Genesis, Bereshit, or Creation in the Languages of Hebrew and English

One aspect of Torah study that I love is when our sages see something in the grammar of the Hebrew of the Torah itself that stands out to them as unusual. It might be a small and seemingly insignificant or trivial matter to the Hebrew reader like a vowel or letter that appears out of place in a sentence. It would not even get our attention in the English translation. Yet, for the rabbis who have laser-like focus on the Hebrew text, they immediately presume that there are no accidents of grammar. They always believe that there is a hidden meaning behind every letter and vowel in the Torah. The challenge is to figure out what is the hidden meaning.

Let’s take an example in this week’s Torah portion which is the first torah portion, Genesis or Bereshit, in our cycle of Torah readings. From the pages of the Talmud Resh Lakish asked, “What is meant by the passage, “And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day [hashish] (Genesis 1:31).Why the extra Hebrew letter hey for the word hashishi [the sixth day]? [The other days of Creation are described simply as “a third, a fourth, a fifth day,” without the definite article ha] It comes to teach us that the Holy One stipulated with the works of Creation, and said to them, “If Israel accepts the Torah, you will continue to exist; if not, I will turn you back to primordial emptiness and void.” [On the sixth day, when God completed Creation and said, “Yom Hashishi, the sixth day,” God alluded to the 6th day of the hebrew month of Sivan, the day of the Giving of the Torah! The phrase is thus made to read:  “There was evening and there was morning”-only because of the sixth day of Sivan, the date the Torah was given at Sinai] (Ein Yaacov to Talmud-Avodah Zarah).

The sage Resh Lakish was an Amora who was said to have lived around 200 C.E. in the Roman Province of Syria Palestina. Other Rabbinic texts say he was in his youth a bandit and a gladiator before he became a great Torah scholar. From the fact that the Hebrew letter hay is attached to the word shishi or six referring to the sixth day of creation, he concludes that there is a much deeper meaning to why this letter is here and why it is not attached to any of the other days of creation. Some might say, ‘So what?’ Yet for Resh Lakish the answer is obvious in that it must be a clue to the sixth day of Sivan which is Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah. Thus he advances the idea that God created the entire world for the sake of giving us the Torah at Sinai!

We learn from this exercise in grammar and theology that the rabbis believed Torah was the underpinning of the entire world itself. They wanted to teach their students that the idea of Torah from Sinai was just as important to existence as the actual creation of the world. In fact some sages taught that God used the Torah as a blueprint for the creation of the world. From one simple letter hay attached to the word shishi or six, Judaism creates a platform which says that Creation and Sinai are bound together and of equal importance.

Our understanding and respect for the delicate balance of creation and the environment we live in is interconnected to the teachings of religion and ethics. Global warming and climate change are particularly on our minds as we watch reports in America of earthquakes and hurricanes rampaging through our continent. Is it possible that the sages wanted us to grasp that interrelationship between Creation and Torah from Sinai so that we would see through our Jewish lens the universal role we play in sustaining the world? Can we apply their teaching from ancient times to our own times to be the stewards of the planet that God wanted us to be at the dawn of the world? If we are caretakers of the world then that too must teach us to be guardians of Torah as well thereby reminding us how important it is that we treat humanity with as much care as the physical world. All of this from the letter hay attached to the word shishi. Is this not the beauty of Torah study?


About the author: Rabbi Brad Bloom serves Congregation Beth Yam in Hilton Head, South Carolina, US.