Beginning at the Beginning: Starting the Torah Again

14 09 2010

I am puzzled by the first word of the Torah. I know this is an issue that gets rehashed again and again, but hear me out. The Hebrew reads as follows: בראשית ברא אלהים, bereishit bara elohim. It is translated, most commonly, as “In the beginning, God created”. And yet, despite this, everybody who translates it seems to be aware that that’s not what it necessarily means.

First of all, most everybody has encountered the idea at one time or another that ראשית (reishit) means “in the beginning of“. That’s not entirely true. The word appears some fifty-one times in the Bible, including the very first verse, and while it does mean “in the beginning of” on forty-five of those occasions, there are six instances in which it appears with neither a suffix nor in construct with a noun. Those who are interested in looking up the other five instances can check Deuteronomy 33:21, Psalms 105:36 (both of which attach a possessive prefix to the following word), Leviticus 2:12 (which uses it as an adjective), Isaiah 46:10 and Nehemiah 12:44 (both of which use it as an absolute noun). So what’s to stop us saying that about Genesis 1:1?

Honestly? Nothing. That is how it is usually translated, and that is most probably what it actually means. But, nonetheless, I’m confused. You see, if it were really that simple (nothing, by the way, is ever that simple), then why are there so many people who insist that it means “in the beginning of”? Why does Rashi, to pick just one example, stress that it’s not as straightforward as a first glance might make it seem?

Well, the answer (or, at least, the first of several questions) lies in the way that the word has been vocalised. If it just meant “in the beginning”, we would expect to find evidence of a definite article. To be more precise, we would expect the word to feature a qamatz under the first letter, and to be pronounced bareishit. This is precisely what Abraham ibn Ezra observed in the 12th century when he resolved that the word must therefore be in construct with the following word, which is a verb. How can something be in construct with a verb, you ask? Well, answers Ibn Ezra (and Rashi as well for that matter), we find such a construction at the beginning of Hosea! Our verse in Genesis might therefore mean, “In the beginning of God’s creating the sky and the earth.”

And yet… that doesn’t seem right. Remember I said that things are never so simple? First of all, if the word were to be in construct with a verb, we would expect the verb to be an infinitive absolute (bereishit baro), which Rashi also notes but completely fails to explain. Furthermore (yes, there’s more), if the individuals responsible for vocalising the Torah (ie: adding the vowels) wanted us to read the word in construct, then why did the individuals responsible for accentuating the Torah (ie: adding the punctuation, or “accent marks”) want us to think otherwise? You see, they placed a disjunctive accent under the first word, which precludes the possibility of reading it in construct! Do we have an argument between the vocalisers and the accentuators? Or are they actually saying something else altogether?

I like to think so. In fact, I actually lied when I started this post because I’m not really puzzled by this business at all. On the contrary, I think it’s very straightforward. This is the bit, then, when I tell you why it’s straightforward and fifty people come up to me and tell me that I’m an idiot. Because nothing is ever straightforward. Not even this.

In my opinion, reishit is an absolute and indefinite noun, and it means “a beginning”. That explains the absence of the definite article, and it also explains the presence of a disjunctive accent. It is my opinion as well that the prefix (ב) is serving an adverbial role – just as it does in 1 Samuel 29:7, Ezra 3:12, and numerous other places in the Bible. It means, “By way of a beginning, God created the sky and the earth”. Finally, it is my opinion that none of what I just said is true, and that the verse actually means what everybody thinks it means, which is “In the beginning, God created the sky and the earth”. But, because what it originally meant is not what we all read, the verse as it appears is the product of masoretic transmission.

Come again? Okay, in a nutshell:

Once upon a time, after centuries of telling stories around a campfire and bashing in the heads of neighboring tribes whose stories were all wrong, some clever fellow decided to write the stories down. The process, one must assume, was not over in forty days, but it culminated in a text that began with the assertion that “in the beginning, God created the sky and the earth.” So far so nifty.

