IN THE BEGINNING G-D CREATED. Rabbi Yitzchak said: The Torah, which is the book of laws, should have begun with the verse, This month shall be unto you the first of the months,1Exodus 12:2. which is the first commandment given to Israel.2It is true the book of Genesis contains three commandments (1:28; 17:10; 32:33), but after the Revelation on Sinai these laws became incumbent upon Israel. Hence the verse this month, etc., is “the first commandment given to Israel” as a people. What then is the reason that it begins with the creation? Should the nations of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers because you took unto yourselves the lands of the seven nations of Canaan,” they [Israel] may reply to them, “The whole world belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He. He gave it to whom He pleased, and according to His Will, He took it [the land] from them and gave it to us.”
This is a homiletic exposition3Found in Tanchuma (Buber), Bereshith 11. See also Rashi (Berliner) p. 424. as quoted by Rabbi Shlomo [Rashi] in his commentaries.
One may object that it was indeed very necessary to begin the Torah with the chapter of In the beginning G-d created for this is the root of faith, and he who does not believe in this and thinks the world was eternal denies the essential principle of the [Judaic] religion and has no Torah at all.4A person who thinks the world is eternal cannot believe in miracles since, if G-d did not create the world, He cannot possibly change it. Ramban explains in many places (e.g., see further, 17:1; 46:15) that all Divine promises concerning the blessings or imprecations which will follow upon our observance or disregard of the Torah are miraculous in nature of “invisible miracles.” A person who believes that the world is eternal thus has “no Torah at all.” See further my English work, Ramban: His Life and Teachings, Chapter 13.
The answer is that the process of creation is a deep mystery not to be understood from the verses, and it cannot truly be known except through the tradition going back to Moses our teacher who received it from the mouth of the Almighty, and those who know it are obligated to conceal it.5Chagigah 11 b: “The process of Creation may not be expounded before two.” It is for this reason that Rabbi Yitzchak said that it was not necessary for the Torah to begin with the chapter of In the beginning G-d created and the narration of what was created on the first day, what was done on the second and other days, as well as a prolonged account of the creation of Adam and Eve, their sin and punishment, and the story of the Garden of Eden and the expulsion of Adam from it, because all this cannot be understood completely from the verses. It is all the more unnecessary for the story of the generations of the flood and of the dispersion to be written in the Torah for there is no great need of these narratives, and, for people who believe in the Torah, it would suffice without these verses. They would believe in the general statement mentioned to them in the Ten Commandments: For in six days the Eternal made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day,6Exodus 20:11. and the knowledge of the process of creation would remain with individuals as a tradition from Moses who received the law on Sinai together with the Oral Torah.
Rabbi Yitzchak then gave a reason for it. The Torah began with the chapter of In the beginning G-d created and recounted the whole subject of creation until the making of man, how He [G-d] granted him dominion over the works of His hands, and that He put all things under his feet;7See Psalms 8:7. and how the Garden of Eden, which is the choicest of places created in this world, was made the place of his abode until his sin caused his expulsion therefrom; and how the people of the generation of the flood were completely expelled from the world on account of their sin, and the only righteous one among them — he [Noah] and his children — were saved; and how the sin of their descendants caused them to be scattered to various places and dispersed to different countries, and how subsequently they seized unto themselves places after their families, in their nations,8Genesis 10:5. as chance permitted. If so, it is proper that when a people continues to sin it should lose its place and another people should come to inherit its land, for such has been the rule of G-d in the world9The Hebrew word ba’aretz (world) may also refer here to “the land,” especially the Land of Israel. See Ramban further, 26:5. from the beginning. This is true all the more regarding that which is related in Scripture, namely that Canaan was cursed and sold as a servant forever.10Genesis 9:25. It would therefore not be proper that he inherit the choicest of places of the civilized world. Rather, the servants of G-d — the seed of His beloved one, Abraham11See Isaiah 41:8. — should inherit it, even as it is written, And He gave them the lands of the nations, and they took the labor of the peoples in possession; that they might keep His statutes, and observe His laws.12Psalms 105:44-45. That is to say, He expelled those who rebelled against Him, and settled therein those who served Him so that they know by serving Him they will inherit it, whereas if they sin against Him, the land will vomit them out, just as it vomited out the nation before them.13See Leviticus 18:28.
