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Torah Commentary

In the beginning G-d Created Hebrew: Bereishit bara Elokim. This has the following meanings:

1) "Prior to," i.e., before G-d brought all things he had already created to their final state of proportion and symmetry, chaos was rampant everywhere.
2) At the very inception of the creation of heaven and earth, etc., G-d said: "Let there be light." That is to say, Scripture does not intend to indicate that heaven and earth preceded all other things in creation, for if it did, it would not use the word "bereishit" but barishonah, which means "first of all."
3) "Anterior to all existence," i.e., before anything was yet created.
4) "In the beginning of time," the word "time" being elided, time itself being one of the things created.
5) "At some remote period of time." This interpretation is based upon the fact that the Targum (the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch) renders both bereishit and l'fanim (1Shmuel 9:9) by bekad'min. Since l'fanim b'Yisrael, the phrase referred to, means "at some early period in the history of Yisrael," it follows by analogy that bereishit means at some early period in the history of the cosmos.
6) Before the creation of heaven and earth, and before the earth was tohu and vohu (Hebrew for "unformed and void" in
v2, but here regarded as substances specially created by G-d for the raw material, as it were, out of which to fashion the Universe), G-d had said: "Let there be light."
7) In the beginning.
V1 is a majestic summary of the story of Creation: G-d is the beginning, nay, the Cause of all things. The remainder of the chapter gives details of the successive acts of creation. Ages untold may have elapsed between the calling of matter into being and the reduction of chaos to ordered arrangement.
8) Bereishit consists of an account of the creation of the world, implying that the world is in harmony with the Torah, and the Torah with the world, and that the man who observes the Torah is constituted thereby a loyal citizen of the world, regulating his doings by the purpose and will of Nature, in accordance with which the entire world itself also is administered.
Created. Hebrew: bara, which stands for creatio ex nihilo (commentators), producing something out of nothing. Its meaning may be extended to include any act transcending the ordinary.
G-d. Hebrew: Elokim, denotes "the most exalted being." means "power" in Hebrew, and a similar root means "fear" in Arabic. The plural form is indicative of the abundance of the divine faculties and the many sidedness of G-d's Sovereignty over all natural phenomena. However, the predicate verb of Elokim, which in this case is bara (created), is the singular. Secondary meanings of Elokim are messengers, kings or judges.

And the earth was unformed and desolate Hebrew: Vaha'aretz hayetah tohu vavohu. This has the following meanings:

1) And the earth. Scripture's main interest is the earth, where man has his being. The earth, therefore, is its firt subject of comment.
Unformed and desolate. Hebrew: tohu and vohu. The following are the various interpretations:
2) Desolation and emptiness.
3) Emptiness and chaos.
4) According to modern as well as some ancient commentators the earth, when first created, was an unformed and rarefied entity. Nowadays scientists call it "energy", and this is the tohu of Scripture. Subsequently this entity was condensed into "first matter," whose composition is commonly known today as "atomic"; this state of matter Scripture calls vohu.

and darkness covered the surface of the abyss. Hebrew: vechoshech al-penei tehom. This has the following meanings:

1) Darkness. Hebrew: choshech, may signify:
a) Lack of light.
b) A positive entity.
c) The overcast air.
Upon the surface of the deep. Above the water which covered the earth. the deep. The primeval ocean that enveloped the whole globe.

The spirit of G-d [the Divine Presence]. Hebrew: veruach Elokim. This has the following meanings:

1) A wind sent by G-d that was blowing, etc.
2) The substratum of the atmosphere.
3) A raging tempest.
4) A spirit of grace and loving kindness emanating from G-d and hovering over the waters, as much as to say that the Shechinah (Divine Presence) in Divine tranquility was engaged in bringing order into the chaos.

The spirit of G-d hovered. Hebrew: ruach Elokim merachefet. The Throne of Glory was suspended in the air and hovered over the waters like a dove hovering over a nest, sustained by the breath of G-d. It is called the spirit of G-d, because it was His servant to realize His will, the waters be dried up and the land appear. (Rashi; Ibn Ezra)

Hovered. Hebrew: merachefet. The Hebrew word occurs again only in Devarim 32:11, where it is descriptive of the eagle hovering over its young to care for and protect them. Matter in itself is lifeless. The Spirit of G-d quickens and transforms it into material for a living world. The Yerushalayim Targum translates this verse: "And the earth was vacancy and desolation, solitary of the sons of men and void of every animal, and darkness was upon the face of the abyss; and the Spirit of Mercy from before Hashem breathed upon the face of the waters."

