Nevi'im

As One Person with One Heart: Misunderstood in Unison

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Jonathan L. Milevsky

If there was ever an idealized version of Jewish unity, it would have to be the description of the Israelites at Mount Sinai.[1] The verse which describes the encampment (Exodus 19:2) uses the singular term “ [Israel] encamped” (va-yihan), instead of the plural “[they] encamped” (va-yahanu). Citing the Midrash’s explanation of this discrepancy,[2] Rashi famously comments that the Israelites were at that time united “as one person with one heart.” Yet while Rashi’s comments, rooted in the midrash, are familiar, their precise meaning is ambiguous. What exactly does ahdut mean in this context? Is this equivalent to the unity (ahdut) commonly understood as seeing everyone as being part of a larger whole, which is often how Rashi is understood; or, might there be another meaning of and significance to the unity described by the midrash?[3]

In order to answer this question, we will first identify the types of unity that are found in Greek thought, which, broadly speaking, is the intellectual environment wherein the midrash is composed. I will then study the relevant midrashim, with a particular focus on the contrast between the earlier strife and the unity at Sinai, the duration of the unity, and the reason it is juxtaposed with the reception of the Torah. These insights will help us define the nature and scope of the unity at Sinai, revealing a new understanding that cuts against the conventional understanding of Rashi’s gloss.

In his book, The Unity of Mankind in Greek Thought, H.C. Baldry traces the idea of unity from its roots in Homer up to and including Menander. As Baldry notes almost immediately, from this wide range of thinkers, we do not encounter  a wholesale idea of unity. In the works of Homer, for instance, people are united in “misery and feebleness,” which Baldry notes is true of Greek poetry in general.[4] But this shared characteristic is not substantial enough to replace other divisions among human beings, such as when Homer underscores physical differences between nobles and the multitudes.[5]

To cite another example, Gorgias, a sophist who died in 380 BCE, sees a difference between Greeks and barbarians.[6] It is also in his writings that the term homonoia, a reference to a shared point of view, appears. The same word can also be found in a prayer of Alexander the Great, as recounted by Arrian. It is also significant that, as Baldry notes, the term there is likely not referring to humanity as a whole, but just a small group of people.[7] This word will play an important role when we analyze the midrashim.

Before doing so, let us look at some more developed notions of unity. In the works of Menander, a late-third century BCE Greek dramatist, human beings are only divided along the lines of  good and bad, regardless of their place of origin or financial standing.[8] In the writings of Eratosthenes, we find a concept of a multi-racial and multi-lingual civilised humanity; and from Polybius we learn about the notion of the unity of human affairs.[9] However, even in its most developed form in Greek thought, the concept of unity does not mean being part of a larger whole.[10] In this way, Baldry’s book is useful in tracing the development of the concept of unity, highlighting its variations, and identifying its limits.

We now turn to the midrashim upon which Rashi’s statement is based. To help characterize the nature of that unity, we will look at its duration, the source of the disunity that precedes it, and the reason unity is a necessary precondition to the reception of the Torah.

The Duration of the Unity

In several of the midrashim, it is said that any time the Israelites travelled, they did so in strife. Here is one example:

Hizkiya says in the name of another: great is peace, that in all the journeys it says and      “they journeyed” and “they encamped” (Numbers 33)—they journey with strife and      encamp with strife; once they all arrived in front of Mount Sinai, they all became one   encampment…the Holy One, blessed be He said, this is the time that I give [the] Torah to My sons.[11]

By implication, the unity only took hold immediately prior to  the reception of the Torah. This idea gains support from some of the other terminology employed in this teaching. For example, from the fact that this unity was not of their doing—the word and they became (na’asu) is in the form of nifal, which is an intransitive construct, implying that the Israelites passively became unified—it seems that this was not an ordinary occurrence.[12]

Moreover, God seems to jump at the opportunity, rather than wait any longer, which also seems to suggest that this unity was unlikely to last. It stands to reason that if the unity was temporary, it was not a recognition of a shared characteristic, since that knowledge would not simply disappear after they left. It is also reasonable to suggest that the unity in question does not relate to shared experiences because, had that been the case, the Israelites would have been united right after the experience of the Exodus, or shortly thereafter, not at this one arbitrary location. All this is consistent with the view that the Jews were not united in the greater sense of the word, but that they simply achieved a moment of national harmony.