Elucidating the explanation I have written are the words of the Sages in Bereshith Rabbah, wherein they say as follows:141:3. “Rabbi Yehoshua, of the city of Siknin, in the name of Rabbi Levi opened [his discourse on this chapter of Creation with the verse]: He hath declared to His people the power of His works.15Psalms 111:6. Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, reveal to Israel what was created on the first day and what was created on the second day? It is on account of the seven nations who inhabited the land of Canaan, so that they should not taunt Israel and say to them: ‘Are you not a nation of robbers?’ Israel could then reply to them: ‘And you, is it not booty in your hands? Have not the Caphtorim that came forth from Caphtor destroyed them and dwelt in their stead?16Deuteronomy 2:23. The world and the fullness thereof belong to the Holy One, blessed be He. When He willed it, He gave it to you, and when He willed it, He took it from you and gave it to us.’ It is this which Scripture says, To give them the heritage of the nations.15Psalms 111:6. He hath declared to His people the power of His works in order to give them the heritage of the nations. Hence He told them the account of creation.”
There is yet another source for the subject I have mentioned: the mysteries in the process of creation. It is what our Rabbis of blessed memory have said:17This Midrash is quoted by Rambam in his Preface to Moreh Nebuchim. See Batei Midrashoth, ed. Wertheimer, I, p. 251. “He hath declared to His people the power of His works.15Psalms 111:6. To declare the power of the process of creation to a mortal being is impossible. Therefore, Scripture closed the matter: In the beginning G-d created.” Thus is elucidated what we have said on this subject.18That the details in the process of creation and the settlement of the earth were written for the purpose of justifying Israel’s possession of the land while the essential process of creation itself remains a mystery.
IN THE BEGINNING G-D CREATED. Rashi wrote: “This verse calls aloud for elucidation,19The difficulties in the verse are: (a) The word bereshith (in the beginning) appears throughout the Bible in a construct form such as: In the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 27:1). But here it cannot be in construct form since such a form can be used only in connection with a noun, and the word bara (He created) is a verb. (b) Again, it cannot be said that here bereshith is actually in a construct form and that a missing noun is implied, thus making the sense of the verse, “in the beginning of all, G—d created…,” for if so, the following difficulty presents itself: since Scripture, according to this interpretation, sets out to tell us the order in which things were created, why does it say in Verse 2 And the spirit of G-d hovered over the face of the waters when it has not yet told us when water was created? Hence Rashi turns to a Midrashic interpretation in which the word reshith is another name for the Torah and Israel. The word bereshith is thus not in a construct form but stands by itself, and the sense conveyed is: “For the sake of that which is reshith [Torah and Israel] G-d created.” as our Rabbis have explained it:20Bereshith Rabbah 1:6; Tanchuma (Buber) Bereshith 3. “For the sake of Torah which is called reshith, as it is said, The Eternal made me as ‘reshith’ (the beginning) of His way,21Proverbs 8:22. and for the sake of Israel who is called reshith, as it is said, Israel is the Eternal’s hallowed portion, the ‘reshith’ (first-fruits) of His increase.”22Jeremiah 2:3.
This Midrash of our Rabbis is very hidden and secret for there are many things the Rabbis found that are called reshith and concerning which they give Midrashic interpretations, and those wanting in faith count their multitude. For example, they [the Rabbis] have said:23Bereshith Rabbah 1:6. “For the merit acquired by [fulfilling the commandments associated with] three things has the world been created: for the merit of the Dough-offering, for the merit of Tithes and for the merit of the First-fruits. In the beginning G-d created. Reshith surely signifies the Dough-offering, as it is said, The first of your dough.24Numbers 15:20. Reshith surely signifies the Tithes, as it is said, The first of thy corn.25Deuteronomy 18:4. Reshith surely signifies the First-fruits, as it is said, The first-fruits of thy land.”26Exodus 23:19.
The Rabbis have further said:23Bereshith Rabbah 1:6. “For the merit acquired by Moses [the world has been created], as it is said, And he chose a first part for himself.”27Deuteronomy 33:21. Reference here is to Moses who took the territory of Kings Sihon and Og as he knew that his grave was to be therein. (See Rashi, ibid.) It was thus for the sake of this meritorious person, of whom reshith was said, that the world was created.
