In the Ancient Near Eastern mind, the “heart” was not the seat of emotion (as the English idiom would suggest), but rather was considered the seat of rational thought and “conscious resolve” (Jewish Encylcopedia, 1906, p. 296). When the Bible says “heart,” we need to translate that in our minds as referring to the mind, because in Classical Hebrew the seat of emotions is the mass of “stuff” below the mid-point of the torso, e.g. the intestines, the stomach, the bladder, the bowels, the kidneys, the liver, the spleen, etc.
Elkins and Treu observe the following (p. 221, italics theirs):
“In the Tanakh, the seats of intellect and emotion are a level lower physiologically than in modern times. The heart, not the brain, is the seat of the intellect. The kidneys, not the heart, are the seat of the emotions. Thus, to love G-d with all one’s heart means to do so with one’s mind. The rabbis noticed that the Hebrew word used for heart [in the Shema] is “levav,” instead of the more common “lev.” The double use of the Hebrew letter bet is the source of their idea that one should love God with both human instincts (i.e., both parts of our heart), our positive as well as our negative inclinations, our Yetzer HaTov and our Yetzer HaRa (Talmud, Berakhot 54a).”
What does this mean for how we understand Scripture and its message?
Consider the “b’rit chadasha” and the debate over whether it is to be translated “new covenant” or “renewed covenant.” With this understanding of “heart,” we can look at Jeremiah 31 and understand that having the Torah written on our hearts (rational thoughts) is another way of stating the exact same thing Joshua 1:8 states: that we are to “meditate on Torah day and night.” Torah is the “vow” section of the one everlasting covenant meted out progressively through Avraham, Moshe, David, Phineas, and Jeremiah (echoed by the author of Hebrews).
- Hermeneutics: The Heart of the Bible (Yiddishkeit 101)
- Dov Peretz Elkins & Abigail Treu, The Bible’s Top 50 Ideas: The Essential Concepts Everyone Should Know (SP Books, 2005).
- Mark Lowry, “Open Heart Surgery” (online: https://youtu.be/t_gBhbRmoXc).