An extra word in the Bible: finding the mystical in the simple

THURSDAY, AUGUST 27, 2009 - 6:29 AM





An extra word in the Bible: finding the mystical in the simple


A prominent professor in Oxford recently asked me the following question. In Deuteronomy (6:5) it says, ‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’.


In the Hebrew there is an unnecessary word ‘Eth’ between the Hebrew words for ‘love’ and ‘the Lord your G‑d’. What is the reason for this extra word?


The professor’s question was raised in light of the fact that in Leviticus (19:18) it says ‘you should love your neighbour as yourself’, and omits the word ‘Eth’ between the Hebrew word for ‘love’ and ‘neighbour’.


His question therefore was why in the context of love of G‑d it has the accusative ‘Eth’, whereas in reference to love of one’s neighbour, it is omitted.


The word ‘Eth’ is a common word in Biblical Hebrew, although not used in Modern Hebrew, and has two possible grammatical meanings. It could be the sign of the defined object, or the preposition meaning ‘with’.


From a grammatical point of view, there is no need for a comprehensive explanation for the inclusion of the word ‘Eth’ in some instances and omission in others.


The subject of this seemingly extra word is however discussed in the Talmud and mysticism, and is based on the premise that every extra word and letter - not to mention extra sections - in the Torah may be used for exegesis and legal subtleties.


We will therefore approach this question from an exegetical point of view first followed by a mystical perspective, which ultimately proves most satisfactory in our case.


Three exegetical meanings


There are three possible exegetical meanings to the word ‘Eth’ found in the Talmud. One is that it is merely meant to clarify that the words following ‘Eth’ are meant to be understood not euphemistically but literally. A second is to indicate the inclusion of something besides that which is explicitly mentioned in the text. Finally, the word ‘Eth’ comes to separate two matters from each other.




The sources for explanations are as follows.


The Talmud (Chagigah 12a) states: ‘R. Ishmael questioned R. Akiba when they were going on a journey together, saying to him: You who have waited twenty-two years upon Nahum of Gimzo, who used to explain the particle ‘Eth’ throughout the Torah, tell me what exposition did he give of (Gen. 1:1) In the beginning G‑d created ‘Eth’ the heaven and ‘Eth’ the earth? R. Akiba said to him: If it had said just heaven and earth, I could have said that heaven and earth were names of the Holy One, blessed be He, but now that it says ‘Eth’ the heaven and ‘Eth’ the earth, heaven means the actual heaven, and earth means the actual earth.’


The word ‘Eth’ is thus to clarify that the Hebrew words for heaven and earth are to be understood literally.




Another meaning of the word ‘Eth’ can be found in a number of other sources in the Talmud.


In Leviticus (14:9) it is written, ‘And he shall wash [Eth] his flesh in water’. The Talmud (Sukkah 6a) explains that the word ‘Eth’ includes also that which is joined to his body, i.e., his hair, implying that not only must the flesh be immersed in the water for ritual purity when spiritually unclean but also the hair.


Thus, the word ‘Eth’ comes to extend the explicit meaning of the word.


The Talmud relates that a certain Simeon the Imsonite (Baba Kama 41b) used to expound the term ‘Eth’ wherever it occurred in the Torah. When, however, he reached, ‘Thou shalt fear [Eth] the Lord thy God,’ he abstained. His disciples said to him: Rabbi, what is to be done with all the expositions of the term ‘Eth’ which you have already given? He said to them: Just as I have received reward for the previous expositions so have I received reward for the present abstention, since one should not fear anyone other than G‑d. When R. Akiba, however, came, he taught: ‘Thou shalt fear [Eth] the Lord thy God’ implies that the scholarly disciples are also to be feared in light of their Torah knowledge and their own complete fear of G‑d.


In the final analysis the meaning of Eth, as inclusion, was upheld by R. Akiba.


Additional facts


The word ‘Eth’ as inclusion is also applied in a factual sense. With regard to those who entered Egypt with the Biblical patriarch Jacob, scripture (Genesis 46:27) says in one place that seventy in their total descended, whereas in their detailed enumeration (Gen. 46:8-27) only sixty nine are listed.


The Talmud (Baba Bathra 123a) quotes the opinion of the sage R. Hiyya b. Abba, who reconciles this by expounding on the scriptural text (Gen. 46:15) ‘These are the sons of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob in Padan-Aram, and [Eth] his daughter Dinah; all the souls of his sons and his daughters were thirty three.’


R. Hiya b. Abba explained that since it says ‘Eth’ in addition to the words ‘And his daughter Dinah’, it implies an addition in this context that a twin sister was born with Dinah.


This, he says, accounts for the number seventy, since although the twin was omitted in the detailed enumeration, she was added to the general number seventy.




There is a second possible implication to this additional word in the Torah. It is that the seemingly unnecessary word is inserted to indicate an interruption between the content of the two words on either side of it.


An example for the interruption theory is from the book of Esther.


The Scripture says that celebrations marking the victory of the Jews over their enemies during the Persian exile in fourth century BCE should be conducted on ‘the fourteenth day and [Eth] the fifteenth’ of the Hebrew month of Adar.


