Biblical Hebrew – Echad Revisited
By André H. Roosma
The Biblical Hebrew word אֶחָד – ’echad. is normally translated into English as ‘one’. It is a most essential word in Judaist belief. And a discerning one. Much of the conflict of Judaism and Christianity hinges on this one word אֶחָד – ’echad. According their reading of the Biblical Shema‘, Jews say that God is One, undivided and definitely not distinguish- able in the different ways in which He presents Himself according to Christian belief.
A bit of linguistic and Biblical history
The Shema‘ of Rabbinical Judaism derives from the Masoretic Text of Debharim/Deuteronomy 6: 4 ff. That text is a transliteration into the Imperial Aramaic script and redaction of the original Torah text as written down by Mosheh/Moses in the West-Semitic script of his age, the precursor to the Paleo-Hebrew script of the period of the Biblical kings. Lin- guists have studied the development of the Semitic languages for a very long time now. Biblical Hebrew was the living language of ancient Isra’el from the time of the Patriarchs or Moses/Mosheh to the temporal end of the Jewish state in 135 AD. That is a period of more than one-and-a-half millennium! When we analyze the Text of the Torah as penned down by Masoretes in the Middle Ages, we even have a time-span of two-and-a-half mil- lennia! Research has revealed that, like any language during such a long period, Hebrew underwent considerable change over this period.
The analysis of the word, and the explanation of ‘one’ as the meaning of אֶחָד – ’echad is based primarily on analysis of Biblical Hebrew in a flourishing period of Judaism: the first – יחד centuries of our era. Linguists generally agree that, just like its human equivalent jachad (mainly used for human aspects, as opposed to אֶחָד – ’echad, which is primarily used in relation to God), אֶחָד – ’echad derives from an ancient form וחד – wachad,1 in Paleo-He- brew: וחד. In Arabic this old wachad is preserved in وحد – wachada.
The meaning according the old West-Semitic root
The clear differentiation of West-Semitic into Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew took place around 1400 BC (± 400 years), linguistic research has found.2 So that is: around the time of the birth of Isra’el as a nation. At the time of Moses/Mosheh, the script used was what I call the early West-Semitic script (also called Proto-Canaanite or Sinaitic script). In a still on- going research, I demonstrate that this script had pictographic features, in the sense that the letters had not only phonetic value but were also associated to basic notions that con- stitute the words formed with them.3 In this script, wachad was written like this: – a tent pin, a panel of tent canvas, and a door. There are strong indications from all kind of related words, that this refers to the construction of early doors, where a big pole or pin would stand and turn in a hole in the ground or in a stone in the pavement of the door-opening. To this pin or pole was attached a flat and thin piece of material (wood, or a structure, woven from palm fronds or the like) that served as the turning door, and this was mounted in an opening in the wall. That wall could be made of woven palm fronds or of stone or any other material as well.
From this graphic representation, I deduce that the original meaning of wachad was not so much the numeral ‘one’ at the exclusion of diversity or whatever. Much more was it the notion of that door-pin that – on its own – kept the door together with the wall, de- spite all its allowable movement. So: one-ness as together-ness. Or: unity in diversity and allowing flexibility. The pin alone ensures that the door does not fall apart from the wall.
There are a number of linguistic observations that seem to affirm this theory.
One is that several related words in Arabic still support that connotation of ‘keeping or being kept together’. One of the most significant of them is Arabic ’achad – ‘together’. Another is what we find in Exodus/Shemot 21: 2-6. In Isra’el, a slave who was released could choose to remain in the service of the house/family where he was. The ceremony by which he would promise his future loyalty to the house/family was by literally being pinned to the doorpost by his ear. That this was not just a practice in Isra’el is attested by the word for ‘slave’ in Akkadian. In old Akkadian (also adopted into Sumerian) the word for ‘slave’ was literally: ‘pin on the (higher) other’s door’ – – urdu/ardu/wardu. Com- pare also the Hebrew and Arabic עבד – ‘ebhed / عبد – ‘abd – slave or house-servant, ac- cording the old representation: someone overseeing the house-door; seeing that all that goes in and out goes well. Such a person also cares that the household does not fall apart…
In the recent article: ‘The Word for ‘One’ in Proto-Semitic’,4 Aren Wilson-Wright argues that wachad was even not the original word for ‘one’ in early Semitic. An original word for ‘one’ was replaced by the adjective wachad, much like in Greek and Tocharian, where Proto-Indo-European *oi-no was replaced by the adjective *sam – ‘together, the same’ (Aren Wilson-Wright additionally notes that “The same adjective with a different vowel grade is also the source of Greek monos ‘alone’”). What is argued, is a development in West-Semitic where wachad at first probably represented the notion of ‘keeping things together’, (then possi- bly came to represent aloneness) and finally was used for the numeral ‘one’.
