A Chasidic lumber merchant in Riga was calculating his accounts. Under a column of figures he inadvertently wrote, "Total: Ein od milvado—There is none besides Him!" In response to his assistant's raised eyebrow he said: "During prayer it is considered perfectly natural to let one's mind wander off to one's lumber in Riga. So what is so surprising if in the middle of business dealings the mind is invaded by thoughts of the unity of G‑d?" —Chasidic Story

It is perhaps the most oft-quoted phrase in Chabad Chasidism: ein od milvado—there is none besides Him. It is a three-word phrase that encapsulates an entire philosophy. It is a notion that every chasid strives to absorb. In its common interpretation, the phrase expresses the fundamental Jewish belief that there is no other god besides Him. Monotheism. It expresses the same idea as "Hear O Israel the L-rd is our G‑d, the L-rd is one."

But in Chabad philosophy, the phrase means much more. Not only is there no other god besides Him, there is nothing besides Him—literally. Only G‑d exists. This is a statement on the nature of the cosmos as much as it is a theological belief. What of the world and all that is in it? What of the empirical sightings of our fleshly eye? Is it only an illusion?

No. The Torah states clearly: In the beginning G‑d created the heaven and the earth. For six days He created things. These things exist really, for if the world is not real, then Torah, indeed life itself, is meaningless. Such a notion is untenable. How then to reconcile our perception of reality with ein od milvado? The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chasidism, explains it this way (Shaar Hayichud v'haEmunah III):

If the eye were allowed to perceive the life and spirit that is in every created being—which courses within it from the utterance of G‑d's mouth—then the corporeality and tangibility of the created being would not be perceived by our eyes at all. For it is literally null in relation to the life and spirit that it contains, since without the spirit it is literally naught, a nonentity, as it was before the Six Days of Creation. The spirit that flows to it from the mouth of G‑d is the only thing that removes it constantly from nothingness and brings it into being.

It follows, then, that there is nothing besides Him—truly. The Alter Rebbe establishes that the world and all its contents exist only by virtue of the fact that G‑d is constantly creating them. Were He for one moment to cease creating, all of creation would lose its existence. It would not crumble, or burn up, or dissolve—it would simply cease to exist, as if it had never existed.

Perpetual Creation

Forever, O G‑d, Your word stands firm in the heavens, says the psalmist.1 The Baal Shem Tov would cite the Midrash2: Your words that you spoke, "Let there be a firmament"—these words continue to stand in the heavens to create them. And just as words exist only as long as they are being uttered, so the world, created by G‑d's mouth, must be constantly uttered into existence.

For the existence of the world—created from nothing— was and is a miracle. It was and is "unnatural." And just as we don't expect miracles to go on indefinitely—we expect the waters of the sea to return to their natural flow after G‑d is finished holding them up for the Israelites—so should we not expect the world to continue to exist. We should expect it to return to its natural state: nonexistence.

When you throw a rock in the air, you don't expect it to stay there. As soon as the power of your throw invested in the rock dissipates, the rock returns to its natural state: inert. So, yes, the world exists. But its existence is entirely dependent upon the Divine word that commands its existence.

Such "existence" cannot compete with true existence, one that is not dependent on any other being: the absolute existence of G‑d. The existence of the world is not self-attributable. Even as it exists, it is not truly existent—just as the airborne rock has not become "a flying rock." The world does not take on the properties of existence even as it exists. Maimonidies says as much in the second chapter of his "Fundamentals of Torah":

This is what the prophet means with "G‑d is true." He alone is true, and no other being possesses truth like His truth. This is what the Torah says: ein od milvado—i.e., there is no other true existence besides Him that is like Him.

This doctrine of "perpetual creation" provided a rational foundation to the Baal Shem Tov's motto: G‑d is everywhere. His opponents argued, How can you put G‑d in the trash bin? The Alter Rebbe said, How can a trash bin exist without a Divine directive invested in it?3

Before and during prayer the Chabad chasid will meditate on ein od milvado. He will contemplate the words of the Zohar: No place is devoid of Him. G‑d is immanent. He will break into song about it in the late hours of a farbrengen. He will spend his entire lifetime internalizing this notion—a notion that runs contrary to his sensorly perception.

