The Meaning of One


Rabbi Michael Bernstein



Recalling the incredible revelation at Mount Sinai, Moses tells the people (5:21), „And you said, őBehold (hen), God our Lord has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice from amidst the fire‚.š In this verse, we encounter the infrequently used word „henš, behold. While it seems to add rhetorical flourish, we may still wonder if there is some additional significance in its use here. Let us examine this diminutive word.


The Talmud in a number of places (Moed Kattan 28a; Sanhedrin 76b; Megillah 9b) translates the word hen as one, because it is cognate with the Greek word uni, which also means one. This derivation is puzzling. Why should the translation of a word in the Torah be determined by its meaning in Greek, a linguistically unrelated tongue?


In The Guide to the Perplexed, the Rambam points out that the concept of God‚s oneness, as absolute unity without parts, something impossible in a physical entity, is virtually inconceivable to physical creatures. Only through the perfection that derives from Torah study can we gain a progressive inkling of God‚s oneness. Pursuit of this rarified understanding of one is a uniquely Jewish aspiration and accomplishment. But what does hen have to do with the Greeks?


We find that the Talmud admires (Megillah 9b) the Greek language, ascribing its beauty, symmetry and wisdom to the blessing Noah gave Japheth, the forebear of the Greek people (Genesis 9:27), „May the Lord beautify Japheth.š In fact, Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel is of the opinion that, besides Hebrew, only Greek can also be used to write Scripture on a klaf parchment, reflecting its special status among the languages.


Our Sages understood that the singularly wise nature of the Greek language would have required it to seek a word for „oneš that would reflect its fullest meaning. Since the concept of perfect oneness would be expressed best in the holy language, the Greeks would have found it necessary to borrow it from Hebrew for their own language. The Greek use of a word for „oneš similar to the Hebrew term hen indicates their language‚s understanding that the Hebrew term is the ideal expression of perfect unity.


The Jewish people assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai witnessed the greatest divine revelation ever and thereby achieved a singularly clear perception of God‚s oneness. They responded to this with the word „henš, behold, with its second meaning of one, because it implied that God had revealed His inscrutable Oneness to them in a way previously unimaginable. Appropriately, the Torah introduces the Shema several verses later, with its famous first verse (6:4), „Hear O Israel, God is our Lord, God is One.š


Upon further reflection, we can discern the connection between these two meanings of hen, behold and one, since to behold something is to hold it visually or intellectually as a whole in one‚s grasp. Finally, there is another meaning to hen, namely „yesš. We may connect this, too, to the concept of unity in the sense that by an affirmation a person expresses his willingness to accept or incorporate into himself that which he affirms and, in a manner of speaking, to become one with it.


A closer examination of the word hen reveals its etymological connection to the concept of one. Its two letters, heh and nun, themselves reflect a singularity in that heh is spelled with two hehs and nun is likewise spelled with two nuns. In Netzach Yisrael, the Maharal discerns the singularity of these letters in their numerical values. The heh, with a value of 5, and the nun, with a value of 50, are the only letters that must be paired with themselves to reach a total of 10 and 100 respectively. All other letters must be paired with a different letter to achieve those totals. For instance, aleph (1) must combine with a tes (9) to reach 10, and yod (10) must pair with tzadi (90) to reach 100. But heh (5) combines with heh (5) to reach 10, and nun (50) combines with nun (50) to reach 100. And indeed, the very spelling out of the letters heh (composed of two hehs) and nun (composed of two nuns) equals 10 and 100 respectively, numbers the Maharal sees as expansions of the concept of unity.


Oneness is a concept that permeates the life of Rabbi Akiva. In Pirkei Avos, he summarizes the entire Torah in one saying, „Love your neighbor as yourself.š This itself expresses the goal of creating a unity of sorts with one‚s fellow man.


Rabbi Akiva is famous (Berachos 60b) for seeing God‚s unifying will behind all that is good and all that superficially seems otherwise (kol mah d‚avid Rachmana l‚tava avid). Only he among the Sages (Makkos 24a) can laugh as foxes dart among the ruins of the Temple, for he sees all history as a single, divinely directed advance. One Aggadic passage views (Menachos 29b) Rabbi Akiva as the quintessential exponent of the Oral Law, able to derive laws from the crowns of the letters in the Torah (tagim), thereby demonstrating the unity of the Written Law and the Oral Law. In the Talmud‚s dramatic depiction of his martyrdom (Berachos 61b), his soul departs as he utters the final words of the Shema, „God is One.š


According to the Midrash (Mechilta Yisro), Rabbi Akiva debates Rabbi Yishmael as to what the Jewish people said following each command given at Sinai. Rabbi Yishmael states they said „yes (hen)š after hearing the positive commandments and „noš following the prohibitions. Rabbi Akiva contends that they said „henš after all of them. Perhaps Rabbi Akiva intended the full meaning of the word hen: „yesš, „beholdš and „oneš. The Jewish people had beheld and affirmed all the Ten Commandments, obligations and prohibitions, as coming from a single Source, reflecting God‚s oneness.