Then, after several centuries of reading this text (and bashing in the heads of neighboring city states whose texts were all different), some clever fellow decided to transmit the way in which the words should be pronounced, and how the one who reads them out should pause, and when, and so forth. This took some time, produced more than one system, and for all we know may have even resulted in somebody getting their head bashed in. The text that they gave us, which has the very same letters as the text that they started with, asserts that, “by way of a beginning, God created the sky and the earth.”

So what do we read!?? Well, there are two answers to that question. When we chant the text in a synagogue at the beginning of the reading cycle (such as will be done on the 2nd of October this year), we are reading the work of the masoretes (who were probably scary Karaites), and who wanted us to think that God created the sky and the earth “by way of a beginning”. However, when we read the text to ourselves (and I know you all secretly do), then we can acknowledge their interpretation alongside every other possible interpretation of the text – one of which is that God created these things “in the beginning”, which is the intention most likely to have been original.

Is there a practical difference? Of course! To say that God created these things “in the beginning” would be to imply that time is an arena of sorts, in which events objectively occur. We might call this the Newtonian Exegesis. To say, however, that God created these things “by way of a beginning” would be to imply that time has meaning only insofar as it denotes causality. This is the Einsteinian Exegesis, in which events occur before, together with, or after other events, but in which the determination of their occurrence depends upon the observer.

When faced with the stark differences between the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, the rabbis determined that God was the observer in Genesis 1 and that the chapter is written from his perspective, but that Adam was the observer in Genesis 2 and that the chapter is written from his. That’s rather clever, even though the reality that underlies the composition (as well as what the text originally meant) may be somewhat different to that. But hey, what do you want from my life? Bash your own head in.




14 responses

18 09 2010


i liked what you have written about the beginning of the Torah. One thing to note is, bereishit, should be divided into three parts.
1. “be”
2. “reishit”
3. “it”

the prefix of “be” which means on, onto, by, with, depending on the verb or noun. in this case “be” simply means on.
“reishit” it simply means head, but it has two parts, ie a suffix as well as noun. so it has “reish” which means head,
“it” which is suffix that makes the noun genitive.

now you might this makes it confusion, bereishit, means “on head’s” or “on top of”
we need to remember that each language has it’s idioms. and that we can’t translate idioms. people should just start learning Aramaic instead.

19 09 2010
Simon Holloway

Thanks for the observation, Tim! I’m not sure if your line about learning Aramaic was meant to be a joke, but what makes you think that you cannot translate an idiom? For a start, the word for head is ראש (rosh, not reish) and it doesn’t decline for the genitive. “On the head of”, or “on the top of”, would simply be על ראש, which we find in Gen 47:31, Exodus 17:9, Leviticus 1:4, Numbers 8:12, and many other places throughout the biblical literature.

You are correct when you suggest that there are three morphemes in this word, but you are incorrect when you say that the first of them (ב) “means on, onto, by, with, depending on the verb or noun”. It can indeed mean any of these things (and more), but it is not an automatic designation on the basis of the noun that it is attached to. While that has a part to play, it is also important to make sense of the clause from the surrounding clauses as well.

In our verse, we have an adjective (ראשית, reishit), functioning substantively (ie: as a noun). To suggest that it doesn’t mean “beginning” (on analogy with ראשון, rishon), simply because the corresponding English idiom doesn’t parse identically, would be a bit foolish. Besides, given that you mention Aramaic: are you aware that ריש (reish) in Aramaic means “beginning”? The word is used by Onkelos in Num 15:20 and Deut 11:12, as well as numerously throughout the Talmud, where it is often contrasted with סיפא (seifa, “the end”).

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that Onkelos doesn’t use this word in his translation of Genesis 1:1. There he uses בקדמין, which makes no doubts as regards his translation of בראשית, but does raise questions as to why he didn’t just use ריש for that.

