Cracking the whip


By Philologos

Published October 01, 2004, issue of October 01, 2004.
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Dr. M. Lipkowitz writes in an e-mail:

Some time ago you wrote a column on the biblical word b’reshit. I can’t locate it on the Web site and would appreciate your either sending me a copy or advising me of the date of the column so that I can find it.

Alas, I wish could find it myself. Several years ago I lost a hard disk on my computer, and with it all my columns until then. (One could, of course, retrieve them from old copies of the Forward, but these have vanished from my attic, too.) All I can do — encouraged by the serendipity of next Saturday being Shabbat B’reshit, the Sabbath on which we begin to read the Torah from the beginning, starting with the first chapter of the book of Genesis — is to write another column on the same subject.

The Hebrew word b’reshit is the first word of the Bible, and it is generally translated as “in the beginning,” as in the Bible’s opening verse: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” And yet, as Jewish biblical commentators noticed long ago, there is a grammatical problem here. B’reshit is composed of two elements: the preposition b’, meaning “in,” and reshit, generally meaning beginning” — a word that derives from rosh, “head,” just as does the adjective rishon, “first.” But if reshit were an ordinary noun, “in the beginning” would be, according to the laws of Hebrew grammar, not b’reshit, but ba-reshit, since the Hebrew definite article ha, “the,” would combine with b’ to form the elided form ba.

Yet reshit does not generally function in the Bible as an ordinary noun. Let’s look at a few of the verses in which it appears. Reshit bikurei admatkha, “The beginning of the first fruits of your land” (Exodus, 23:19). Reshit gez tsonkha, “The beginning of the shearing of your flocks” (Deuteronomy, 18:4). Reshit h.okhmah yir’at adonai, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God” (Psalms 111:10). In these and many other places, reshit is a noun in the construct or genitive case, meaning “the beginning of.” This is also true of the places, apart from Genesis, in which it occurs with the preposition b’, all in the book of Jeremiah — twice in the phrase b’reshit mamlekhet Yehoyakim, “In the beginning of the reign of Yehoyakim,” and twice in the phrase B’reshit mamlekhet Tsidkiyahu, “In the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah.”

But if b’reshit means “in the beginning of,” how can it be followed by the words bara elohim et ha-shamayim ve-ha’aretz, “God created heaven and earth”? It is no more logical in Hebrew to say: “In the beginning of God created heaven and earth” than it is in English. In both languages, the referent of the preposition “of” or its equivalent has to be a noun, not a verb like “created.” (Nor can this noun be elohim, since the Bible is clearly not speaking of “the beginning of God.”)

This grammatical difficulty caused different biblical commentators to react in different ways. Most insisted that b’reshit bara elohim nevertheless did mean, “In the beginning God created” and looked for various ways to justify this. Others reinterpreted the verse. The generally conservative 11th-century Rashi or Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, for example, the dean of all Jewish commentators, suggested rearranging the vowel points (which do not appear in a Torah scroll) traditionally assigned to the consonants of bara in order to read the word as bero — a gerund form of the verb that would change the meaning of the verse to “In the beginning of God’s creating of heaven and earth” and join it as a dependent clause to the following verse: “the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

Does this mean that when God began to create heaven and earth as they exist now, the earth, though “without form and void,” already existed in some primal, inchoate form? Although Rashi himself never would have permitted such an interpretation, more daring commentators, such as Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167), did not shrink from it. Writing cryptically, Ibn Ezra observes that the meaning of “to create” in the opening verse of Genesis is “to give form to [what is already there]… and the wise will understand.”

Ibn Ezra was expressing himself carefully because he was taking the philosophical position in one of the great medieval debates between orthodox theology and Aristotelian philosophy — namely, that concerning the question: Was matter created by God, or is it coeternal with him? Conventionally minded Christian, Jewish and Muslim thinkers all insisted, basing themselves on Scripture, on creation ex nihilo, whereas the Aristotelians, like the great Muslim thinker Averroes, held that God fashioned the world out of matter but not matter itself. Ibn Ezra used the reading of bara as bero to come down on the side of Averroes. The next time you are tempted to slight the Hebrew vowel points, reflect that a small difference in a couple of them can change the nature of the universe.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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