Word of the Day / Al Regel Akhat: How an Argument Between Babylonian Rabbis Could Change Your Life

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Certain things demand appreciation at a slow, tranquil pace: a beautiful sunset, a delicious cup of coffee, a good book and of course, Words of the Day. So, sit down. Take a sip of your artisanal brew. Relax. Read this in the manner it deserves and not “al regel akhat.”

Technically, “al regel akhat” means: “on one leg” as in – standing precariously on one leg. More colloquially it means “in a hurried, distracted manner.”

One could, for example, reprimand one’s child, “Turn off the TV and stop doing your homework al regel akhat!” or remark to your friend, “I can’t possibly comprehend the awfulness of your date last night al regel ahat. Call me back in an hour when I’m on my lunch break.”

This modern Hebrew phrase comes from a Talmudic anecdote.

On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, “I will convert to Judaism on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one leg.” Shammai consequently drove him away with the builder’s cubit that was in his hand. When he went before Hillel [with the same offer], Hillel answered, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; everything else is commentary thereof. Go and learn it!”

–Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, Page 31a

The tale of the smart-aleck gentile is part of an ongoing Talmudic comparison between competing Babylonian rabbis Shammai and Hillel, who were known to disagree on halakhic issues.

Shammai dismissed the man who was probably setting him up to fail. Hillel’s reaction, however, teaches us that while it’s clearly impossible to learn the entire Torah in the time one can remain standing on one leg, the entirety of Jewish learning can perhaps be boiled down to one ultimate lesson: just be a good person.

The age of Google searches, Twitter and fast food has made us accustomed to instant gratification and living at light speed. Our attention spans have shrunk to the size of a sound-byte. So, next time you find yourself text messaging while simultaneously driving, doing your makeup, talking to your friend, walking your dog and checking your favorite blogs – consider slowing down and not living your life “al regel akhat.”

First lady Michelle Obama, on one leg, exercising with school children.Credit: Reuters
Try doing whatever it is you have in mind, standing on one leg, in this shoe.Credit: Haaretz

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