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When Korach rebelled against the authority of Moses and Aaron, he engaged in a classic mudslinging campaign accusing Moses of taking public funds for personal use. Moses defended himself before Hashem, testifying: “I did not take a donkey of echad of them, and I did not do bad to one achad of them” (Numbers 16:15). This verse uses two different words that mean “one,” echad and achad, and opinions differ on each’s special meanings and connotations.

The word echad appears a whopping 634 times in the Bible. In its simplest meaning, the word echad denotes the number one; in a more complex way, it refers to the unity of sub-parts that have joined together to become one. Compared to the word echad, achad is much less common, appearing only 65 times in the entire Bible.

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Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) traces the words echad and achad to the biliteral root chet-dalet, whose core meaning is the concept of singularity or unification. Other words which Rabbi Pappenheim sees as deriving from this root include. Biliteralists in the mold of Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970) and Rabbi Pappenheim trace the words ach (“brother”) to a separate two-letter root deriving from aleph-chet, but Rabbi Shmuel Yehudah Steiger (1876-1928) posits in Avnei Shayish that they are all related because they all connote a certain closeness and joining together, as in brotherhood.

The rabbis understood that the word echad connotes something special. For example, the Talmud (Megillah 28a) postulates that the Korban Tamid ought to be brought from the choicest animal available because the Torah states that “the one (echad) sheep shall you do in the morning, and the second sheep shall you do in the afternoon” (Numbers 28:4). In this case, the word echad implies something more important and more special than the rest.

Similarly, when King Saul sought out somebody to play music for him and asked his servants to help him find such a talented person, the Bible reports “and one (echad) of the lads answered” (I Samuel 17:18) without revealing who this was. Rashi (there) cites the Talmud (Sanhedrin 93b) as explaining that this “one” refers to a lad who was special and important amongst the people of Saul’s entourage, identifying the person in question as none other than Doeg the Edomite.

The rabbis also see the term echad as especially associated with Hashem in many places. Perhaps most famously, it is used in the verse “Shema Yisrael, Hashem elokeinu, Hashem echad,” “Hear O Israel, Hashem our G-d – Hashem is one/unique (echad)” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

In general, the word ach means “brother” (although it is sometimes an onomatopoeic exclamation of sorrow along the lines of “ach” or “ouch,” or refers to an “oven”). However, in one case, the Bible uses the word ach (Ezek. 18:10), and Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990-1050) and Radak (there and Sefer HaShorashim) insist that it means “one,” not “brother.” It should be noted that other commentators (like Targum and Rashi to Ezek. 18:10) understand ach even in that case to mean “brother,” like it normally does. Interestingly, Ibn Janach finds another example of ach as “one” in Ps. 49:8, but Radak disagrees with him on this point, explaining ach there in its regular sense of “brother.”

In line with this, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah §18:10, Tanchuma Korach §7) explains that the term echad in the phrase “a donkey of one [echad] of them” in this week’s Torah portion refers to hekdesh, consecrated property, which belongs to Hashem (the Ultimate One). According to this Midrash, Moses pled his innocence by saying that he did not even take a donkey from consecrated property – unlike the standard operating procedure for political leaders, who were accustomed to using such property for their personal needs – and was not guilty of the accusations that Korach leveled against him.

In truth, the way I translated the first clause in Moses’ defense against Korach’s campaign actually follows the explanation of Rashi and Targum Onkelos, who explain the word echad as referring to “one” of the people, as in Moses did not even repossess a donkey from even “one” Jew. Other commentators, however, including Rashbam, Chizkuni, and Ramban, render that clause as “I did not take one [echad] donkey from them.” They explain that echad must be referring to “donkey,” not one of the people, because otherwise the Torah should have used the word achad in this context, just like it did in the second clause of Moses’ defense, “and I did not do bad to one [achad] of them [the people].”

Rabbi Wolf Heidenheim (1757-1832) defends Rashi’s interpretation, and in doing so explains that there are actually two forms of the word achad, each one bearing its own connotation.

One type of achad is simply a construct form of echad (i.e., “one of”), so semantically it means essentially the same thing as echad in implying something is unique. Examples of achad in this sense include the verse in which Hashem commanded Abraham to take Yitzchak and “put him up there as a burnt-offering on one (achad) of the mountains that I will say to you” (Genesis 22:2). In that verse, the word achad appears in the construct and refers specifically to an important mountain: Mount Moriah, where the Holy Temple will later be built. Similarly, when Avimelech chastises Abraham for his subterfuge in presenting Sarah as his sister instead of his wife, Avimelech says, “‘What is this that you have done to us? One of [achad] the nation almost lied with your wife, and you [would] have brought guilt upon us’” (26:10). In that verse, Rashi explains that achad implies somebody important and unique from amongst the people of the nation – a reference to the king Avimelech himself, who wanted to take Sarah for himself.

The other type of achad is not in the construct form (even though it looks like it is), but is actually in the absolute form (i.e., “one”). You can tell that it is not in the construct because it is usually followed by a word beginning with the prefix mem (“from” or “of”), while construct words assume the “of” within the word itself. Rabbi Heidenheim contends that this second type of achad connotes something different from the first type of achad, as it actually implies something that is not as important or special. In this way, achad in the absolute form actually has the exact opposite connotation of echad (and achad in the construct), because echad implies something important and unique, while achad implies just the opposite of that.

One example of this type of achad appears when Saul’s father Kish lost some donkeys, so he said to Saul, “Please take with you one [achad] of the lads and get up and go seek out the donkeys” (I Samuel 9:3). In this verse, the lad who would accompany Saul was not an honorable or special person in any way, so the word achad in the absolute form is used. Similarly, when a person has a suspected case of tzarat, the Torah commands that he be brought to Aaron or “to one (achad) of his [Aaron’s] sons, the Kohanim” (Leviticus 13:2). In this verse as well the “one” mentioned is not as important or special as Aaron, the Kohen Gadol, but rather any ordinary Kohen. Because of this, the word achad in the absolute form is used.

Based on this, when explaining the verse “I did not take chamor echad from them, and I did not do bad to achad from them,” Rabbi Heidenheim notes that if the first clause would have used the word achad, since it is not in the construct form, we would have understood it as referring to a less honorable entity, would defeat the whole point, as the Midrash explains it is a reference to hekdesh, which is more important and honorable. This is why even though echad and achad mean the same thing in that verse, the Torah specifically uses the word echad in the first clause, and not achad.

Malbim follows Rabbi Heidenheim in differentiating between two forms of achad, explaining how the construct version implies the same thing as echad (Ayelet HaShachar introduction to Lev. §69, and Malbim to Parashat Tzaria §43). Elsewhere, however, he seems to disagree with Rabbi Heidenheim’s understanding. In the Asher Yatzar blessing, it says “for if achad of them [a person’s inner organs] would open or achad of them [ a person’s bodily crevices] would close, it would be impossible for a person to last and stand before You for even one hour.” In explaining that line, Malbim in Artzot HaChaim (Orach Chaim §6:1) writes that the word achad refers to the “most important” organs, citing Genesis 22:2 and 26:10 as precedent for that explanation. According to Rabbi Heidenheim, since the word achad in that blessing is not in the construct form, it has a different meaning than the achad in those verses; yet Malbim explains achad in this case along the lines of echad as implying something special and important, which implies that he did not accept Rabbi Heidenheim’s explanation.


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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.