Digital phylacteries: applying the Shema in the digital age

London, N19
20/07/2012  •  654 words

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

One of the first essays I wrote as a Theology undergraduate was titled ‘How best should the Shema be understood?’ These verses from Deuteronomy are known as the ‘Shema’, from the Hebrew for the word ‘to hear’ which opens verse 4. Jesus referred to the Shema as the greatest commandment (Mk 12:29-30), reflecting the central importance of these verses to Jewish worship. Sadly they are less well known among Christians.

By all accounts the Shema is an extremely important part of the Bible for Christians, but it poses a question of interpretation that needs to be addressed in each and every situation in which we find ourselves: what does this look like in practice? More specifically, what does it mean to keep God’s commandments on our hearts? What does it look like to tie them on our hands and bind them on our foreheads; to write them on our doorframes and gates?

Through the centuries, Jews and Christians have answered these questions in all sorts of ways. Some Jews keep these and other verses on parchment in tiny boxes called phylacteries (or Tefillin in Hebrew) which are literally bound around the head and hand each morning. Others have answered them more metaphorically, recognising the need to be bold in religious observance at home and in public, but have stopped short of etching anything into their doorframes!

I wonder how we Digital Disciples should answer these questions. As I read the Shema, I cannot help but think of our smartphones and tablets and laptops. I think of verse 7: ‘Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.’ I think that these are exactly the places we use our digital devices – unless I am the only one to check Twitter in bed!

Clearly, the main importance of these verses is in the opening line: God is God, and we are to love him totally with everything it is in our capacity to love with. And we are to carry them with us ‘on our hearts’, as it were, implicit and ever-present in all our thoughts and deeds. We are to speak about them in the home and out in public; at rest and at work; at the start and end of the day – and in between times, too! That surely includes our digital communities as well as our ‘analogue’ ones, and those times when communicating online as well as face-to-face.

The last couple of verses are trickier to apply to the digital sphere. Perhaps our ‘digital phylacteries’ are our online profiles, where we are conscious of being guided by God’s character and commandments. Perhaps our ‘digital doorposts’ are our blog landing pages or sidebars, where we have an opportunity to display what kind of website our visitors are entering.

This does not mean, of course, that every Christian’s profiles and websites should ‘wear’ the digital equivalent of WWJD wristbands. The challenge of the Shema is far less prescriptive but infinitely stronger than that. In effect, it is saying, ‘let everything you do be thoroughly motivated by and grounded in the character of God and his word, such that it is obvious in every area of your life all the time’.

This article was originally written for the Big Bible Project.