The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 9 September 2023 / 23 Elul 5783

An Article About Nothing (Part 1 of 2)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Become a Supporter Library Library

The Aleinu L’Shabeach prayer, which is recited multiple times daily and in the Amidah on Rosh Hashana, declares the universal dominion of Hashem’s sovereignty and His special relationship with the Jewish People. That prayer contrasts the Jews who worship the “King — King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He” as opposed to other nations who serve hevel and rik. Those two terms denote the impotence and powerlessness of the imagined deities worshipped by the others, and essentially amounts to the idea that those nations worship “nothing.” Later in that prayer, another word for “nothing” appears: “Our King is True, nothing (efes) exists besides Him.” In part one of this essay we explore these three Hebrew words for “nothing” (hevel, rik, and efes), while in part two we will deal with the terms tohu and bohu used to describe the state of “nothingness” before the six days of Creation, and other words for “nothing,” such as blimah, meumah and klum.

The 13th century Provencal scholar Rabbi Avraham Bedersi uses a very peculiar methodology in his work Chotam Tochnit to differentiate between Hebrew synonyms: When dealing with a pair of similar-meaning words, he focuses on the order in which those words appear in the Bible whenever they occur near each other, and uses the words’ order to help clarify the difference between them. He postulates that when multiple terms for the same idea appear in tandem, the Bible uses those words in ascending order — from the least intense to the most intense.

The one time that the words hevel and rik appear in the Bible side by side (Isa. 30:7, cf. Isa. 49:4), they appear precisely in that order, first hevel and then rik (just like in the Aleinu prayer). Following his methodology, Rabbi Bedersi explains that hevel denotes a less intense form of "nothingness" than rik. The way he puts it, hevel refers to something that does exist (yesh), but has no purpose (to'elet), while rik refers to something that does not even exist!

Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Luzzatto (1800–1865), also known as Shadal, offers a comprehensive study that looks at the differences between these apparent synonyms. He explains that hevel refers specifically to something that on the surface appears to be advantageous or otherwise valuable, but will ultimately be shown to be worthless. An example of this is beauty, for on the surface aesthetic qualities do have some import, yet the Bible teaches that beauty is actually hevel (Prov. 31:30) as such qualities are ultimately meaningless.

In line with this, Rabbi Luzzatto explains the meaning of the name Hevel that Adam gave his son Abel (Gen. 4:2), arguing that at first, prima facia, Adam thought that Abel had the protentional to be one of the righteous progenitors of mankind; but in the end, Abel was killed before he was even able to produce any offspring, proving his futility. In expanding on this last explanation, Shadal surmises that Abel only received the name Hevel after he died, in retrospective consideration of his unfruitful life, not before the fact. This is why the Bible does not explicitly report that Eve named her son Abel, like it does regarding his brothers Cain (Gen. 4:1) and Seth (Gen. 4:25).

Shadal continues to explain that the word rik refers specifically to the notion of one toiling and working hard to achieve something that instead yields “nothing.” This usage appears in multiple instances in the Bible, like when the Torah presents a curse to those who fail to keep the Torah “and you will sow your seed for naught [la’rik], as your enemies will eat it” (Lev. 26:16). In many instances, the word rik appears alongside the word yegiah (“toiling”), like in: Isa. 49:4, 65:23, and Iyov 39:16. Indeed, in the daily U’Va L’Tzion prayer, we request of Hashem that He open our heart to His Torah, and that He put love and fear of Him in our hearts, “so that we do not toil for rik.”

The Malbim (1809–1879) takes the exact opposite approach. He explains that hevel refers to that which is total "nothingness" and has no absolute value, while rik refers to something that has some value on the surface, but only when one digs deeper does one realize its folly.

*For the rest of this article and the next installment in this series, visit us online at:

© 1995-2023 Ohr Somayach International - All rights reserved.

Articles may be distributed to another person intact without prior permission. We also encourage you to include this material in other publications, such as synagogue or school newsletters. Hardcopy or electronic. However, we ask that you contact us beforehand for permission in advance at and credit for the source as Ohr Somayach Institutions

« Back to The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

Ohr Somayach International is a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation (letter on file) EIN 13-3503155 and your donation is tax deductable.