The surface of the water. Hebrew: al-penei hamayim. That is, above the dark chaos and desolation hovered G-d, Source of Order, light and life.

G-d said: Hebrew: Vayomer Elokim. "Said" may mean:

1) He willed. (RaSaG)
2) He decreed in His wisdom. (Ibn Caspi)
3) An expression suggesting putting a plan into execution. (RaMBaN)
4) It may be taken in it ordinary sense, the Torah using here a human metaphor (anthropomorphism), as if G-d were a monarch issuing decrees at his pleasure, which are promptly complied with: that is to say, it did not require exhausting labor. (Ibn Ezra)

Let there be light. Hebrew: Yehi-or. The following are the various opinions of the nature of the light that was created before the luminaries came into being:

1) This light that pervaded the whole globe did not originate from the luminaries. (Ramban)
2) There was a dispute between Rabbi Yehudah and the other sages regarding the order of creation. (Yalkut; Bachya) According to Rabbi Yehudah, the universe was created in six days, as would be implied by a literal reading of the Bible. Rabbi Nehemiah, on the other hand, maintained that everything was created in the very first instant through G-d's original word. All that happened on the other days was that specific things were revealed; everything had been prepared on the first day.
3) According to the Midrash, the original light was an intense spiritual quality and G-d saw that the wicked were unworthy of enjoying it. And so Hashem separated it from the rest of the universe and set it aside for the use of the righteous in the Olam Habah (World to Come). (Rashi)
4) Many Sages agree that this Light was the Torah brought into the world at creation.

*See the section called "Gematria."

G-d divided the light from the darkness. Hebrew: Elokim bein ha'or uvein hachoshech. This has the following meanings:

1)Either He appointed for each its time and place; or G-d interposed the twilight between day and night so that one come not upon the other with sudden impact. (Idem)
2) G-d did not have the light rule over the darkness, despite the fact that He called the light "good." Instead, He let the darkness subsist, separating it from the light. From the beginning of creation, G-d instituted the important principle of havdalah (separation) in the universe, (the prototype for which is the separation of genders into male and female). Thus He separated heaven and earth. In our prayers we praise "the One who separates the holy from the profane, light from darkness, Yisrael from the nations, the Shabbat from the six working days." The separation "between light and darkness" is destined to be overcome in the future when "a new light will shine over Tziyon." Likewise, through the spread and growth of the moral forces of mankind, the separation between Yisrael and the nations will disappear; all nations, all peoples, will at last be united in common worship of the One G-d. All differences will dissolve to give honor to one supreme unity. Then the distinction between the Shabbat and the other six days of the week will also make way for "the time of continual Shabbat and continual rest in the World to Come."

G-d called to light day Hebrew: Vayikra Elokim la-or yom. This has the following meanings:

1) Five things were named by G-d, there being yet no man to name them...light, darkness, heaven, earth and sea; to which man (Adam) must also be added. (Ibn Ezra)
2) In calling the light Day, G-d defines the significance of light in human life. In the Bible account of creation, everything centers round man and is viewed from his angle. (Ibn Ezra)
3) G-d formed the light out of the darkness itself. It is therefore possible to call night "day." Thus, for example, in the Shabbat eve prayer, we say "this Shabbat day," even though it is night. Similarly, on the eve of Rosh Chodesh (New Moon), we say, "This day of the New Moon." The same is true of all the other festivals. It might seem logical to change the wording so as to say, "this night of the Shabbat," or "this night of Rosh Chodesh." But since light was created from the substance of darkness, it is appropriate to call darkness "day."

