“Listen O heavens, and I will speak, and the earth shall hear the words of my mouth…” (Deut. 32:1). These are the opening words of a poetic song uttered by Moshe shortly before his demise. In this passage the word for “listen” is ha’azinu, while the word for “hear” is tishma. A form of the latter word is more famously used in the formula “Hear (Shema) O Israel, Hashem our
The Midrash (Sifri to Parshat Ha’azinu) explains that these two terms reflect two types of listening. One type of listening refers to hearing something from afar, while the other type of listening refers to hearing something nearby. When one listens to something from a distance he must be especially attentive to the sound in order to properly concentrate, hear what should be heard, and focus on its meaning. According to the Midrash, shema refers to listening from a distance, while ha’azinu refers to listening from close-range. (Other commentators, such as Chizkuni, Abarbanel, and Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, disagree with the Midrash and actually define the terms in the opposite way, and explain the difference between Moshe and Yishaya accordingly.)
Based on this, the Midrash explains that Moshe was closer to the heavens, so he used ha’azinu to refer to the heavens listening to him, while he was farther from the earth, so he used shema when referring to the earth listening to him. Conversely, Yishaya was closer to the earth, so he used ha’azinu for the earth, and only used shema for the heavens.
However, this explanation begs the question: Since both Moshe and Yishaya were prophets of
The second answer explains that although Moshe and Yishaya were two of the most important prophets, the importance of Moshe infinitely exceeds that of Yishaya. Moshe was the “father of all prophets”, and attained a level of clarity in his prophecy unrivaled by any other prophet. As
Other sources point to another distinction between the words ha’azinu and shema. The word ha’azinu is derived from the Hebrew word ozen, which means ear. As such, the verb of listening expressed by the word ha’azinu refers simply to the physiological function of the ear: hearing sound waves and relaying them to the brain. On the other hand, explains the Malbim, the word shema does not refer simply to the physical act of listening; rather it also denotes a certain degree of intellectual or emotional understanding of that which is being heard.
Rokeach explains that the word shema refers to hearkening in response to another’s call, while ha’azinu simplyrefers to any type of listening. However, these explanations fail to account for the change in phraseology between the introduction of Moshe’s song and Yishaya’s opening prophecy. Elsewhere, Rokeach writes that shema refers to listening to something which was stated explicitly, while ha’azinu refers to listening and inferring to something only said implicitly.