Defining the Disunity

In virtually all of the midrashim, the unity at Sinai is contrasted with the disharmony that preceded it. It follows that an understanding of what was at the heart of the strife can provide a clearer idea of the subsequent unity. Some insight comes from the Midrash Tanhuma. Based on Proverbs 3:17, the Midrash states that God wanted to give the Torah to the Israelites at the time that they exited Egypt. The only reason He did not do so, however, was that “they were arguing with one another and saying at all times, let us redirect our heads and return to Egypt.”[13] 

What emerges from this statement is that the different groups within the nation had very different notions of where they were headed, both geographically and metaphorically. You might even say they acted as sects. Indeed, in the Mekhilta, the connection to sects is made explicit: the groups at Yam Suf, some of whom wanted to return to Egypt, are described using the word kitin.[14] Based on this idea, it would seem that the unity at Sinai related to an agreement among the various groups. In other words, despite being at odds with each other at earlier points in the journey, as it related to the acceptance of the Torah, there was harmony between the various groups.[15]  

The Connection to the Torah

Further, that shared objective must relate to the acceptance of the Torah’s laws. While it is not the case in every Midrash, several of the rabbinic texts link the unity of the Israelites to the reception of the Torah.[16] One very clear example can be seen in Pesikta Rabbati:

And they become one group, as it says, and Israel encamped. It does not say here            anything but and Israel encamped [in singular form]. The Holy One, blessed be He, said, “The Torah is all peace; to whom will I give it? To a nation that is holding onto peace.”            And that is what it says, “And all its ways are peaceful” (Proverbs 3:17).[17]

In this version of the teaching, the giving of the Torah is framed as a reward for the unity that precedes it.[18] But why is unity a necessary condition for the Torah? A statement in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer helps us answer this question. The Midrash says that the Israelites traveled with division, but when God asked the Israelites whether they will accept the Torah, they answered “with one mouth: ‘We are guarding the Torah, and are prepared to do and keep all that it says therein, as it says, all that the Lord has spoken we will do.’”[19]

In this case, the word used for division is halaklakot, a term closely related to the term for argument (mahloket); and the unity is identified with speaking with one mouth, implying that, unlike the journey leading up to it, there was a common understanding at Sinai that the Torah was being accepted by all. Seen in this way, the unity was a concurrence of views. Indeed, one Midrash makes this point explicitly. Based on the verse, “I lie awake; I am like a lone bird upon a roof” (Psalms 102:8), a teaching in Eikha Rabbati[20] compares the Israelites to a bird, and says that, just as the bird goes from roof to roof,

in this way, when the Israelites went out Egypt, they would travel with strife and encamp with strife. And when they reached Mount Sinai, they became homonoia. It does        not say “[they] encamped” but “[Israel] encamped.” At that time, God said this is the time that I will give the Torah to My sons.[21]

Here we finally have a concrete idea of the type of unity achieved at Sinai. By reference to the word homonoia pointed out earlier in the work of Gorgias, we know that the Midrash has in mind a form of agreement. We can also understand why such an agreement is necessary. Had the Torah only been accepted by a few groups, rather than by everyone, it would not be binding on the Israelites as a whole.[22] Therefore, God gave the Torah to the Israelites when there was agreement between them.

Some might challenge this view, based on a statement in Tanhuma which says that the Israelites wanted to serve as “collateral” for one another.[23] This point seems to imply that there was a deeper level of unity among them. Nevertheless, the wider context shows that the Israelites simply wanted the law to be binding on some of them and not all of them, but to nevertheless be included in the covenant. Seen in this light, this was simply an extension of the negotiation among the various groups about the acceptance of the law.

Returning to Rashi, we can see that he takes the Midrash out of context. From the fact that the Midrash contrasts the unity of the Israelites with the disagreements they had earlier, but also given the transient nature of this unity and its connection to the acceptance of the law, we can see that it must be a matter of agreement. But Rashi makes much more of it: he sees this unity as a profound sense of being one nation.

This interpretation can be supported from a comment Rashi makes earlier. On Exodus 14:10, he states that Egypt as a whole was chasing the Israelites, “as one heart and one person.” [24] This formulation is the exact opposite of the expression he uses to describe the Israelites at Sinai. What is the significance of this reversal?

The point that Rashi seems to be getting at is that the unity of the Israelites at Sinai was not driven so much by purpose as it was by identity, whereas the reverse was true for the Egyptians. That is to say, the Egyptians came together in their mission to catch up with the nation of slaves that had just left, while the Israelites felt like one person when they camped and as a result felt united in their purpose as well.[25] This interpretation further reinforces the argument that Rashi’s description of unity is not consonant with that of the midrash. A more accurate portrayal would be of an Israelite nation comprised of different groups, who had fundamental disagreements with one another but who nevertheless saw eye to eye on the reception of the Torah.


[1]This article is based on a lecture I delivered at Shaarei Shomayim Synagogue in Toronto, Canada, as part of the Scholars Among Us program. I thank Rabbi Elliot Diamond for arranging this lecture series.