The Talmud (Megillah 2b) analyses this as follows:  If the text had said ‘the fourteenth day and fifteenth’ without the word ‘Eth’ before the word ‘fifteenth’ you would have been correct to suggest that it implies celebrations should be conducting for two consecutive days on the fourteenth and also the fifteenth. Since, however, it is written ‘the fourteenth day and [Eth] the fifteenth, the ‘Eth’ makes a distinction. One set of celebrations, for the villages, takes place on the fourteenth and the other set of celebrations, for those surrounded by a wall, as the capital city of Susa, on the fifteenth.


Thus, the word ‘Eth’ comes to indicate that one should not read both dates, fourteenth and fifteenth, together but as alternatives, relating to two separate places.


Can this be applied to ‘Love of G‑d’?


Neither of the above explanations, ‘Eth’ as extension or interruption are suggested in the Talmud for the verse ‘Love the Lord your G‑d’.


This poses more of an enigma as the solution is indeed debated, as mentioned above, regarding ‘Fear your G‑d’ but the problem is not raised and no solution is given for the extra word in the verse regarding love of G‑d.


We will attempt to explore whether the above interpretations would be logical in the case of love of G‑d.


Extension to love of G‑d


In the case of fear of G‑d it makes sense that there is a problem with inclusion, since how can there possibly be a fear that is in comparison to fear of G‑d. In fact, aside from the opinion of R. Akiba, one should have no fear other than for G‑d.


In the case of love, there would not seem to be the same apprehension. Although one’s love of G‑d should surpass the love for other objects, the Torah says one should also love thy neighbour and the stranger in your midst (Deut. 10:19).


This suggests that extension to love of G‑d does not present any theological problem.


This might be the reason why the question for the word ‘Eth’ in the context of love of G‑d is not raised, as indeed it is obvious to anyone who is a familiar with scripture that one should love others in addition to G‑d.


Furthermore, according to Jewish mysticism the love of G‑d and love thy neighbour are two sides of the same coin (Hayom Yom), since it says that G‑d made man in His image. Therefore if one truly loves G‑d one should equally love the G‑dliness that is within every human being.


The problem with this answer however is that although the above point is true it would not justify the use of the word ‘Eth’ unless there is a specific inclusion. Scripture would not have added this word to include the need to love a fellow human being and stranger, which is already explicitly written in scripture.


Separation for love of G‑d


What about applying the theory of interruption to this verse? It is logical that there is a difference between love of man and love of G‑d, since, as the Psalmist says (ch. 116) the abode of G‑d is in the Heavens – the spiritual – love of G‑d can hardly be as tangible as love towards another human being. This difference might be indicated by the word ‘Eth’.


This is however inconsistent with Jewish teaching, since, on the contrary, love of G‑d should be more total than love of a human being. The verse ‘love the Lord your G‑d with all your heart, all your soul and all your might’ is interpreted to mean that even if one needs to give one’s life for his or her belief one should do so.


This is not the case for love of thy neighbour. Saving the life of another human being extends only to giving up all of one’s possessions but does not include life itself. An example for this is the Jewish ethical view on organ donation. Even a kidney transplant that can be performed while living, or a posthumous organ transplant, is not an obligation according to most Jewish legal authorities, as this goes beyond one’s duty to help save the life of another human being (Encyclopaedia of Jewish Medical Ethics).




The negation of the two Talmudic interpretations suggests the additional word ‘Eth’ in the context of love of G‑d may be connected to a more simple understanding of the word, which in this case helps define the total love one needs for G‑d.


This is consistent with the simpler meaning of the word mentioned at the beginning of this essay - ‘Eth’ meaning ‘with’.


Accordingly, the word ‘Eth’ does not imply an inclusion of another subject not mentioned explicitly but in fact the total inclusion of the self with G‑d.


This interpretation is found in a Jewish mystical text of 1905 by Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber of Lubavitch (Sefer Hamamorim 5665 p. 15). Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber analyses the word ‘Eth’ in the context of love of G‑d, whereby he resolves the question posed at the beginning of this essay.


He explains that there two contradictory meditations that accompany the reading of the daily morning liturgy in the Jewish prayer book. The first is ‘verses of praise’, which includes numerous chapters from the end of Psalms. This meditation deals with the existence of the world and its dependence on the Creator as its sole source.


The second section contains the reciting of ‘Hear of Israel, the Lord is our G‑d, the Lord is One.’ This section suggests a different meditation dwelling on the nullification rather than creation of existence. It concentrates on the fact that from the perspective of G‑d, the world is non-existent compared to His existence.


This second meditation is an emotion of total self –nullification, self-abnegation and absolute love of G‑d.


He concludes this point by explaining that the word ‘Eth’ in the verse about love of G‑d contains the simple meaning ‘with’, which implies secondary to something more important. In the context of prayer it suggests the total nullification of the person to G‑d.


The purpose of the word ‘Eth’ in this context is then indeed best understood not by an exegetical interpretation but in its simple meaning ‘with’.  In the simple interpretation of this word it emphasises a deep mystical meditation that all of existence is nullified before G‑d’s existence and the need for a human being to have total self abnegation, which manifests itself in absolute love of G‑d.


This then explains why the word ‘Eth’ is added in the context of love of G‑d but not when talking about love of one’s neighbour, since while one should have love and respect of another human being, one needs to have total self - nullification only towards G‑d.