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I Asked Chat GPT to Translate the Sh'ma into 20 languages and provide commentary. I did a better job.
Frustrated by its incompetence, I decided to run rabbinic circles around Chatty by producing ten of my own takes on the Sh'ma
I keep hearing how A.I. is going to put humanly intelligent rabbis out of business. So I ran a test.
The central prayer known as the Sh'ma can be recited in any language, so I asked ChatGPT to toss me 20 of them....
English: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One
Arabic: الشمعة (Ash-Sham'a) (Mandarin): 殷勤 (Yīnqín)
French: Écoute, Israël, l'Éternel est notre Dieu, l'Éternel est un.
German: Höre, Israel, der Herr, unser Gott, der Herr ist einzig.
Hindi: हे इसराइल, यहोवा हमारा देवता है, यहोवा एक है। (He Israil, Yahova hamara devata hai, Yahova ek hai.
Italian: Ascolta, Israele, il Signore nostro Dio è unico Signore.
Japanese: シーマ (Shiima)
Chinese (Mandarin): 殷勤 (Yīnqín)
Korean: 스마 (Seuma)
Polish: Słuchaj, Izraelu, Pan, nasz Bóg, Pan jeden jest.
Portuguese: Ouça, ó Israel, o SENHOR é nosso Deus, o SENHOR é um.
Russian: Шма Исраэль, Адонай Элохэйну, Адонай ехад. (Shma Izra'el, Adonay Eloheinu, Adonay ekhad.)
Spanish: Escucha, Israel, el Señor nuestro Dios, el Señor uno es.
Swahili: Sikiliza, Israel, Bwana Mungu wetu, Bwana mmoja.
Turkish: Şema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Ehad.
Urdu: ای اسرائیل، یہووا ہمارا خدا ہے، یہووا ایک ہے۔ (Aye Israil, Yahova hamara khuda hai, Yahova ek hai.)
Vietnamese: Hỡi Ít-ra-en, Đức Giê-hô-va là Đức Chúa Trời của chúng ta, Đức Giê-hô-va là một.
Yiddish: שמע ישראל, ה' אלהינו, ה' אחד. (Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad.)
Greek: Ακούετε, Ισραήλ, ο Κύριος ο Θεός μας, ο Κύριος είναι ένας. (Akouete, Israeel, o Kyrios o Theos mas, o Kyrios einai enas.
Dutch: Hoor, Israël, de HEER is onze God, de HEER is één.
Not bad - though it took an unpardonable 25 seconds to generate.
I then asked ChatGPT to provide 20 different ways to translate the Sh'ma into English. It gave me 19, but I think I interrupted it while it was composing the last one.
Pretty pathetic, if you ask me. It strains credulity to find an Orthodox Jewish translation that would use the term "Yahweh."
Then I asked for "rabbinic and more modern" commentaries on the Sh’ma.
You'll have to go to my website to see the replies. It’s not worth devoting precious Substack space to this uninspired - and decidely unJewish - collection.
This exercise points to the strengths and weaknesses of Artificial Intelligence in its state of infancy - as well as the power of this particular prayer, which is one of the most powerful assembly of words in any language. The Sh'ma speaks to the ultimate Oneness that imbues the universe - a unity of God, of humanity, of language itself. I could have asked for the translation into a thousand dialects, but it would always bring us back to the singular Hebrew original.
At the same time, this unique prayer proclaiming Oneness has an infinite number of shadings and meanings. From the one, many and from the many, one.
Demonstrating that in a matter of seconds with multiple translations is a great strength of ChatGPT. But the commentaries it offered were weak, pedantic and run of the mill. And many classic Jewish insights were not included.
Frustrated by its incompetence, I decided to run rabbinic circles around Chatty by producing ten of my own takes on the Sh'ma, It took more than 25 seconds, but for insights on Hebrew prayers, I’ll take the rabbi over the robot any time.
Here are ten ways that I understand the Sh'ma. All could have been part of ChatGPT’s response. None were.
1) The Sh'ma as Witness:
The Hebrew verse has two letters that are enlarged, the ayin of the first word (Sh'ma) and the daled of the last word (Ehad). Why?
a) Those two letters spell the word "Ayd," which means "witness." In saying the Sh'ma we are bearing witness to the unity of God and creation
b) Those letters are enlarged to keep us from mispronouncing those two words. A daled looks much like a resh, which could lead us to say "Aher" (other) instead of "Ehad," implying that there is another God.
When it comes to bearing witness, we Jews are the world champs. Theologian Art Green asks, why does the Sh’ma say “Adonai Eloheynu,” Adonai OUR God? Adonai, he states, was what was there before each of us came into existence. Adonai becomes Eloheynu - OUR God - for the brief instant that our lives flash across the screen. But then we let it go, and it is Adonai, once again, endless being. Our individual existences are merely the blink of an eye – but we are linked to an eternal life force, and we are eternal witnesses to its power, and to the role that our people have played in the unfolding of the divine drama.