Their intent in the above texts is as follows: the word bereshith alludes to the creation of the world by Ten Emanations, and hints in particular to the emanation called Wisdom, in which is the foundation of everything, even as it says, The Eternal hath founded the earth by wisdom.28Proverbs 3:19. This is the Heave-offering [referred to in the Midrash mentioned above], and it is holy; it has no precise measure,29By law of the Torah, the Heave-offering given to the priest has no fixed measure; the owner may give according to his discretion. “Even one grain frees the whole mound” (Kiddushin 58 b). Similarly, our conception of Divine wisdom is infinitesimal in relation to its true scope. thus indicating the little understanding created beings have of it. Now just as a man counts ten measures — this alludes to the Ten Emanations — and sets aside one measure of the ten as a Tithe, so do the wise men contemplate the tenth Emanation and speak about it. The Dough-offering, which is the single commandment pertaining to the dough, alludes to this. Now Israel, which is called reshith as mentioned above, is “the congregation of Israel,” which is compared in the Song of Songs to a bride and whom Scripture in turn calls “daughter,” “sister” and “mother.” The Rabbis have already expressed this in a homiletic interpretation of the verse, Upon the crown wherewith his mother hath crowned him,30Song of Songs 3:11. and in other places. Similarly, the verse concerning Moses, And he chose a first part for himself,27Deuteronomy 33:21. Reference here is to Moses who took the territory of Kings Sihon and Og as he knew that his grave was to be therein. (See Rashi, ibid.) It was thus for the sake of this meritorious person, of whom reshith was said, that the world was created. which they [the Rabbis in the above Midrash] interpret to mean that Moses our teacher contemplated [the Deity] through a lucid speculum,31So clearly stated in Yebamoth 49b. and he saw that which is called reshith (the first) for himself, and therefore he merited the Torah. Thus all the above Midrashim have one meaning. Now it is impossible to discuss this explanation at length in writing, and even an allusion is dangerous since people might have thoughts concerning it which are untrue. But I have mentioned this [i.e., the above brief explanation] in order to close the mouths of those wanting in faith and of little wisdom, who scoff at the words of our Rabbis.
IN THE BEGINNING. Rashi wrote: “If you wish to explain it [the word bereshith] in accordance with its plain meaning, explain it thus: at the beginning of the creation of the heaven and earth, and the earth was formless and void and there was darkness, the Holy One, blessed be He, said, Let there be light.” If so, the whole text leads into the creation of light.
Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra explained it in an identical way. However, he established that the letter vav in the word veha’aretz (and the earth) does not şerve [as a connecting letter as it normally does and which would mean “and,” but it serves rather as the word “when.”] There are many such examples in Scripture. The meaning then according to Rabbi Abraham would be: at the beginning of the creation of heaven and dry land, there was no habitable place on earth; rather, it was unformed and void and covered with water, and G-d said, Let there be light. According to Abraham ibn Ezra’s opinion, only light32According to Rashi in Verse 6 (also 2:4), the sun, etc., was also created on the first day. was created on the first day.
The difficulty which Rabbi Shlomo [Rashi] had which led him to the above interpretation is, as he said: For if Scripture intended to teach the order in which the acts of creation took place, it should have written barishonah [instead of bereshith], since wherever the word reshith occurs in Scripture it is in the construct state. But there is the verse, Declaring the end ‘mereshith’ [from the beginning].33Isaiah 46:10. Here the word reshith is not in the construct state. And if one will connect it with the missing word davar [thing — thus making the verse read: “Declaring the end of a thing from the beginning of a thing”—] here too it could be connected to a missing word.34Thus reading: Bereshith kol, (In the beginning of everything [G—d created]). There is also the verse, And he chose ‘reshith’ (a first part) for himself.27Deuteronomy 33:21. Reference here is to Moses who took the territory of Kings Sihon and Og as he knew that his grave was to be therein. (See Rashi, ibid.) It was thus for the sake of this meritorious person, of whom reshith was said, that the world was created. [Here again the word reshith is not used in the construct state.] And Rashi raised other objections.
Now listen to the correct and clear explanation of the verse in its simplicity. The Holy One, blessed be He, created all things from absolute non-existence. Now we have no expression in the sacred language for bringing forth something from nothing other than the word bara (created). Everything that exists under the sun or above was not made from non-existence at the outset. Instead He brought forth from total and absolute nothing a very thin substance devoid of corporeality but having a power of potency, fit to assume form and to proceed from potentiality into reality. This was the primary matter created by G-d; it is called by the Greeks hyly (matter). After the hyly, He did not create anything, but He formed and made things with it, and from this hyly He brought everything into existence and clothed the forms and put them into a finished condition.