15 10 2010

>we are reading the work of the masoretes (who were probably scary Karaites

Come on, is this really so? If it’s a question how it is that the Karaites accepted the masorah if it was transmitted/ developed by Rabbanites, then the reverse if a question as well.

As far as I know, the only real doubt concerns Ben Asher himself, and even here there is evidence tending in both directions.

At most I think the evidence shows that there was a continuum between Karaites and Rabbanites, and maybe that accounts for some of the gray area.

(Great post.)

15 10 2010
Simon Holloway

Thanks :)

I actually wrote this post on Facebook originally (*gasp!*), but then threw caution to the wind and put it on my blog. You are, as usual, correct: the only evidence that exists is concerning Ben Asher, but I’m quite comfortable with the notion that he and his family were Karaites. Of course, there were other masoretes as well, so the prestige accorded his little dynasty is not reflective on the institution as a whole. Nonetheless, I suspect that we have a very distorted view of the Karaites and their relationship with the Rabbanites.

When people think of them, they think of the polemics of Saadiah Gaon, Ibn Ezra and Maimonides – amongst others, I am sure. But I am led to understand that the Karaites constituted at one time some 40% of the world’s Jewish population, and I imagine that there was greater cultural intercourse and mutual respect than we have been taught. You can disrespect another’s philosophy, but when such a sizable portion of your population subscribes to it, and when the entirety of your population lives under foreign rule, you must accommodate it at the same time.

Were the work of the masoretes the fruit of “Karaite” labour, I don’t imagine it would have posed too serious a problem. I use quotation marks, for it is equally likely a non-partisan affair altogether.

16 10 2010

Ha – I do that too. Well, not Facebook, but not every word I post is my most developed, accurate thought.

I agree that there is a very distorted picture. I’m not sure if it’s my own suspicion or if someone who actually knows about Karaism shares it, but I do suspect that there was a continuum between Karaite and Rabbanite, and this could account for Jews who were specialists in the Bible who were not seen as belonging exclusively to the other. My model would be based on my own studies of Haskalah and maskilim, which fascinate me. There was certainly a continuum in every place and period where Haskalah existed, which is far from how it was depicted and/ or remembered in the yeshiva, or even Orthodox world in general.

If so, this would account for the conflicting evidence about Ben Asher. Karaites could have written about him with Karaite titles like Melamed, and Rabbanites could have considered him a Rabbanite if his praxis was the same or similar – I bet there was a continuum of praxis as well.

As far as I know the entire controversy began in the 1860s based originally on a footnote in Simcha Pinsker’s Likutei Kadmoniyot, where he put forth his opinion that all early masoretes and grammarians that cannot be shown to have been involved in Talmudic learning must be asssumed to be Karaites unless it can be shown otherwise.

In terms of lame ‘proofs’ to the contrary about Ben Asher, like “Surely Maimonides would not view him as an authority if he were Karaite,” there are many refutations. Firstly, Maimonides took the “accept the truth from whatever the source” position. Secondly, what about the Karaites who themselves accept the Masorah, which surely is at lease somewhat Rabbanite? Thirdly, who said Maimonides knew he was a Karaite?

All in all, it’s an interesting question and I suspect it will never be resolved, hopefully because I am right and in reality there’s no real answer.

24 05 2011
shani tzoref

no time to read this now, but i hope somebody will:

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures – Volume 11: Article 9 (2011)

Ellen van Wolde and Robert Rezetko, “Semantics and the Semantics of ברא: A
Rejoinder to the Arguments Advanced by B. Becking and M. Korpel”

14 10 2012
David Bar-Cohn

Hi, just came across your post – some nice points.

Question for you. What about the pasuk בְּרֵאשִׁית מַלְכוּת צִדְקִיָּה (Yirmiyahu 49:34)? This clearly doesn’t mean “in ‘a’ beginning of Tzidkiyahu’s reign” but rather “in the beginning”. Meaning, even though בְּרֵאשִׁית is grammatically indefinite, idiomatically it’s used as a definite. Thoughts on that?

