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Thursday, October 7, 2010

A New Beginning for B'reishit

Dedicated in memory of Jeannie Rittner ז”ל – see below for important and appropriate comments!

Those of us who are familiar with the English language, namely everyone who happens to be reading this blog, are certainly familiar with the opening line of the Torah: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Seems straightforward enough.

On the other hand, everyone who is familiar with the Hebrew text cannot assume understanding so blithely.

The first word of the Torah in Hebrew is בראשית b'reishit. The ב is a prefix (we'll come back to it later). The rest of the word, ראשית reishit comes from the word ראש rosh which literally means head and by implication means beginning or start as in ראש השנה rosh hashannah, the head or start of the year.

The word ראשית reshit appears nearly fifty times in Tanach. In nearly every case the context shows that the word ראשית attaches itself to the word following as if it said 'the beginning of.' That being the case, the word that follows reshit should be a noun so that it would read 'the beginning of something'. 

An example comes in Parshat Noach (ahem—this means I am now exempt from further comments on this week's parsha proper) when the Torah says about Nimrod:

בראשית פרק י (י) וַתְּהִי רֵאשִׁית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ בָּבֶל וְאֶרֶךְ וְאַכַּד וְכַלְנֵה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר:

B'reishit 10 (10) And the beginning of his kingdom was Bavel and Erech and Accad and Chalneh in the land of Shinar.

The problem we have here is that the word B'reishit is followed by a verb!

That is, if we read the first three words literally it would come out “In the beginning of created God.” Yuck. That is a terribly awkward start for what has come to be the most popular book in history. Surely the author could write better than that!

Or surely we could understand it better.

Another problem is that this first verse implies that God created the heavens and the earth from the get go, rendering the later verses which discuss the creation of the heavens and the earth rather perplexing.

The commentaries worked overtime to bring various plausible and grammatically acceptable explanations to answer all of the above. I will not even attempt to bring them all in here. Rather, I will focus on one of the seemingly more playful midrashim which comes to answer this contextual conundrum and at the same time reveals a deeper truth.

It is time to examine the prefix ב bet of בראשית b'reishit. The bet usually means 'in' but it can also mean 'with' and even 'for' in the sense of 'for the sake of.'

An example of this latter meaning is found later in Parshat Vayetze:

בראשית פרק כט (יח) וַיֶּאֱהַב יַעֲקֹב אֶת רָחֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֶעֱבָדְךָ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בְּרָחֵל בִּתְּךָ הַקְּטַנָּה:

B'reishit Chapter 29 (18) And Yaakov loved Rachel. And he said, “I will work for you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter.”

An example of ב meaning 'with' is found in Parshat Vayishlach where we find Yaakov praying to God to save him from his brother Esav. He says:

בראשית פרק לב (יא) קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי בְמַקְלִי עָבַרְתִּי אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת:

B'reishit Chapter 32 (11) I am humbled from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You did with your servant (i.e. Yaakov himself) for with my staff I crossed over this Jordan and now I have become two camps.

Let's take this second meaning and apply it to our word: B'reishit. It would now mean 'with the reishit.'

So what would 'reishit' mean in this context?

The Midrash Rabbah here looks at the word reishit in various contexts and comes up with different possible meanings. One of them is that reishit means the Torah itself.

Thus, the first word now means 'with the Torah.' And the first verse can now be understood to say:

God created the heavens and the earth with the Torah!

I will explain how the midrash came to this understanding tomorrow. But let's savor the moment. We now have a profoundly different way of looking at the origins of the universe. We started by thinking the word b'reishit was merely telling us when something happened (in the beginning). Now we understand that the Torah is telling us that the tool for creation is, in fact the Torah itself.

This raises other conceptual issues such as what exactly is this Torah which was used to create the heavens and the earth? Was it a literal sefer Torah (Torah scroll)? Or was it some essence of Torah which could have pre-existed creation? I hope to talk about this in later postings.

I had the privilege of getting to know Jeannie Rittner a bit during my extended stays in Dayton. As her daughter told me, she was a 'force to be reckoned with!' Everyone who knew Jeannie knew her to be vivacious, smiling, outgoing, deeply caring and engaging. She suffered through quite a bit of physical pain in recent years yet I never heard her complain; she was far more likely to make light of her situation or to explain how she was doing so much better than before.

However, it was only in my last months in Dayton that I came to understand Jeannie's close relationship with Torah. She was always trying to study and her studies were based on an education which included an intimate understanding of classical Hebrew texts. She was thirsty for learning and would engage me in my classes and, whenever she had the opportunity, outside of class, as well.

