Alternate title: “My Shema’s Bigger Than Your Shema”
In 1985 when I began studying the Bible in depth, I wrote Deuteronomy 6:4-12 (known as the Jewish Confession of Faith, or “Shema” meaning “hear” for the first word of it in Hebrew) on a piece of 3/8″ correction tape (back when humans wrote on paper), 14 feet long, & placed it around the inside of my apartment door. 5 years later when I bought my first condo, & again each time I moved to other residences, I carefully removed & relocated it (thanks to its weak adhesive). I dreamed of the day when I could own a house, & actually paint it on the outside. God allowed me to see that day materialize yesterday, March 24th, 2012!
I had been planning this since the day I moved here in 2008. My house has a very special architecture with a street-facing balcony 4-feet wide (east-to-west) & 35-feet long (north-to-south). It figuratively screamed “Paint an ancient inscription on me!” when I first saw it!
Because of circumstances I won’t make public, I didn’t immediately want to use the Shema. At times I wanted to use Greek texts (John 12:44-7; 2Corinthians 4:6), or other Hebrew texts (Exodus 15:2; Joshua 24:15; 1Chronicles 16:23-7,33; Psalms 96:1-6, 98:4, 119:89), or even the Septuagint Shema. I couldn’t make up my mind, but I began storing & studying photos of Roman-era Greek inscriptions on Valentine’s Day in 2009, knowing I’d be painting the entire exterior the following summer (it’s a fixer-upper & needed a paint-job anyway). I initially imagined the text filling the entire lintel over the “doorposts of [my] house” & my “gates”, but later got the idea to reduce the text height to accommodate 2 lines, one in Hebrew, the other Greek. That’s when I knew I’d be able to include the Shema along with a Greek text … but which one?
After many months of consideration, pondering how much of the Shema to include, & which NT text of approximately the same length could complement it, I narrowed it down to John 10:27-30, Acts 2:22-4, & 1Corinthians 8:4-6. If I could paint the entire Bible over my house, I would, but with room to emphasize a single juxtaposition from both Testaments, I wanted to choose one with the most or best keywords.
John records Jesus using the words “hear” & “one”.
Acts records Peter using “Israelites”, “hear”, & “God” plus “Jesus”, “crucified”, “resurrected”.
1Corinthians records Paul using “God”, “one”, plus “Jesus”.
In the end, I chose Acts because I thought it was really cool how I could juxtapose Moses addressing Israel at the beginning of the Deuteronomy text, with Peter addressing Israel at the beginning of the Acts text, which is a very succinct profession of core-Christian faith.
I spent many days over many months doing my best to calculate the height & length of the inscriptions because unlike writing on paper or on a computer, I knew that I had to get it right the first time, or it would look terrible & dishonor God. I was able to balance all of Deu 6:4-9 with Acts up to the first phrase in verse 24.
Another important factor was the weather. Obviously I couldn’t do it in the rain (it’s been raining hard since about 9 AM today as I draft this report), & it’s quite windy here nearly every day, especially in the afternoon. That would make it difficult to read my notes, & blow around my other tools. Also my dense garden & uneven landscaping made it difficult to maneuver my ladder into safe positions. I also have a series of hanging plants on my balcony connected to an irrigation system that I decided to work around rather than dismantle.
I thought it would only take about half a day to do the entire job, & I did not want to stop for bathroom breaks, so I skipped breakfast entirely (as I usually do for long bike rides); but as it turns out, it took the entire day, from about 7 AM to 4:30 PM (I didn’t stop for lunch either, but did drink a couple glasses of water). With 475 letters, that’s just over 1 minute per letter. Carefully painting 2-inch-wide letters on an unpredictable, rough stucco surface turned out to be quite a challenge … not just from an artistic perspective, but also the physical exercise of straining to reach areas from a single ladder position, & of course the repetition of climbing a couple steps to dip my brush in the paint can on the balcony, then back down to paint the inscription, & over & over for nearly 10 hours.
Due to the 43-foot length of the inscription, & the way it wraps around the north & south sides of the balcony, I made a large, composite image that you can see by clicking on either of the 2 images below, which show the key phrases “Hear, Israel” & “Listen, Israelites” at the beginning of each text:
I don’t know if this is the largest/longest Shema in the history of the world, but it would be nice to know if it is. (The only results I found when searching online were porn-related.) If you know of any that are bigger or even close, be they in Paleo-Hebrew or modern block letters, please let me know.
And here is the 8.5×11″ piece of paper I used during the work (no, I don’t have it memorized in any language; & the Hebrew fonts are based on the Dan Stela, courtesy of Kris Udd):
During the course of the painting, I made 3 obvious mistakes. I was able to correct 2 of them immediately while the paint was wet by wiping it away & re-painting. The other one I decided to leave in since it wasn’t that critical, just a malformed Vau head, sort of resembling the one on the S2U seal. I also made one of my diagonal Alef strokes at the wrong angle, but consider that an even more trivial mistake.
Paleographically, I chose to use the Paleo-Hebrew script with which I’m most familiar, dating to Hezekiah’s reign. Because there were so many other factors to consider in this project, I didn’t need to introduce another variable for errors to occur by using an earlier, more pictographic script. And as I said earlier, I chose general forms of the Greek letters seen in Roman-era inscriptions, the most noticeable one being the Alpha with its downward-bent inner stroke. I don’t have extensive knowledge of the Greek paleography, so if anyone notices a glaring problem, please let me know (not that I would fix it at this point, but it would be nice to know in case I ever redo it or have to move again someday).
The verses I chose utilized most of the letters in their respective alphabets. The Deut text doesn’t include Gimel & Samek; the Acts text doesn’t include Phi or Psi. That turned out to be an excellent variety!
I chose to use the Masoretic text rather than research DSS variants. For Acts, during the course of proofreading from alternate sources, I noticed several differences between the Textus Receptus & Nestle-Aland; the former is longer, so I chose the latter to make it easier to align over the same length as the Shema. But just to intrigue any Greek scholars who happen to analyze my painting, I used the TR order of “from God approved” instead of the NA’s “approved from God”, & the TR spellings for “hands” & “killed”. This way they’ll know I considered both versions, & don’t consider such errors to be a threat to my faith.
Stylistically, I deliberately avoided forming ligatures among the Hebrew letters except for two Bet-Resh instances to commemorate the H4C seal (& Siloam Inscription). I was not even aware of their presence until I was in the midst of painting them! However, in some instances I could not avoid connecting the Hebrew & Greek strokes. Here’s an example of a Bet-Resh, & just to the left you can see a Mem connecting an Upsilon & Tau:
A couple of interesting alignments occurred between an Oyin & an Omicron, as well as this Mem over a Mu (this close-up also illustrates the rough stucco surface):
Finally, according to the Mishna (which I haven’t studied, but the Jewish Encyclopedia references Ber. ii. 5), the reciting of the first verse of the Shema represents the acceptance of the yoke of the kingship of God!
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.“–Matthew 22:37-40