Know that the heavens and all that is in them consist of one substance, and the earth and everything that is in it consist of one substance. The Holy One, blessed be He, created these two substances from nothing;35Such is also the theory of Rambam: “All things on earth have one common substance; the heavens and the things in them have one substance different from the first” (Moreh Nebuchim II, 26). they alone were created, and everything else was constructed from them.
This substance, which the Greeks called hyly, is called in the sacred language tohu, the word being derived from the expression of the Sages:36Kiddushin 40b. “betohei (when the wicked bethinks himself) of his doings in the past.” If a person wants to decide a name for it [this primordial matter], he may bethink himself, change his mind and call it by another name since it has taken on no form to which the name should be attached. The form which this substance finally takes on is called in the sacred language bohu, which is a composite word made up of the two words bo hu (in it there is [substance]). This may be compared to the verse, Thou art not able ‘asohu’ (to perform it),37Exodus 18:18. in which case the word asohu is missing a vav and an aleph [and is a composite of the two words] aso hu. It is this which Scripture says, And he shall stretch over it the line of ‘tohu’ (confusion) and the stones of ‘bohu.’38Isaiah 34:11. “The stones,” which are forms in the building (as explained later on by Ramban), thus constitute substance as expressed in the Hebrew bohu. [The tohu in Hebrew or hyly in Greek] is the line by which the craftsman delineates the plan of his structure and that which he hopes to make. This is derived from the expression, Kavei (Hope) unto G-d.39Psalms 27:14. The stones are forms in the building. Similarly it is written, They are accounted by Him as nought and ‘tohu,’40Isaiah 40:17. as tohu comes after nothingness and there is nothing yet in it.
So the Rabbis have also said in Sefer Yetzirah:412:6. Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation) is one of the earliest Hebrew books of the Cabala tradition. (See introduction to Bereshith, Note 56.) Some of the profoundest mystic commentaries have been written on this book. See my Hebrew work, Kithvei Haramban, Vol. 2, pp. 451-461. “He created substance from tohu, and made that which was nothing something.”
They have furthermore said in the Midrash of Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah:42Called also Sefer Habahir (Book of the Bright Light), 2. This book too is a classic in the mystic teachings of the Cabala. It was written in the style and manner of the Midrashim. “Rabbi Berachyah said: ‘What is the meaning of the verse, And the earth was ‘tohu’ (without form) ‘vavohu’ (and void)? What is the meaning of the word “was?” It had already been tohu. And what is tohu? It is a thing which astonishes people. It was then turned into bohu. And what is bohu? It is a thing which has substance, as it is written, [bohu is a composite of the two words] ‘bo hu’ (in it there is substance).’”
AND ‘ELOKIM’ (G-D) SAID. The word Elokim means “the Master of all forces,” for the root of the word is e-il, meaning force, and the word Elokim is a composite consisting of the words e-il heim, as if the word e-il is in a construct state, and heim, [literally] “they,” alludes to all other forces. Thus Elokim means “the Force of all forces.” A secret will yet be disclosed in connection with this.43See Ramban, Exodus 20:3.
If so, the simple correct explanation of the verse is as follows: In the beginning44Ramban thus indicates his opinion that the word bereshith is not in a construct state. This is contrary to Rashi, as explained above. G-d created the heavens means He brought forth their matter from nothing; and the earth means that He brought forth its matter from nothing. And the earth, includes all the four elements,45Fire, wind, water, and earth. [not merely the land] as in the verse, And the heaven and the earth were finished,46Genesis 2:1. which includes the entire lower sphere, and in Praise the Eternal from the earth, ye sea-monsters, and all deeps,47Psalms 148:7. and as in many other verses. Now with this creation, which was like a very small point having no substance, everything in the heavens and on the earth was created. The word eth —[eth hashamayim ve’eth ha’aretz] — is like “the essence of a thing.” The Sages have always set it forth as serving to include,48Pesachim 22b. since it is derived from the expression, The morning ‘atha’ (cometh), and also the night.49Isaiah 21:12. And so did our Rabbis say:50Bereshith Rabbah 1:19. “‘Eth hashamayim (the heavens)’ — eth includes the sun, moon, stars and constellations. ‘Ve’eth ha’aretz (and the earth)’ — ve’eth includes the trees, herbs, and the Garden of Eden.” These include all created things which are corporeal.
