Bereishit

16 10 2009

This week is Shabbat Bereishit : the week on which the first parasha of the Torah is chanted in synagogues around the world. I would like to take a moment to comment upon the first clause of the Bible – more specifically, the first word.

The Torah commences with the clause, בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ (bereishit bara’ ‘elohim ‘et hasshamayim w’et ha’arets). The classical translation of this clause is, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. This has achieved a little notoriety of late, with Ellen van Wolde’s recent suggestion that ברא (bara’) exclusively denotes separation, that creation was therefore not ex nihilo, and that Intelligent Design theorists can go suck an egg. This isn’t something I wish to discuss.

Instead, I would like to discuss an issue that has come up innumerable times and that has posed a problem from the earliest commentaries until today: what does the first word mean?

To (briefly) summarise the problem:
בראשית (bereishit) features the root-word ראש, meaning “head” or “beginning”. It has the inseparable particle, ב, which in this case means “in”, but the word is vocalised as indefinite.

That is to say, the word is spelt (or spelled, if you’re an American) “In a beginning”, which doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. The solution? It’s in the construct state! “In the beginning of“. Well, in the beginning of what?, asks Rashi (amongst very many other scholars). Rashi’s ‘solution’, which is not entirely satisfactory, is that this is simply a Biblical collocation, featured also in the second verse of Hosea. The only reason that this is unsatisfactory is that it compounds the problem by adding to it another verse, rather than simplifying the problem by actually explaining it.

An explanation that might have been satisfactory would have been calling for the revocalisation of the second word as an infinitive absolute. That would have yielded the clause, “In the beginning of God’s creating the sky and the earth, …” and therefore seguéd nicely into the second verse, which describes the state of the sky and the earth at that earliest time.

The problem with this, however, is that there seems to be a contradiction between the vocalisation and the accentuation (although we can refer to the latter here as punctuation). While the word is vocalised as “In the beginning of“, the Masoretes added a disjunctive accent and thus denied the possibility of it being in construct with another word. So much for revocalising the verb, then, as an infinitive absolute!

The array of interpretations is therefore as follows:

BR’ShYT (consonantal): “In the beginning”, “In a beginning”, “In the beginning of”;
bereishit (vocalised): “In a beginning”, “In the beginning of”;
bereishit, (vocalised and punctuated): “In a beginning”.

It is fun to suggest that the last letter of the first word should be moved forwards a space, to yield “In my head, you create gods”, but this is a little too modernist for my liking. Which is to say, it is entirely to my liking, but it is utterly untrue.

Rabbi Yeshayahu Leibowitz said that the only information one can derive from this clause is the fact that there is such a thing as “God”, that God is not the world itself, nor is God in the world, but that God was somehow involved in its construction. Exactly what “God” means, what the nature of this construction is supposed to denote, and even the temporal relationship of these events to the narrator was all a bit too much for Rabbi Leibowitz and is certainly too much for me.

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2 responses

16 10 2009
Joel H.

It is fun to suggest that the last letter of the first word should be moved forwards a space, to yield “In my head, you create gods”, but […]

Very cute. What a fun way to welcome Genesis back.

19 10 2009
On the Word breishit « God Didn't Say That

[…] Some people don’t like the traditional understanding — “In the beginning” — because the Hebrew word is, literally, “in a beginning” or “in the beginning of.” (Simon Holloway recently provided a little more detail.) […]

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