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Home » Mishpatim, Shabbos

Mishpatim: Whom do You Serve?

Submitted by on January 23, 2011 – 10:17 pmNo Comment | 4,019 views

One and Others

Have you ever noticed that the classic proclamation of Jewish faith, the call Hashem Echad – G-d is one, can be easily mispronounced as hashem Acher – another G-d? Rather than proclaiming our faith in a single – one and only – G-d we can inadvertently slide into idolatry and proclaim faith in another G-d. (1)

It is horrifying to think that we can so easily slide from faith into heresy. Is this a function of language or a reflection of the way we live? To answer this we must first turn our attention to these other G-ds. Who are these G-ds and what do they represent in an age that has renounced idolatry and paganism?

Self Worship

The word other G-ds actually appears several times in the Torah, one such instance is in the book of Exodus, “You shall not mention the names of other G-ds.” (2) This verse appears in the middle of a discussion of Shabbat and Jewish holidays. What is the connection between Shabbat and other G-ds?

Shabbat is a day of rest. A shallow interpretation of Shabbat suggests that its purpose is to reward its observer with a day of relaxation and rejuvenation. Yet the Mishnah teaches that we mustn’t serve G-d for the purpose of reward; we must serve altruistically; because it is His wish. (3)

Jewish thinkers through the ages have labeled observance for the purpose of reward a form of idolatry. (4) Not all idolatry implies that the deity of one’s worship is the only true G-d. Worshiping anything other than G-d constitutes idolatry even if the worshiper subscribes to a belief in G-d.

Those who serve G-d for the purpose of self reward believe in G-d or they wouldn’t serve Him. Yet, by serving for the purpose of reward they demonstrate that G-d’s interests are less important to them than their own. Faced with an opportunity to worship G-d they choose to worship themselves.  (5)

When the Torah speaks of Shabbat as a day of rest it hastens to add that we should not mention the names of false G-ds. In a powerful insight, a famed rabbi once suggested that the Torah refers here to the false G-d of self worship. Though Shabbat is a day during which we rest and for this we are grateful, we mustn’t suppose that rest is the purpose of Shabbat. Its purpose is to obey a Divine commandment and thus sublimate us into His service. (6)

Two Letters

We now return to the correlation between the Hebrew words Echad and Acher (one G-d and other G-ds). The words are very similar;whom do you serve? - innerstream in fact the only letter that distinguishes the two is the last one. In Acher it is a Resh and in Echad it is a Daled.

The actual names Daled and Resh constitute words in the Hebrew dictionary and, strikingly, both are variations on the word poverty. The difference between the two kinds of poverties is discernible in the shape of the letter. Both letters are comprised of a vertical and a horizontal line. In the Daled the horizontal line passes over the top of the vertical line and juts out over its back, but in the Resh the horizontal line only extends forward from the top of the vertical line .

The small jutting line behind the Daled looks a little like a hand reaching back to the Gimel – the letter that precedes it . The Gimel is shaped like a stick person walking forward; a vertical line with a diagonal line extending forward and downward from the midsection of the vertical line. The Gimmel is walking toward the Daled.

The word Gimmel also has meaning in the Hebrew language. It means to bestow. The bestower walks toward the impoverished and holds out hope. The impoverished accepts the proffered hope as indicated by the little line that extends backwards from the Daled; a gesture of hope, offered and accepted. The Resh, on the other hand, has no protruding line behind it because it accepts no hope from anyone.

Both the Daled and the Resh are impoverished; in need of guidance and enlightenment. The Daled seeks out help from the Gimmel and receives it; the Reish does not seek help and thus remains impoverished. This is the difference between an attitude that leads us back to Hashem Echad – the one G-d and the attitude that leads to Hashem Acher – other G-ds. (7)

The Resh represents the Jew in the grip of ego; intent on serving G-d only for the purpose of reward, whose hope fails and whose world is dashed when said reward is not forthcoming. The Daled represents the Jew who is reminded that G-d is served because it is a privilege to serve and compensation is mere icing on the cake.


In a world that has eschewed paganism and idolatry we are very much idol worshipers. We live in a self centered society that worships the dream of success and pursues it with single minded zeal. The wall between Divine worship and self worship can be very thin and is often hard to notice. We don’t set out on this path in a deliberate effort to defy G-d, but sometimes we extend ourselves so very far that before we know it, G-d is completely forgotten. The Daled becomes a Resh and the Echad, Acher.

When we chant the Shema and declare our faith in Hashem Echad – the one true G-d, our sages mandated that we overemphasize the Daled to concentrate our focus and remind us of our goal. This line is too easily crossed. Entirely without intending to, we can turn a Daled into a Resh. However, with effort and concentration we can toe the line and remain on the path that leads to G-d.


  1. To avoid this likely mix up, our sages mandated a
    zealous over pronunciation of the letter Daled, the D consonant, at the
    end of the word Echad.
  2. Exodus 23: 13
  3. Ethics Of Our Fathers 1: 3.
  4. Chovas Halevavos ch. Yichud Hamasseh Ch. 5.
  5. Maimonides (laws of Idolatry) taught that idolatry
    began with the mistaken belief that the sun can be appeased to shed more
    light. The idea was that the sun serves at G-d’s behest, but similar to
    a minister in a royal court, who serves at the king’s pleasure, the sun
    has authority over how much of G-d’s light to dispense. It was believed
    that worshipping the sun could induce it to shed more light. This is
    indeed a mistaken ideology, but the bridge from ideology to practice is
    constructed of egocentrism. When we worship for G-d’s sake our objective
    is not to gain reward, but when we worship for our own sake, our
    objective is to garner as much blessing as possible, which leads us to
    seek out new methods of obtaining it. The genesis of idolatry is thus
    self reward.
  6. Ktav Sofer on Exodus 23: 13.
  7. Sefer Mamarim 5711; Hayosheves Beganim.

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