Sunday, November 09, 2008

God's Uniqueness

I remember that in R. Shlomo Drillman's eulogy for R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik in the YU study hall, R. Drillman quoted R. Soloveitchik as saying that when we say in Shema that God is "echad", we should not have in mind only that He is numerically one but that He is unique. This was later published by R. Hershel Schachter in his Nefesh Ha-Rav (pp. 59-60).

At a bar mitzvah a few months, I was sitting next to a local Chassidic scholar, R. Meshulam Halberstam (grandson of R. Yitzchak Liebes), and told him the above. He immediately responded with a possible source to R. Soloveitchik's explanation. The Gemara (Megillah 28a) asks why, regarding the Tamid sacrifice, the Torah says to take "keves ha-echad -- one lamb" (Num. 28:4). Once it says lamb in the singular, why does it need to say "ha-echad"? The Gemara answers that you have to take the best -- the unique -- lamb (ha-meyuchad she-ba-edro). We see an example where "echad" does not mean "one" but "unique".

Click here to read moreR. Hershel Schachter, in Nefesh Ha-Rav, brings a source that relates specifically to Shema. The Gemara (Chagigah 3a) says that God said to the Jewish people: "You have made Me recognized as unique in the world, and therefore I shall make you unique in the world. You have made Me recognized as unique in the world, as it says 'Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem echad.'" It seems that the Gemara understands the verse as saying that the Jews must proclaim God to be unique.

I found that Prof. Abraham Joshua Heschel offers the same explanation as R. Soloveitchik and brings a number of sources as proof (Man Is Not Alone, p. 116n.). In addition to the Gemara in Megillah cited above, he points to 2 Samuel 7:23: "And who is like Your people, like Israel, one nation on the earth..." Translating "goy echad" as "one nation" is awkward; as per the above, more appropriate would be "a unique nation" (cf. Ralbag; Metzudas David). Targum Onkelos translates "achad ha-am" (Gen. 26:10) as "the unique of the nation."

The Gemara (Chullin 28a) quotes Rav Ada bar Ahavah who says that, when slaughtering a bird, specifically the esophagus must be severed. The Gemara points out that the Mishnah says that only one "siman" (either trachea or esophagus) must be severed so why does he require specifically the esophagus? The Gemara answers that "one" (echad) refers to the unique, special siman, which is the esophagus. Similarly, regarding the prohibition against slaughtering an animal and its child on the same day, the Gemara (Chullin 83b) says that "one" day refers to a unique, special day. And in a similar manner, the Gemara (Bekhoros 17a) says that the goat offering for Rosh Chodesh must be unique because the Torah says "echad" about it.

All this boils down to a solid basis within rabbinic philology for understanding the word "echad" as sometimes referring to an item as being unique rather than numerically one -- singular rather than single.

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