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The Discussion Of Creation On Rosh HaShanah
In the Talmud Bavli (Rosh HaShanah 11a-b) there is a mahloket between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua regarding whether the creation of the world took place in the month of Tishrei or the month of Nissan. While Rabbi Eliezer maintains that the former position, Rabbi Yehoshua is adamant of the later. While both views eventually took on their own respective midrashic implications, only the view of Rabbi Eliezer was accepted for halakhic purposes (cf. b.Rosh HaShanah 27b).
The Baal HaTurim, commenting on the first pasuk of Sefer Breishit, refers to the well-known fact that the letters of בראשית can be rearranged to spell א’ בתשרי (“the first of [the month of] Tishrei”) which would cause the opening phrase of the Torah to be homiletically read as, א’ בתשרי ברא אלוקים – “On the first of Tishrei Elohim created [the heavens and the earth].” This is seen – at least by the author of the Baal HaTurim, Yaakov ben Asher – as decisive proof Rabbi Eliezer’s position on the matter.
As is pointed out by several Talmudic commentators, the actual discussion between these two Tannaim is not when the world was created, but specifically when man – the ultimate purpose of the world – was created (cf. Tosafot on b.Rosh HaShanah 8a, and the Ran on the Rif to b.Rosh HaShanah 3a). In other contexts it is related explicitly that Adam was created on the day of Rosh HaShanah itself (cf. Vayikra Rabbah 29:1, and implied in Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer, chapter 8). Thus, both the creation of the world and the creation of Adam Ha-Rishon have been traditional subjects (among others) which make up the study and spirituality of Rosh HaShanah.
Breishit 1-2: Two Creation Stories?
A discussion of creation and the origins of man necessarily brings one to the first two chapters of Parashat Breishit. However, due to the yearly cycle of sidrot both ending and beginning anew within the same festival week on Shemini Atseret (popularly “Simhat Torah”), it rarely – if ever – is apportioned the same one-week period for its study as is the case with the other portions of the Torah throughout the year. Therefore, it makes sense to take the thematic opportunity in the month of Elul to take a closer look at the account of creation found in the opening chapters of the Humash.
As is well-known, the narratives contained in the first two chapters of Sefer Breishit tell very different stories, each seeming to have a respective account of “creation.” This unfortunately has led many to err and assume that these chapters represent two ancient Mesopotamian accounts of the creation of the world which were placed at the beginning of the Torah by a “redactor” who, being religiously unable to decide between them, ultimately settled on including them both. This position has grown to be almost standard in most academic circles of critical Biblical scholarship. However, I would like to suggest that this reading of the text is premature. The claims of redaction and the presence of separate contradictory stories are made in an attempt to account for the various glaring differences between them. However, a question not often considered is: How different do two stories need to be before we must conclude that they were never meant to be the same story? The common position of critical Biblical scholarship – and particularly the Documentary Hypothesis – asserts that Breishit 1-2 were at one time two narrative with conflicting details, but once the Hebrew of the Biblical text is properly examined and understood in context – being taken at face value – it can be clearly seen that these two stories are actually one continuous narrative speaking about different things. Further, when we note certain general findings in the field of anthropology, we find that the cohesive truth of the Torah comes into uncanny focus.
The Rambam’s Use Of Anthropology
It is often wondered whether there is validity to using anthropology to aid our understanding of the Torah. However, the use of relevant cultural, scientific, and historical information is the hallmark of many commentators, from Rav Saadia Gaon to Rashi and many others throughout the ages of Jewish history.
One of the most well-known usages of anthropological texts amongst the Rishonim is found in the Guide to the Perplexed of the Rambam. He makes heavy reference to the culture of the “Sabeans” whom he understood as being a people extant during the lifetime of Avraham and the Avot. Additionally, he refers extensively to a work cited as the “Book of Nabatean Agriculture” which Rambam presents as giving a direct look into the practices of the ancient Canaanite societies of Erets Yisrael (cf. Guide 3:29, et al).
Using these tools, the Rambam comes to many conclusions about the meaning and intent of certain mitsvot that are unique and which are not necessarily in line with the views of his predecessors. He was well aware that as the world progresses, the knowledge of history progresses and it is therefore not only possible but important to use what is available to us in order to better understand the Torah.
Examples of such conclusions, based directly on the “Book of Nabatean Agriculture,” and are in response to ancient pagan agricultural practices. In 3:37 of the Guide, the Rambam explains that the laws of orlah (not eating or benefiting from the fruit of a newly planted tree in its first three years – cf. Vayikra 19:23-25) are to prevent a certain act of witchcraft, wherein the “Sabeans” (an ancient people that the Rambam is convinced by his cultural-anthropological studies are contemporaries of Avraham) put a certain rotted matter around the base of a tree, accompanied by some incantations, as a way to ensure growth. He also explains there that the laws against kilayim (planting mixed seeds in a field) and the cross-grafting of fruit trees stem from similar idolatrous concerns. Throughout the Guide, but especially in the third volume, the Rambam describes the ancient context and cultures of the Biblical world through his research into the pagan and pantheistic cultures of the time. In his view, there was simply no other way to study and obtain an understanding of the practical reasons behind the legal pronouncements of the Torah.
Breishit 1-2: How Are They Different?
While there are many differences between the First Narrative (henceforth FN) and Second Narrative (henceforth SN) of the creation account, I will attempt to highlight those generally viewed as the most significant.
- FN recounts a creation of heaven and earth in six days (1:1ff, 2:1-2), while SN states that they were created in a single day (2:4).
