The Meaning of “One”1
Hear, Yisrael: Hashem is our G-d. Hashem is One.
Nothing sounds more natural to the Jewish ear than this simple and elegant
formulation of Jewish faith. It is the first verse of the Torah that a small
child is taught, and the last on the lips of a person as he departs this
life. For centuries, it was the lifeline to a community from which a person
found himself estranged. Jews who drifted away nonetheless retained the
belief system incorporated in this verse. It would appear to have no match
in Jewish Scripture.
The appearances are deceiving. There is a parallel passage, and it should
be regarded as a close competitor for compact statement of faith. Moreover,
it came first. “You have been shown to be made to know that Hashem is the
G-d; there is no other besides Him. You shall know today, and take it to
heart, that Hashem is the G-d in the heavens above and on the earth below.
There is nothing else.
The differences between these two passages are instructive..
In the earlier passage, we do not hear, but see. For Jews, seeing very much
is believing. Others claim to discover G-d in nature, or in the progress of
history. These, however, are not the traditional portals into Jewish belief.
Arguments based upon them may be helpful and even convincing for
individuals, but as a people, we have no use for them. We saw the truth, in
a way that banished all doubt. Our forefathers watched the display of
Hashem’s presence as He so dramatically freed them from Egyptian bondage.
They stood at Sinai, and individually heard the Voice of Hashem proclaim His
law to an assembly of an entire nation. Once belief was established beyond
cavil, nature and history could assume their roles. They would not prove
anything about G-d’s existence. That work was already done. Rather, once
that belief was firmly rooted, both nature and history became important
lenses with which to observe Hashem’s interaction with our world, and learn
more about His ways. The same phenomena would mean little or nothing to the
non-believer. To the Jew linked to our great past, however, every phenomenon
in the natural world, whether large or small, points to His presence and
wisdom; every event in the unfolding of history points to His guidance.
Those who are unconvinced of His existence will be hard-pressed to prove it
from nature or history. Those who are already convinced will look at the
world and find nothing but His presence, confirmed in the greatness and
majesty of the natural world, and the course of our history.
It then dawns upon us how different it is for us today – and indeed for
every generation after the one that left Egypt. They saw. They experienced
firsthand and directly. We, on the other hand, can only lay claim to what
they understood by listening to what they have told us, to hearing
their message. Hashem provided for us a firm basis of belief through a
series of events and experiences unique in history. Provided once at the
beginning of our peoplehood, they put our national belief on a firm footing,
but they would not be repeated. They saw; we hear. Yet what we hear comes
to us in an uninterrupted chain of transmission: a message of direct
experience and certainty, not the speculation and wish-fulfillment of others.
Both of the passages encapsulate the experience of that first generation.
The two passages are very different, and yet are really the same. While the
earlier one speaks of learning through that experience of that generation
that there is no “other,” the Shema distills a few choice phrases into a
single word: echad, or One.
We can understand this best by considering the ancient competitors to Jewish
belief – competitors that still manifest themselves in contemporary belief
systems and attitudes. The Shema’s echad is, first and foremost, a
monotheistic declaration by rejecting polytheism.
We may be dismissive of polytheism as a primitive belief, and miss how
convincing it was (and continues to be!) to those who did not have the
benefit of our national experience. Everywhere we look, we meet up with
apparent disparity and difference – certainly not unity. Whether in the
antagonistic relationships we observe in the macrocosm - life and death,
light and darkness, rising and falling – or the tensions we feel within
ourselves – love and hate, joy and sadness – we see and feel variety, not
sameness and unity. Ancient man came to grips with these observations by
attaching them to separate gods. Loosely, they divided phenomena into two
groups – those they found to be agreeable, and those to which they objected.
The first group were assumed to be within the domain of a benign deity of
good, light and life; the others belonged to gods of evil, darkness and
death. Whether through belief in two gods locked in eternal battle, or two
groups of gods, each promoting antagonistic agendas, ancient man found it
hard to escape a dualism that seemed apparent to him. This dualism still
haunts modern man, who at times cannot find any way to bring the two sets of
phenomena under one umbrella.
The first level of meaning in the Shema is the declaration that difference
and tension are illusory. They are not the consequence of battle between
two forces or powers, but flow from the One G-d.
This understanding alone would be a remarkable insight, and a huge step
forward for mankind. It would not, however, do justice to the lesson of the
Shema. Our pasuk does not merely claim that the battle is a sham, that G-d
is somehow big enough to contain apparent opposites. The Shema goes much
further. G-d is not the just the single Source of the different notes of
one composition. Within Him, the dissonance and discord disappears,
leaving only harmony. The name Hashem indicates love and compassion, while
Elokim denotes judgment and consequence. In the Shema, they both come
together: Hashem is Elokeinu; they are two aspects of the same Being. We
may see them or experience them as opposite traits and phenomena, but this
is inaccurate. In reality, G-d’s judgment is nothing more than a
manifestation of His love. His achdus, His Oneness means that the opposites
are not just resident in the same G-d, so much as that they are not opposite
Some would translate our pasuk differently, and detect an altogether
different message. We have translated echad as One, or the only One, and
seen it as a declaration of essential unity in place of apparent disunity
and antagonism. The Shema surgically removes the chief cause of belief in
beings other than the One true G-d - our detection of many-ness rather than
one-ness. The Shema declares that finding to be a sham, a massive
misunderstanding. Some people, however, see in the Shema a description of
G-d’s inner nature, a peak into His transcendence. Echad becomes not One, in
the sense of the only One, without peer, but One in the sense of an
essential unity, not composed of different parts. We do not find
support for this in Chazal. Furthermore, it turns our most important lesson
about how to practically relate to G-d, and turns it into an esoteric
discipline that cannot have immediate meaning to us. It may also violate our
understanding of our limitations as human beings to make accurate
descriptive statements about the inscrutable reality of G-d.
The last letter of echad is written with a large letter. So is the last
letter of acher, in an earlier pasuk about bowing to other gods. The
Torah seems determined that we not get the two confused, and recognize the
difference between the One G-d, and the false ones. Interestingly, the word
acher is formed when the last letter is a reish, whose top left surface is
round, rather that angular. The daled of echad is formed by simply turning
that rounded surface into a sharp corner. So many others have missed the
point of His Oneness by missing the sharpness of precise, rigorous thinking.
They have taken the more accommodating and smooth, pliable route – but in so
doing, distorted the truth of His uniqueness.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Devarim 6:4
2. Devarim 4:35
3. Devarim 4:39
4.His intention here is a bit obscure. The different translations present
different approaches. I was unable to get to the German original to
determine his actual intent