It became evening and it became morning. Hebrew: vayehi-erev vayehi-voker. This has the following meanings:

1)The day, according to the Scriptural reckoning of time, begins with the preceding evening. Just as we are told in the observances of Yom Kippur which is to be "from evening to evening" (VaYikra 23:32); and similarly of the Shabbat and Festivals.
2 Evening, (Erev)...morning, (boker). Erev (from arav, to mingle). Denotes that part of the day when day and night are mingled, being neither quite day nor night. Boker (from bakker, to search, examine) is the reverse of erev, i.e., when one can distinguish the exact quality which characterizes it...daylight. (Ibn Ezra)

One day Hebrew: yom echad. This has the following meanings:

1) Not, "the first day"; because there is no "first" without a "second," which had not yet eventuated. (Ramban)
2) As for the six days of creation, some commentators surmise that they stand for millennia, as it is said, "For a thousand years in Your sight are but as yesterday" (Tehillim 90:4).
3) Earthly and human measurement of time, by a clock of human manufacture, cannot apply to the first three days, as the sun was not then in existence. The beginning of each period of creation is called "morning"; its close, "evening"; in the same way, we speak of the morning and evening of life. (J.H. Hertz)
4) Rashi notes that "The Torah does not use the phrase 'a first day' whereas it does state 'a second day;' 'a third day,' etc. Why 'one'? It is because G-d was One and alone in His universe." The dualism of light and and darkness, established in nature right from the first day of creation, is followed in the Torah by a phrase which emphasizes the exclusive presence of G-d in the universe. Despite the appearance of dualism within nature, G-d is One and One. alone.
5) The first day is now complete. Scripture uses the cardinal number echad, one day, instead of the ordinal number rishon, first day, to indicate that on this day G-d was One (because this phrase can be rendered the day of the One and Only). On this day, G-d was still the only spiritual being in existence, for the angels were not created until the second day (Rashi)

G-d said, "Let there be a canopy in the midst of the waters." Hebrew: Vayomer Elokim yehi rakia betoch hamayim. This has the following meanings:

1) "Firmament" [canopy] is the stratum of air dividing the waters of the earth below from the waters of the clouds above. It is called rakia, literally "beaten into a sheet," because it extends in space like metal beaten into a plate. (Ibn Ezra; ShaDaL.)
2) Rashi comments: "This means, let the sky (firmament) become hardened. For although the heavens were created on the first day, they were still a fluid state, solidifying only on the second day at Elokim's thunderous command of 'Let the firmament exist' - as a man becomes petrified with fright."
3) On the second day, G-d commanded that there be a firmament in the heavens. The waters congealed out of terror of G-d's word, just like a person startled by the sound of a lion. (Rashi) At this time all of creation consisted of water. G-d then commanded that a firmament be made, dividing this water. Part was on top, another part on the bottom, and the firmament was in the middle. The distance between the earth and the firmament is the same as that between the firmament and the upper waters. (Tanchuma)

This is the meaning of the verse, "Let there be a canopy in the midst of the waters."

"Divide between waters and waters." Hebrew: mavdil bein mayim lamayim. This has the following meanings:

1) The mystics observed that the waters wept when they were thus forcibly separated, and still weep to this very day.

2) The meaning of "between waters and waters" in the verse is difficult to state precisely. Don Isaac Abarbanel cites five different theories while Ramban emphasizes that this is one of the mysteries of creation and one should not expect an explanation of it from him, for even the Torah itself does not elaborate on it. However, modern science permits a better understanding of the Torah's reference to the separation of the waters below and the waters above. We now know that several atmospheric regions exist one above the other in the immensity of space, beyond what we call the heavens. Moreover, hydrogen is the basic element found in these zones, just as it is in all of creation.

3) In Kabbalistic teaching, the waters above signify the male factor, active, fecundating, the source of dew and beneficial rains while "the waters beneath," forming oceans, rivers etc. (Bereishit Rabbah, ch. 4), represents the feminine, that is the passive, receptive, agent of form (Midrash Hagadol, Bereishit 4). Life on earth is the fruit of the union of these two factors, and it is in this sense that the Sages of the Talmud speak of the distance between the two waters as being no greater than a "hairsbreadth." But, they elaborate, this distance can also be very great, for man has the power to disturb the harmonious union of the spheres of the universe and provoke great discord between the heavenly and earthly elements.


  • Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretations

  • Call of the Torah, Rabbi Elie Munk

  • MeAm Lo'ez, Bereishit, Vol. 1, Rabbi Yaacov Culi