14 10 2012
Simon Holloway

Hi, David – thanks for your comment.

Actually, the word בראשית in Jeremiah 49:34 is grammatically definite, since it is in construct with the word מלכות. All words that are in construct are grammatically definite, although they take what would otherwise appear to be the indefinite form. The problem with Genesis 1:1 is that בראשית precedes a verb (בָּרָא) and not a noun (בְּרֹא). Not only that, but it features a disjunctive accent, so whoever was responsible for punctuating the text obviously didn’t read it as being in construct either.

14 10 2012
David Bar-Cohn

Thanks Simon, I see what you’re saying.

Just a thought… Could it be possible that the word ראשית (and also אחרית, where you don’t find any example of “ba’acharit” either in Tanach) is a word like “dinnertime”, which idiomatically precludes using a definite article? You never say, “See you at the dinnertime.” So maybe בראשית ברא א-להים could be literally, “At beginning-time, Elokim created…” It’s just that English doesn’t have such a word, so we have trouble translating it without using the definite article… A bit of a wild idea, I fully realize!

14 10 2012
Simon Holloway

Not so wild an idea at all, I don’t think. Such nouns are known as anarthrous status-nouns (“anarthrous” just means “without an article”), and we have many in English. It’s an interesting question, whether or not they may exist in Hebrew – and I shall have to think about that. In any case, it’s no weirder a proposition than my adverbial one above.

15 10 2012
David Bar-Cohn

Interesting – that’s a term that must’ve eluded me in English class! Well if you can find out whether Hebrew has such a construction, I’d love to know. Thanks.

28 10 2012
David Bar-Cohn

Hi again. A sort of related question – I recently came across the Ramban’s Introduction to Sefer Bereshit, where he brings a possible parsing of the first pasuk that reads בראש יתברא א-להים. Apparently, there is no reflexive verb “להתברא” – it’s a theoretical construction, which I’m thinking would be “lehitbarei” (with a tzerei), as in להתמצא or להתמלא. In that case, יתברא would be 3rd person male future tense, meaning something to the effect of “Elokim will create itself”. Does that sound about right? Any thoughts on this from a linguistic POV? Thanks… (BTW, I’m not in any way suggesting this as a “pshat” reading, and neither is the Ramban!)

28 10 2012
Simon Holloway

Thanks, David – I haven’t read the Ramban’s introduction to his peirush, though have heard similar ideas to that one (such as בראשי תברא אלהים: In my head, you create gods”). Your pronunciation of this word is spot on, but it’s not a future tense. In biblical Hebrew, prefix-conjugation verbs denote impefectives: actions that are incomplete from the standpoint of the narrator. A clause like בראש יתברא אלהים could be translated as “Initially, God created himself”, with perhaps an implication on the process. Although the Ramban was no grammarian, he would doubtless have been intending this verb to be understood similarly to other prefix-conjugation verbs in the corpus. See, for example, יעלה in Genesis 2:6, יעשה in Job 1:5, and both ישכן and יחנו in Numbers 9:18.

[There’s a lot of discussion, by the way, on how prefix-conjugation verbs with past-time referents differ from suffix-conjugation verbs with past-time referents. If you have access to it, Waltke and O’Connor’s An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax provides a very useful and readable overview in §31 (496-518)]

28 10 2012
David Bar-Cohn

Simon, thanks for the explanation, and the reference – I read some of it on Google Books. It’s what they call the “customary non-perfective”, which like you say is process-oriented, making יתברא something to the effect of “God would create himself”. They then go on to describe the “incipient past non-perfective”, which if יתברא could fall into that category (maybe you can tell me whether it could or couldn’t), I like the translation better. It would mean “God began to create himself”, implying that the action is ongoing (perhaps even now), rather than something that was at one time habitual but then stopped by the time the text was written.

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