Just think about that – Sh’ma Yisrael….Adonai-Eloheynu-Adonai…echad. Each of us is living in that one narrow window of time, that brief, fleeting moment of Eloheynu, shoehorned in between the two Adonais – the eternities that preceded our birth and that will follow. For this brief moment, we inherit the mantle of being a witness to all that has come before, all of that becomes ours, all that sanctity becomes Eloheynu, Our God. What are we going to do with that gift.
Yes, much of our Jewish experience has been painful, but that has given us the unique ability to feel others’ pain because we ourselves have felt it. We have the responsibility to love the stranger, as the Torah instructs us more than 30 times, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We have that certain instinct, radar to detect prejudice, an instinct that few others have. We can bear witness to all suffering. Because we have felt that pain.
2) The Sh'ma as a prayer of transformation and transition:
The Sh'ma is the perfect transitional and transformational prayer. The one that helps us mark the change from evening to morning, from past to future, from lying down to rising up, from home to away, from childhood to Bar Mitzvah to parenthood, from life to death, from comfort to martyrdom, from periphery to witness, and all by uttering the name of God, Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey – the name that is breath, the One that is One, proclaiming that all life is, in fact one – as long as we are breathing. You WILL Love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. B’kchol nafshecha – with all your nefesh. That word nefesh means more than soul. It is that sacred breath of life, breathed into us by God, which we breathe back out into the world. To breathe is to testify to the gift of being alive, of constantly becoming, constantly growing.
The God I believe in is a God of change. Our lives are governed not by stagnancy but by flow. The only constant IS change, and we need to adapt, constantly adapt to it. We need to Grow with the Flow. Like nature itself, we are not perfect. We make mistakes. But perfection is the road to extinction. When we become perfect someday, we’ll all have become robots. Perfection is not a goal to aim for; it is an illusion to dispel.
3) The Sh'ma and the power of ritual:
How often do we recite it? We say this prayer up to five times in a given day, more on Yom Kippur. Why do we recite it and not the Ten Commandments? In fact, the fringes of the tallit, the tzitzit, which are discussed in the third paragraph of the Sh'ma prayer, symbolize all 613 commandments, and not just the Big Ten. So the Sh'ma is therefore number 1.
The Sh'ma reminds us of the importance of ritual. “V’shinantam l’vanecha,” the Sh’ma says, “Teach your children and speak of these sacred words.” But it doesn’t really say "teach.” “V’shinantem” means repeat. Don’t just teach this to your child once. Do it a second time. Repeat. Again and again. We have another word for repetition. Ritual. Daily prayer, weekly Sabbath, seasonal holidays, annual gatherings like this – that’s the Jewish way of dealing with the chaos. Discipline, repetition and focus.
4) The Sh'ma helps us to live with focus, passion and intensity:
The Sh'ma is one of oldest prayers – it was found in tefillin from the1st century! Tefillin are alluded to in the Sh'ma - The amulet shows that our connection with God is one of great passion and intensity, like a marriage. The straps around the finger symbolize a wedding ring. (Click here for more about tefllin.) And then there is the mezuzah, the put on the doorpost to help us focus on making a home a sacred space. The Sh'ma is all about focus. In the Talmud, we hear that when the time for the Sh’ma arrived Rabbi Yehuda would cover his eyes, because he was engaged in other activities. The recitation of the Sh’ma was seen as a moment of deep inward turning and intense concentration. It remains a custom to cover our eyes today when reciting the Sh’ma. There is no multitasking with the Sh’ma. This intense concentration is how we turn a set prayer, one recited at a set time, into something more purpose-filled.
5) The Sh'ma helps us to gain control of time.
When and how do we say this prayer? The paragraph states, "when you lie down and when you rise up." The very first discussion among rabbis in the Talmud was about when to recite the morning Sh’ma. Hillel and Shammai also argued about whether one should be standing or sitting.
And when exactly should it be recited in the morning? How do we seize control over time? It came down to one of two things – either when it’s light enough to distinguish different colored threads of the tzitzit or for us to recognize the face of a casual acquaintance at a distance of about 6 feet. Maimonides fixed that time as being about 6 minutes before sunrise. The window for the morning Sh’ma extends for about three hours, for that is when, according to the sages, princes and kings would arise. Even royals were tied to the clock. Even they had to answer to a higher authority. Saying the Sh’ma at the right time was considered by our sages to be a more meritorious act even than the study of Torah. And then again, just before bed – when we are most fearful.
And how should we say these words? We should say the Sh'ma with Kavvana (concentration), which is why many close their eyes, with the intention of accepting the burden of the "sovereignty of heaven."
But, you may ask, hasn’t technology liberated us from the tyranny of time? Isn’t it true that now we don’t have even to set appointments? After all, if we’re running late - which we always are - we can simply text the other person so that both of us can arrive late. Spontaneity has taken over as we’ve lost our ability to schedule. Time can be adjusted to suit our own particular needs. Dinner hour? Who’s kidding whom? When you work 24/7, you don’t dine, you graze. There is never a set time to eat anymore.
Counter-culturally, the Sh’ma reminds us that life should bind us to principles and responsibilities that go beyond our own whims. There is a reality that is beyond us.