Now after having said that with one command G-d created at first the heavens and the earth and all their hosts, Scripture returns and explains that the earth after this creation was tohu, that is, matter without substance. It became bohu when He clothed it with form. Then it [Scripture] explains that in this form was included the form of the four elements: fire, water, earth, and air. The word ha’aretz (the earth) includes these four elements. In this verse, the element of fire is called “darkness”51And darkness was upon the face of the deep. So also explained in the Moreh Nebuchim, II:30: “By Choshech the element fire is meant, nothing else.” Ramban’s reasoning on this point is also found there. because the elemental fire is dark. Were it red, it would redden the night for us. The element of water with which the dust was kneaded is here called “deep.”51And darkness was upon the face of the deep. So also explained in the Moreh Nebuchim, II:30: “By Choshech the element fire is meant, nothing else.” Ramban’s reasoning on this point is also found there. This is why the waters of the oceans are called “the deeps,” as it is written, The deeps cover them;52Exodus 15:15. The deeps were congealed;53Ibid., 8. The deep was round about me.54Jonah 2:6. The bottom of the ocean is also referred to as “deep:” And He rebuked the Red Sea, and it was dried up, and He led them through the depths, as a wilderness;55Psalms 106:9. He led them through the deep as a horse in the wilderness.56Isaiah 63:13. And the element air is here called “spirit.”57And the spirit of G-d hovered over the face of the waters.
Now it is already known that the four elements fill up the whole space with matter.58“This sphere in its totality is composed of the celestial orbs, the four elements and their combinations; there is no vacuum whatever therein, but the whole space is filled up with matter.” (Guide of the Perplexed, Friedlander’s translation, I, 72.) That which stands still is the sphere of earth. The waters surround the earth, the air encompasses the waters, and the fire envelopes the air.59From the language of Rambam, ibid. It is to be noted that Ramban follows Yehudah al Charizi’s translation of Rambam’s philosophic work and not that of Shmuel ibn Tibbon. See my Hebrew work, The Life of Ramban, pp. 23-24, on the far-reaching significance of this point. Scripture thus states that the earth took on form, and the fire above enveloped the intermingled waters and dust, and the wind blew and rose in the darkness and hovered over the waters.
It appears to me that this [primeval] point, [which G-d created out of absolute nought], which took on form and became bohu, is what the Sages call:60Yoma 54b. This “foundation rock” is the stone on which the Ark of the Covenant rested in the Holy of Holies in King Solomon’s Temple. “‘The rock of foundation’ from which the world was founded.”
The purport of the verses is thus: In the beginning G-d created the heavens from nought, and He created the earth from nought. The earth, when created, was tohu and then it became bohu, and in these there were “darkness” [i.e., fire, as explained above], water, dust and the wind blowing upon the water. Thus everything was created and made. The reason why ruach (wind) is attached to the name of G-d [as it says, and the spirit of God] is that it is the least substantial of all elements61Although fire is thinner than wind, since the element of fire is alluded to in the verse by the word “darkness,” as explained above, it would not be fitting to attach it to the name of G—d. (Bachya). and is above them, hovering upon the face of the waters only by command of the Holy One, blessed be He.
In case you seek information concerning the creation of the incorporeal angels, you will not find it explained in the Torah. The Sages, however, have explained concerning them that they were created on the second day, so that you should not say that they assisted in the creation of the world.62Bereshith Rabbah 3:11. But if you will merit and understand the secret of the word bereshith and why Scripture does not begin by saying, “G-d created in the beginning,” you will know that, in the way of truth,63A reference to the true wisdom of the Cabala which enables one to grasp the mysteries of the Torah. Scripture tells about the lower creations and alludes to the higher ones and that the word bereshith refers covertly to the Emanation called Wisdom, which is the head of all beginnings, as I have mentioned. This is why they translated bereshith in the Jerusalem Targum to mean “in wisdom,” and the word is adorned in the Torah with a crown on the letter beth.64The adornment on the top of the letter beth hints at the Kether (Crown) above, from which all emanations issue. It is also referred to as Ein Sof (the Infinite). See my Hebrew commentary, p. 15.