She showed me what it meant to begin everything with Torah and infuse that in one's very being. She was a great inspiration to me and to many and she will be sorely missed for many years to come. יהי זכרה ברוך May her memory be a blessing.


  1. wonderful writing as usual.....and, certainly a fitting tribute to a very wonderful woman...

  2. Thankyou Shel for such a beautiful tribute to my mother. When Rabbi Hillel came to the house the night before the funeral to gather a bit of info for the eulogy from the family, he asked if mom had any hobbies. The unanimous answer was "studying Torah". She didn't garden or knit. She didn't shop or bake. She studied Torah. She kept a book of Tehilim by her bedside and read from it often. She never braggede about herself or her accomplishments, but always bragged about her children and grandchildren. She was loved by all who knew her and will be missed forever. My life will never be the same without her. I can only hope to bring naches to her memory, and strive to be the person she embodied.

    David Rittner

  3. Thanks for helping to round out the portrait of your mother. I was deeply impressed by her humility about her learning background and capabilities--aspects of her which I only learned in my last months in Dayton. May her merit be a protection for us all but especially for her children and grandchildren whom she loved so well and, as you say, boasted of at every chance she could :)

  4. It might be naughty of me to do this on this blog, but I wanted to bring a little from the pshat side of things, as is my wont. You (Shel) are probably already familiar with some of the Medieval commentators on the issue, but I would like to restate their perspective for your readers, which I think was dead on, and to reinforce it a bit. Naturally, this is not undermine the midrash, but simply to complement it.

    Ibn Ezra and Rashi were quick to note what Shel pointed out: that reshit usually marks the beginning 'of' something. Plus, if it was just 'in the beginning' it would probably say bāreshit, rather than b'reshit (which is actually how the Samaritans read it... but that's a whole other discussion).

    But how could you have 'of' before a verb? You can't... in English (or any European language, for that matter)...
    BUT! Hebrew isn't a European language! In Akkadain, an ancient language in the same family as Hebrew with entire libraries of literature preserved in stone, as well as classical Arabic, you can use exactly this construction, the semitic 'of' construction (נסמך הסמכות), before a verb and it's perfectly normal. The Aramaic word for 'of,' which is more or less the letter 'D,' can also come before a verb with no problem.

    So, what's it mean? In Semitic languages, these constructions not only allow a noun to describe another noun, they allow a whole sentence to describe a noun (what grammarians would call a relative clause, if you can role with the lingo).

    Ibn Ezra brings two perfect examples of this in his commentary:
    Isaiah 29:1, qiryat ḥanah David, "the town of David camped," or better, "the town where David camped."
    Hosea 1:2, t'ḥilat dibber Hashem b'Hosheaʿ, "the beginning of God spoke to Hosea," or "the beginning when God spoke with Hosea," or alternatively "the beginning of God speaking with Hosea"

    This is perfectly good Hebrew, believe it or not! Because of this, Rashi and Ibn Ezra say we should understand the first sentence of the Bible "In the beginning of God's creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and empty." I think the translation we find in the NJPS is a bit more precise, "In the beginning when God created..." but the meaning isn't much different.

    The implication is that there was already something chaotic there when God began to create heaven and earth. This is a little controversial, and the Ramban yelled at them for taking this view, but in my opinion it does have a little support in the Midrash that explains why the Torah begins with the letter "bet," "ב." They say the letter is closed in the front (the right side) because there may be something before it, but that is closed off to us. We only know about things from the time God began to create. Fine with me.

    Naturally, this doesn't disqualify the Torah from having existed at creation, which I think it probably did, even though I'm not a Jew. I find the idea is very helpful for New Testament interpretation, which I dabble in a bit when I get the time.

  5. Hi Aaron,

    Thanks for your neat summary of some other exigetical approaches. It's admirable how you did that.

    Herein lies a question, though, namely: What is p'shat? While the midrash I took pains to explicate seems somewhat fanciful, the main reason I took those pains was, in fact, to demonstrate how that particular approach is ultimately rooted in a series of careful readings of this and other biblical texts.

    If the midrash I chose seems to offer an understanding which is less than obvious that does not, of course, mean that it isn't "p'shat."

    Ultimately, the rabbinic approach, which was continued by the later commentators, is that the Torah inherently contains a multiplicity of meanings all of which are genuinely 'there' and legitimate.