Regarding the unity at Sinai, see, for example, Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, Kli Yakar: Exodus 19:2, Hamishah Humshei Torah: Rav Peninim (Jerusalem: Friedman Levin-Epstein, 1977), 333; and R. Tzadok Ha-Kohen, Peri Tzadik: Re’eh (Lublin, Shneidmesser & Herschenhorn, 1901-1934), 70.

[2] The best known version of this midrash is in Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, dating to the fourth century: “And they encamped there: Any time is says ‘and they journeyed’ and ‘they encamped,’ they journeyed with strife and encamped with strife; but here they all equated their hearts as one. That is why it says, ‘and [Israel] encamped in front of the mountain’” (Masekhta de-Bahodesh, Parshah 1, ed. Meir Ish Shalom: Om Publishing, 1948, 62).

[3] In his commentary on Exodus 19:2, Meir Leibush Malbim uses a variation of that term: he writes that before Mount Sinai, the Israelites “did not yet become united (hitahdu) as one person.” See also Yosef ben Shimshon Stadthagen, who writes that that unity exceeded the love between brothers, adding that it was “great love and eternal love” (Stadthagen, Divrei Zicharon, Amsterdam: E. Etias, 1705, 71).

[4] H.C. Baldry, The Unity of Mankind in Greek Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 13.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] ibid., 43.

[7] Ibid., 119.

[8] Ibid., 140.

[9] Ibid., 173.

[10] Compare with I Corinthians 12:12-27. There appears to be no equivalent of this concept in rabbinic texts.

[11] Vayikra Rabbah 9:9, in Vayikra Rabbah: Yefeh To’ar (Vilhelmsdorf: P Ernstes, 1714), 35.

[12] In another source, it appears that God is the source of the unity. In Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, the unity is described as being imposed upon the Israelites. The words used are “one encampment was placed in their heart” (19:2).

[13] Tanhuma Yashan ve-Hadash, ed. Buber (Vilna, 1985), cited by Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 592. Interestingly enough, this particular midrash goes on to say that it was at Refidim that the Israelites became united.

[14] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael: Va-yehi Beshalah, Masekhta 2, Parsha 2, 29.

[15] In light of this background, we can understand why the disagreement at Yam Suf is juxtaposed in Pirkei d-Rabbi Eliezer with the acceptance of the commandments of the Torah. It is because, unlike at the Sea, at the reception of the Torah there was no group that refused to accept the God’s laws. Therefore, the reception of the Torah was binding on everyone.

[16] See also Vayikra Rabbah 9:9, in Vayikra Rabbah: Yefeh To’ar (Vilhelmsdorf: P Ernstes, 1714), 35. 

[17] Pesikta Rabbati 12:106b, ed. Friedmann (Vienna, 1880), cited by Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), 592. Ginzberg quite astutely translates the unity as harmony.

An almost identical formulation is found in Derekh Eretz Zuta, which is post-Talmudic. See Derekh Eretz Zuta: On Peace, 5, in Babylonian Talmud, Romm, vol. 15 (Vilna: Romm, 1898), 118.

[18] This formulation obviously implies that the Israelites achieved this unity on their own.

Another midrash reads, “they all equated [their hearts] together” (hishvu kulam be’ehad), but this is a late source. See Pesikta Hadta 11, cited in Otzar ha-Midrashim, vol. 2, ed. Y.D. Eisenstein (New York: Y.D. Eisenstein, 1915), 489.

[19] Pirkei de-Rabbbi Eliezer (Antwerp: I. Menczer, 1957), 41.

[20] Dating to the end of the fifth century CE.

[21] Eikha Rabbati, Petihta 20 (Vilna and Grodno: M. Mann and S. Zimel, 1829), 7.

[22] See Shabbat 88a, which implies that the the Torah is only binding if it is willingly accepted by the Jewish people.

[23] Midrash Tanhuma: Yitro 13:3 (Venice,1545), 36.

[24] Rashi bases his statement on the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Masekhta 2, Parshah 2, 28, where the Egyptians are described as traveling in squadrons as “one person.” The mention of their heart seems to be an addition by Rashi.

[25] So Bachya ben Asher, Rabbeinu Bachya al ha-Torah 14:3 (New York: A.Y. Friedman, 1975), 47.

Jonathan Milevsky
Jonathan Milevsky is a graduate of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, MD and holds a PhD in Religious Studies from McMaster University. He is an Ontario Graduate Fellow and recipient of the Hershel and Michael Recht Award in Jewish Studies. He has published academic articles in the fields of rabbinic thought, medieval Jewish philosophy, and modern Jewish thought. His manuscript, about Prof. David Novak's Jewish natural law theory, is being reviewed for publication with Brill Publishers. He currently teaches at the Forest Hill Jewish Centre in Toronto, Canada.