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Lesson Transcript

Hi everybody! Idit here. Welcome to Ask a Teacher, where I’ll answer some of your most common Hebrew questions.
The question for this lesson is…
What does the expression על רגל אחת (al regel aħat) mean?
This expression, meaning literally “on one foot,” is very common in Hebrew, and many people use it without even knowing its origin.
Basically, it's used to describe something that's done offhandedly with no previous thought or preparation. But where did it come from?
The origin of this expression, like many other Hebrew expressions, is a story from the Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism. The story revolves around the great Talmudic sage Hillel, also known as “Hillel the Elder,” one of the most important figures in Jewish history.
Hillel was a famous scholar known for his gentleness and patience.
In the Talmud, Hillel is often mentioned together with his colleague, Shammai. The two scholars often disagreed on the interpretations of Torah law -- while Shammai tended to follow the stricter interpretation, Hillel considered "love of man" as the core of Jewish teaching.
Our story is about a man who wanted to convert to Judaism, but didn’t really want to put in the time or effort to do so. This man went to Shammai with one request-- he wanted Shammai to teach him the entire Torah while he, the student, was standing on one foot. Shammai was insulted by the man’s ridiculous request, since the Torah is deep, profound and complex, and cannot be taught in the short time in which a person can stand on one foot. When Shammai threw him out of the house, the man went to Hillel, and asked him for the same thing. Hillel accepted the challenge, and told the man--
"What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That's the whole Torah. The rest is the explanation of this - go and study it!"
This story teaches us the special virtues of Hillel and of the Torah, and it's also the source of the expression על רגל אחת (al regel aħat) “on one foot.”
Today, you can use this expression when you want to imply that something is done briefly, without much thought behind it.
For example, if you want to say that an issue is very complicated and cannot be solved easily, you can say--
זה עניין מסובך, אי אפשר לפתור אותו על רגל אחת.
(ze inyan mesubakh, ee-efshar liftor oto al regel aħat.)
“It’s a complicated issue, it can’t be resolved ‘on one foot.’”
Or if you just gave someone the short, undetailed version of a complicated matter, you can say--
זה כל הסיפור על רגל אחת.
(ze kol ha-sipur al regel aħat.)
“That’s the whole story ‘on one foot.’”
You could also find this expression in introductory articles and books that explain complicated issues in an accessible way; something like “guides for dummies." For example, the title of an article about economics that tries to simplify the basics of it could be--
כלכלה על רגל אחת.
(kalkala al regel aħat)
“Economy ‘on one foot’.”
How was this lesson? Pretty interesting right?
Do you have any more questions? Leave them in the comments below and I’ll try to answer them!