    So I am curious what you see as the difference between "p'shat" and, let's say, "midrash." Obviously not a simple task but may this begin a long and fruitful discussion (unless, of course, you have this down already!)

  6. What is p'shat? I suppose that depends on whom you ask 8^). It appears that you're asking me at the moment, so I'll try to explain what I mean by it. I must say, being a goy of only five years acquaintance with the semitic languages, I do feel a bit naked explaining the meaning of a Hebrew word (or Aramaic in secondary usage, as the case happens to be here) to a professional scribe, but I suppose I can give it a shot.

    When I refer to the p'shat, I think especially of the methods that were revived in biblical studies by a number of the Medieval rabbis; particularly those like Saadia Gaon, Ibn Ezra, Rasham, Radak, and Rashi (depending upon on which side of the bed he woke up). I realize the word was in use long before that time, but that is what I mean. It is a form of interpretation that relies primarily on reason to deduce the meanings of a text in its original historical context. It relies very heavily on principles of linguistics and philology to understand the meanings of words and their function in relation to one another. It also relies on historiography for information about the world in which the text was received. Finally, it tries to understand texts as literary works with logical arrangement and internal unity of thought. Obviously this requires a loose definition of a text, which could be something like all of the former prophets, or a single psalm or proverb by contrast

    It is based on methods which, as far as we know, were founded by the Alexandrian philological school in the Hellenistic period when they realized that historical and linguistic distance was creating difficulty in understanding classical texts as they were intended by their authors. They may have also been employing similar methods for understanding ancient texts in Mesopotamia long before that, since we know that they did read and understand texts that were much more than a thousand years earlier than them, but we don't have any information on their methods, as far as I am aware.

    As far as I can tell, p'shat is an attempt to approach the text in the most scientific way possible in order to understand its historically situated meaning. Certainly this is not the only way to approach a text, and it should never be the final destination of any study. We still read these texts because we believe that they have relevance today, and that requires a level of 'reverent deconstruction.'

    Midrash, on the other hand, isn't something I'm particularly comfortable placing on the other hand. ;^)

    In this context, when I say 'midrash' I am referring to interpretations from the rabbis, though in other cases, I may use it to refer more loosely to 'homiletic interpretation.' This obviously is in no way exclusive from the p'shat. I haven't much experience with rabbinic midrash, and I must say that I have difficulty thinking of cases where their interpretations relied on p'shat methods, though I imagine there must be places where rabbinic exegesis relies on a simple literal meaning of the text, and I almost feel as if I've read some of them in my limit exposure to the Talmud and Midrash Rabbah. Examples of these kinds of readings certainly exist in contemporary Jewish thought outside the mainstream, such as Josephus and the New Testament (alongside more creative forms of interpretation that are often typical of d'rash).

  7. As I'm sure you noticed, I also drew on one of the midrashim to support an interpretation based in the p'shat method. Now, do I agree that 'bet' is the first letter because it's closed on the left side? From the perspective of reason, I think it's very unlikely. Though writers in logo-graphic scripts at times play with shapes of signs as part of their literary art, this kind of thing is almost unheard of in alphabetic scripts. In any event, Bet looks quite a bit different in k'tav 'Ivri, so it's difficult to see what the k'tav Asshuri might have to do with the historical meaning. However, I do see that, though this midrash explains it differently, the interpreter apparently had the literary and linguistic sense intuitively to come to a correct understanding of the what the first few lines of the Bible are trying to get across. Interestingly, what we have here is not a multiplicity of meanings, but a multiplicity of approaches to come to the same meaning.

    In the same way, though 'Torah' and 'reshit' both have their respective semantic ranges, we have very little evidence from classical Hebrew or related languages to suggest that they might possibly mean the same thing. That doesn't make it impossible, it just makes it indemonstrable. Interestingly, the very cutting edge of historical critical studies on Genesis 1 are come out with some interesting parallel interpretations. Obviously you already know about the seven-day structure of creation, which is deeply rooted in Torah and on of the most essential Jewish practices. You may also be aware that it establishes certain principles of progeny and order, as well as telling us where the the true image of God may be found, alongside which no other may be placed. Again, core principles of Torah.

    What you may not have known is that this story is more or less structured after accounts of temple construction in the Ancient Near East (including Solomon's Temple, if I'm not mistaken; Mark Smith, "The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1"). The Earth becomes a place were people can meet and have fellowship with the deity, a place to serve him. This, perhaps more than anything else, is the essence of Torah the functions of Torah and temple are inextricably intertwined, and they are mutual expressions of the other, or perhaps they are sister expressions of the divine Torah by which the world was created. It appears to contain the blueprint both for the hardware and the software of the universe.