This is his task.

Rooster's Crow

Each of the Chabad masters had a particular discourse that he would repeat every two or three years. This they did in order to "purify the environment." The recurring discourse of the fourth Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel, concerned ein od milvado.4

The present discourse entitled Who is like You of 5629 (1869), begins with a lengthy discussion on the spiritual roots of physical phenomena. The human eye beholds what is essentially the final and lowest manifestation of supernal, spiritual phenomena. Everything in this world has its source and counterpart in the spiritual realms. The early morning crow of the rooster is a reverberation of spiritual stirrings in the supernal world of Atzilut and beyond. Day and night are the reflections of the two types of celestial song. (Thus Moses knew day from night during his forays into heaven.)

The Rebbe uses this concept to make sense of a number of otherwise cryptic Midrashic statements. The Midrash says5 that G‑d created the world with snow and earth from beneath the Throne of Glory. According to the Rebbe, these statements refer to the spiritual origins of physical phenomena. In like vein, Talmudic tales6 about talking grass are understood as references to the spiritual antecedents of grass, the angels (who can certainly speak).

Myriad levels of evolvement stand between the original, spiritual form of an entity and its physical form. Yet no amount of evolvement can produce a corporeal being out of a spiritual being. Between the lowest spiritual level and the highest physical level there is still an unbridgeable gap that must be closed. This is where "something from nothing" cannot be introduced. Up until this point, each level is within the realm of the one above it—like a chain, whose every link is ultimately attached to all the links. At this point there is a break—the physical reality is not linked to its spiritual source, the source is concealed from it. There is no point of contact between them. It is this concealment that creates the physical reality. Without this concealment, the coarse physical reality would not be visible: "the corporeality and tangibility of the created being would not be perceived by our eyes at all." Hence is explained another mysterious statement in the

Talmud7 about G‑d "extending His small finger among the angels and consuming them." According to the Rebbe, this refers to G‑d revealing more of their origins than they can handle. This revelation causes them to lose their existence. In fact all of existence will reach this state of nonexistence in the "millennia of destruction" mentioned in the Talmud.8

At that point, Divine revelation will be such that physical reality will cease to exist. Thus, the Rebbe concludes, even now the world is not truly existent. For true existence is everlasting. (The Rebbe cites a halachic corollary to this concept: A body of water that dries up once in seven years does not have the halachic status of "living (running) water"—even while it is running. A temporary existence is not true existence.)

Four Elements

The Rebbe then takes it a step further. Physical entities are not physical. Each physical entity is made up of four9 elements: fire, water, air and earth. But its being is none of the four. Its being is the power of amalgamation that fuses the four elements into a physical being. And what is that power? The Divine "word." Isolate each of the elements and you are left with nothing.

One and Only

The Chabad conception of ein od milvado, the Rebbe continues, also accounts for the use of the word echad, "one," in the verse Hear O Israel the L-rd is our G‑d, the L-rd is one.10 It would seem that the word yachid (single, alone) would better convey the oneness of G‑d, since the word echad also has the connotation of "one of many."

But that is precisely why echad is used. The Talmud states11 that the three letters of the word echad symbolize the seven heavens and one earth (alluded to in the chet—numerically equivalent to eight—of echad), the four corners of the world (alluded to in the dalet (four) of echad), and the One G‑d, Master of all (alluded to in the alef, which connotes rulership). So the use of the word echad intimates that even in the realm of many—the seven heavens and one earth, and the four corners of the world, G‑d is still the only one. He is not just one outside of reality, yachid; He is one even within the context of supposed otherness.

The eight and the four are entirely nullified to the Alef—the One G‑d. Ein od milvado.

Delve into a discourse of Chabad philosophy by Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, the fourth Chabad Rebbe, in True Existence available from Kehot Publication Society. The volume is a part of the Chasidic Heritage Series, famed for its handy notes on important concepts, and essay-length explanations of concepts of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. Click here for the entire series.