profaning it, from false teachings that the Torah has been done away with, and by protecting our fellow believers from breaking the commands. For indeed the commands in the Torah are given to us to live by (see Lev 18:5 and Deu 8:3).
Thus, we keep the Covenant and Torah of YHVH by, first, internalizing them and then by guarding them as Mosheh has told us: ” Listen up, Israel”. And then Mosheh led us to the renewal of the Covenant, which we are to guard.
Furthermore, the translations like “to obey and keep” wrongly imply that the Covenant and Torah are “heavy burdens” placed upon us. This is contrary to what Mosheh said to his people. We read,
For this command which I am commanding you today, it is not too hard for you, nor is it far off. It is not in the heavens, to say, ‘Who shall ascend into the heavens for us, and bring it to us, and cause us to hear it, so that we do it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, to say, ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and cause us to hear it, so that we do it?’ For the Word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it. (Deu 30:11-14)
These words of Moshe become even stronger when we bear in mind the following illustration. For instance, who is that father, who would put a heavy weight on the weak shoulders of his child. And when the child collapses, he punishes him for not “keeping” the burden with the only purpose to show him that he needs his father’s grace. Sadly, to say, this “teaching” about the Torah prevalent today.
In the light of what has been said above, it is now possible to understand the error of certain translations and interpretations. We can say this: Certainly, we cannot “keep” all laws in Torah. Men are not able to keep the hygienic instructions of women in their monthly cycle. Nor can anyone keep the laws of the Levites, because not everyone is born a Levite. Certain laws are given to certain groups of people to do: the high priest, priests, Levites, and ordinary Israelites, and even the gentiles. But we can all guard them as we are indeed commanded so, and this is what matters at the end. In order to make this clear to the reader, the ecclesiast has wisely said it,
Let us hear the conclusion of the entire matter: Reverence Elohim and guard His commands, for this is for all mankind! (Ecc 12:13)
What we have composed above is merely a ladder to help the reader ascend to the matter of the Torah, where he or she can see and examine the words themselves and obtain more knowledge of the language. It would be therefore advantageous for the reader to study the original Hebrew text for personal edification.
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