    Again, we find that a principle expressed in a rabbinic reading is affirmed by a historically grounded approach, despite the fact that they argue the point from completely different directions. I don't know if it means anything, but it is interesting to observe the frequency with which this happens.

    In the final analysis, I would agree that there are a multiplicity of meanings to biblical texts which may be valid. At the same time, there are also meanings which are apparently invalid. There are all kinds of psalms, for example, where the author seems to be desperately seeking an absent God. "God is dead" might not be a valid meaning. To bring it a little closer to home, I am a member of a religion which mainstream Judaism has nearly universally declared to be based in invalid interpretations of the Hebrew Bible.

    Certainly all kinds of readings are possible, but that does not make them all valid. Being a divine text makes it difficult to evaluate which of these meanings might be valid. What I like about the p'shat is that it's a method of reading that is always valid. There may be arguments about what the p'shat actually is, but anyone can come to the discussion. More imaginative or 'spiritual' forms of interpretation while certainly both valid and valuable, are not as easily subject to evaluation.

    Because the p'shat stands out as something that can be argued by reason, it is particularly attractive to protestants (which I am) as starting point for the study of the text.

  8. Whew! I am going to do my best to reply to what you wrote. Good job!

    For the moment, you may want to see what is likely the source for the term "p'shat" which is in the Talmud Bavli 63a to wit:

    תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף סג עמוד א

    אמר ליה אביי לרב דימי, ואמרי לה לרב אויא, ואמרי לה רב יוסף לרב דימי, ואמרי לה לרב אויא, ואמרי לה אביי לרב יוסף: מאי טעמא דרבי אליעזר דאמר תכשיטין הן לו? דכתיב +תהלים מה+ חגור חרבך על ירך גבור הודך והדרך. אמר ליה רב כהנא למר בריה דרב הונא: האי בדברי תורה כתיב! - אמר ליה: אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו. אמר רב כהנא כד הוינא בר תמני סרי שנין והוה גמירנא ליה לכוליה תלמודא, ולא הוה ידענא דאין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו עד השתא מאי קא משמע לן - דליגמר איניש, והדר ליסבר.

    Because it is way too late, I will have to leave you with that tantalizing bit but I promise to get back to it soon!

  9. It's very enlightening to learn that one of the sages studied the whole Talmud! In any event, there is an interesting article out there about the shift in the meaning of the word from what it means in the Talmud (apparently a synonym with d'rash), and what it meant in medieval exegesis. The article may be read at:

    I'm trying to use it in the medieval sense, however, not the Talmudic sense.

    As a final note, it's nice to see in the first part about the attributions so many nouns (or substantivated participles, as the case may be) in construct state (nismakh) which are opening relative clauses, exactly as in the first sentence of the Bible; ואמרי לה רב יוסף לרב דימי, "there are those who say about it that R. Yosef (spoke to) R. Dimi."


  10. My next postings will begin to deal w/concepts of p'shat. The article is very good. I don't concur entirely, though-I have a different take which will unfold as we go.

    I don't think, for example, that the rishonim saw themselves as markedly different from prior generations in many ways. The Ibn Ezra is a very interesting case study--read his introduction and bear in mind what he says there about chazal and compare and contrast with positions he takes in various places in his commentary.

    Likewise the Ramban clearly saw that his commentary was composed in order to lay out a clear basic understanding of text which would line up with a kabbalistic understanding (although he never directly tells us the latter). So his understanding was that he was explaining the Torah in line with well known traditions.

    Also, the Rambam saw everything he did as preservation of tradition. Many of his attitudes toward parshanut are elucidated in the first section of the Guide.

    I also don't really know about that much about the Hellenistic school you mention although I am curious to know more. I will point out that an argument can be made that basic exegesis of the Torah, even on a p'shat level as you understand it, is found already in passages of NaCh itself. The explanation of ממחרת השבת comes to mind (Vayikra 23:11). Contrast with ממחרת הפסח of Yehoshua 5:11. You may know that the explanation of that particular phrase constituted one of the most heated arguments between Zadokim and Perushim.

    Anyway, yes...check out my next postings. My own concepts of p'shat will hopefully be laid out--but over time!

  11. Even the older posts are great Shel. Great thoughts indeed!
    /Emanuel from Sweden

    1. Thank you! Pass on the links to anyone you think might be interested.