So now, timing becomes critical. In which phase of the development of wachad → ’echad did Moses/Mosheh (or was it Musah at that time, as Arabic seems to indicate?) write the Torah? Was it when wachad was still the form and this was still associated to oneness in the sense of ‘keeping or being kept together’, or was it already in a later phase of develop- ment where this form of unity had developed into ‘being one’, as ‘undivided’?
Up until this moment I have not been able to ascertain this timing with enough precision – אֶחָד and certainty to reach a final conclusion. However, it is by far most likely that ’echad in the Masoretic text of Debharim/Deuteronomy 6: 4 was a reflection of a much earlier – wachad in the West-Semitic script of Moses’/Mosheh’s time, and that this wachad had the primary meaning of one-ness in the sense of: ‘keeping things together’.
The implication for the Shema‘
The Shema‘, as written in Debharim/Deuteronomy 6: 4 says:
וְּיהָוה ֶאָחדְשַׁמעִיְשָׂרֵאלְיהָוה ֱא ֵהינ
Or, in the older manuscripts that still wrote the glorious Name of God in Paleo-Hebrew:
שמע ישראל אלהינו אחד
“Shema‘ Yisra’el, YaHUaH ’Elohainu, YaHUaH ’echad!” “Hear, Isra’el, YaHUaH our Elohim, YaHUaH is One!”
I observe that the above attested primary meaning of wachad (or ’echad as its later repre- sentation) as ‘keeping things together’ would be most appropriate as describing the God of Isra’el: YaHUaH. Indeed He is the One, Who united the people of Isra’el as a people and a nation, as He also united Isra’el to Himself in the first place, while still giving them the room to move.
First, the text here calls Him ’Elohainu. That is the first person plural possessive form of ’Elohaim, which is the plural form of ’Eloha (God). This emphasizes that He is too great, too multi-faceted to be described by the singular ’Eloha. The greatness of His Personality requires a kind of majestic plural form. Next it says, that in all that plurality, He still is One. I see that even in His creation. It is awesome in its creativity and variability, yet from the unfathomable large stars to the smallest particles, there are design features that show that there is One Designer behind it all.
That leads to a reading that differs considerably from the one as explicated by Rabbinic Judaism. But that was also the case already caused by my suggestion to proclaim, and not hide, the glorious Name of God in the Shema‘, as according His explicit desire.5
The Shema‘ thus becomes a way to confess that all is God’s initiative. He is the One Who united us unto Himself and unto each other under His Kingship. We are His subjects. And so, it becomes all the more a way to glorify God and thus to proclaim His glorious Name.
Hallelu YaHUaH !
1 There is general consensus among scholars that the ancient Proto-Semitic root of all of these words is W-Ch-D.
2 See e.g.: Geoff K. Nicholls, Robin J. Ryder, ‘Phylogenetic models for Semitic vocabulary’, in: D. Conesa, A. Forte, A. Lopez-Quilez (Eds.), Proceedings of the 26th International Workshop on Statistical Modelling, Valencia, Spain, 2011. And: Andrew Kitchen, Christopher Ehret, Shiferaw Assefa and Connie J. Mulligan, ‘Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of Semitic languages identifies an Early Bronze Age origin of Semitic in the Near East’, Proc. Royal Soc. B 2009, 276, p.2703-2710 (doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.0408; first published online: 29 April 2009);
3 For more on this old script, see: André H. Roosma, ‘The Written Language of Abraham, Moses and David – A study of the pictographic roots and basic notions in the underlying fabric of the earliest Biblical script’ , Hallelu-YaH Draft Working Document, 1st English version: 18 April 2011; Dutch original: January 2011; updated regularly.
4 Aren Wilson-Wright ‘The Word for ‘One’ in Proto-Semitic’, Journal of Semitic Studies, LIX/1, Spring 2014, p.1-13.