6) The Sh'ma promotes Jewish unity and continuity:
Who wrote the Sh'ma? The Sh'ma is ascribed by some to King Josiah, who sought to unify his southern kingdom and draw people away from the idolatry that was rampant. The Sh'ma was the credo established to bring about that unified response, much like our Pledge of Allegiance.
Others ascribe the verse to Jacob's children at his deathbed, pledging to carry on the faith before their father, also known as Israel. "Listen, Israel (Dad), the Lord who you worship, who is also our God - is one and the same. We'll carry on the faith!"
7) The Sh'ma enables us to see the universe as an integrated whole, to see God in everything and everyone. See this Marge Piercy poem: Piercy translates it this way:
Hear, Israel, you are of God and God is one.
Praise the name that speaks us through all time.
So you shall love what is holy with all your courage, with all your passion
with all your strength.
Let the words that have come down
shine in our words and our actions.
We must teach our children to know and understand them.
We must speak about what is good
and holy within our homes
when we are working, when we are at play,
when we lie down and when we get up.
Let the work of our hands speak of goodness.
Let it run in our blood
and glow from our doors and windows.
We should love ourselves, for we are of God.
We should love our neighbors as ourselves.
We should love the stranger, for we
were once strangers in the land of Egypt
and have been strangers in all the lands of the world since.
Let love fill our hearts with its clear precious water.
Heaven and earth observe how we cherish or spoil our world.
Heaven and earth watch whether we choose life or choose death.
We must chose life so our children's children may live.
Be quiet and listen to the still small voice within that speaks in love.
Open to that voice, hear it, heed it and work for life.
Let us remember and strive to be good.
Let us remember to find what is holy within and without.
8) The Sh'ma escorts us from birth to death:
This prayer is the first thing Jews learn as kids (traditionally recited at bedtime) and the last thing on our lips before we die. This is the prayer recited by Rabbi Akiva as he was martyred two thousand years ago, and by Jews dying at Auschwitz. The words defiantly proclaim that the ultimate victory will be of life over death.
9) The Sh'ma and Love
We are first commanded to internalize the mitzvot — to literally take them to heart. And that is the means that bring us to the end - love of God. How then, can you command love? Well, it’s not really a command, as professor Reuven Kimelman has pointed out. Read properly, “V’ahavta is a response. An instinctive reaction projecting love out into the world. Projecting back what we have received.” In both the morning and evening liturgies, the Sh’ma is immediately preceded by a prayer about love. In the morning, that prayer is Ahava Rabbah – “A Great Love,” a transcendent love, an UNCONDITIONAL love. The word for love, “Ahava,” appears in various forms no fewer than six times in that single prayer, including the first, middle and last words. Love is love is love is love is love is love. Six times! Like a mantra. We are loved by an unconditional love – a boundless love, as we pray at night, Ahavat Olam. When you’ve been loved in that way, when the world has loved you in that way, the only way to respond is to give love in return.
You’ve undoubtedly heard that old bit of wisdom from Dorothy Law Nolte, “Children learn what they live”
If a child lives with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If a child lives with praise, they learn to appreciate.
If a child lives with security, they learn to have faith.
If a child lives with acceptance, and friendship, they learn to find love in the world
This is a popularized version of Erik Erikson’s idea of basic trust. The psychologist conducted an enormous amount of research showing that children who have a secure attachment with loving, sensitive caregivers come to know a world that is predictable and reliable. The Sh’ma is saying that such a world is at the root of the Jewish concept of love. A loving parent is doing God’s work. A nurturing community becomes God’s place - which is, by the way, what Temple Beth El aspires to be, an ever-embracing community, from womb to tomb, a conduit of divine love, nurturing our temple family and then projecting it out into the world.
Well, our prayers seem to be telling us that we have lived in a child’s paradise. A world of freely given love, an unending flow of love. And all we have to do is recognize it – and return it. And return it with ALL our heart, which for the ancients meant with our intellect, and ALL our soul, our nefesh, which is life itself, and with all our might, all our physical and material capacity. Love the world as best you can, in any way that you can, because we’ve been loved.
We take that love and hurl it right back at ya’ God, right back at ya’ to the world. That’s what we are here to do as Jews. We are here to love. Not because we are commanded to – rather because, when we have been enveloped by so much love, it is natural to want to give love back. The Sh'ma and V’Ahvata, then, to summarize, is not a command but a natural response to a lifetime of nurturing.
10) The Sh'ma as a question, rather than a proclamation.
We can also look at the Shma as a question rather than a proclamation. This is an interpretation with both Kabbalistic and modern shadings, We have to answer it – we have to MAKE God One.
Any of these commentaries could have been mentioned by Chat GPT - clearly it has a long way to go before it can replace rabbis and other Jewish educators.
See "Encountering the Sh'ma: Seven Questions," from the website of the Conservative Movement, "Exploring Judaism."
So the bottom line here is that rabbis and Jewish educators are not yet obsolete.
And the Sh'ma is one potent prayer!