- FN begins with “the beginning” (1:1) in a seemingly ultimate sense while SN begins with the world already created (2:4-5).
- FN mentions the creation of light, day, and night (1:3-5), the sky or atmosphere (1:6-8), land and seas (1:9-10), sun, moon, and stars (1:14-18), fish and sea life (1:20-22) – SN mentions none of them.
- SN mentions a “garden” in a place named Eden (2:8,10,15), four rivers (i.e. Pishon, Gihon, Hidekel, and Farat), specific outlying geographical locations (i.e. Havilah, Gihon, Kush, Asshur), and precious metals and stones that are indigenous to the region of Havilah (2:10-14) – FN mentions none of them.
- FN presents a chronology wherein vegetation is created first (1:11-12), then animals (1:24-25), and then mankind (1:26-27), whereas the chronology of SN has first the formation of man (2:7-8), then vegetation (2:9), and then animals (2:19).
- In FN man and woman appear to be created simultaneously (1:26-17) and both of them only after plants and animals have already been created. In SN man is created first (2:7), then plants (2:8-9), then animals (2:19-20), and then woman (2:21-25).
It is also important to note some key differences in Hebrew terminology between FN and SN. The terminology is listed below and then defined in the following section.
- Creation – In Breishit 1-2 the operative terms of “creation” are bara (ברא), asah (עשה), and yatsar (יצר). FN uses only the bara and asah, while SN uses only yatsar (with a single couplet usage of bara and asah in the introductory statement of 2:4).
- Earth – The terminology used for “earth” are more diverse: arets (ארץ), adamah (אדמה), and gan (גן). With a single exception (1:25 – adamah is used as an Adjectival Noun to describe a certain type of animal), FN uses only arets, while SN uses mostly a combination of adamah and gan (the exceptions being the use of arets in the introductory statement in 2:4-2:5 and in reference to certain outlying regions in 2:11-13).
- God – In reference to “God,” FN exclusively uses Elohim (א-להים), while SN uses HaShem-Elohim (הוי”ה א-להים).
From the above list of narrative and linguistic discrepancies between the two accounts of Breishit it should become clear that the differences between them are neither subtle or nuanced. Instead, there is a clear and fundamental diversion of SN from FN, all the while maintaining central themes between them – the Creator, the world, and man.
Lashon HaKodesh: No Synonyms
When these two accounts are read – especially when in English translation – it is often taken for granted that words used in reference to creation, earth, and God are either the same or similar. Even among those who are aware of the essential differences in Hebrew terminology (some of which are listed above), there is a tendency to see these terms as synonymous with one another. It is perhaps from this simplistic error, more than anything else, that the difficulty and confusion among critical Biblical scholars arises in attempting to interpret FN and SN.
The assumption of synonymous language is only made worse when the difference in Hebrew terminology is ascribed to multiple authors, each of which are supposedly using their own unique literary style to relate the same story in contradictory fashion – an a priori assumption which is based on similar unnecessary a priori ontological commitments to multiple authors. Noting such abrupt differences in almost every aspect, a student of the Biblical text must ask themselves at what point it must be concluded that the two narratives are not telling the same story in contradictory fashion, but they are instead telling two different stories.
The Rambam in the Guide dedicates the majority of the first section to making distinctions between various words and phrases used in Biblical Hebrew which appear to be synonyms but in reality are not – their respective nuances being essential for a proper understanding of both the Tanakh and, by extension, the incorporeality and unity of HaShem. There are places in Hazal which either list different Biblical terms used to refer to the same concept or which comment on the use of two words used in similar passages of the Torah. However, the overwhelming consensus among Torah scholars is that although lashon ha-kodesh (i.e. Hebrew used in the Tanakh) contains general synonyms, it does not contain any true synonyms (cf. Malbim, Mevo HaMahberet and Yair Or). While being generally similar in meaning and scope, words in lashon ha-kodesh always maintain a unique meaning and purpose which makes them wholly distinct from all other similar terms.
For a Semitic language such as Hebrew, one which likely began as purely logographic (each symbol representing a word or idea) and eventually – like many Ancient Near Eastern languages – became a purely phonetic language, it makes sense that every word is unique and has no true synonyms, even if it has a relative synonym. Due to the tri-radical system of roots used by Hebrew – which anciently were a combination of [usually] three logograms – many times words which appear to be generally synonymous are in actuality vastly different from one another.
The following is a list of basic definitions of the Hebrew terms listed above:
[A] Arets (ארץ) – A general term for earth or land, which includes all strata within in it and what is on the surface (cf. Malbim, Yair Or – Ot Alef, 42).
[B] Adamah (אדמה) – Denotes “soil” and is used to refer to the top layers of earth (cf. Malbim, Ibid.)
[C] Bara (ברא) – Creation of something from nothing (i.e. yesh me-ayin יש מאין); not necessarily absolute nothingness, but rather the creation of a thing which did not exist prior (cf. Ibn Ezra on Breishit 1:1, Rambam, Guide 2:30, and Malbim, Yair Or, 10:9).
[D] Asah (עשה) – According to some commentators (cf. Rambam, ibid.), asah is a general term for action which can take on the nuances of other verbs used in conjunction with it (essentially equating it in FN with bara). According to others (cf. Malbim, ibid.), it specifically communicates the idea of completing something.
[E] Yatsar (יצר) – The verb form of the word tsurah (צורה), meaning “form” (cf. Malbim, ibid.), it denotes the application of a physical attribute (i.e. “accident”) to an already existing substance (cf. Rambam, ibid.). In other words, the creation or modification of something which existed previously.
[F] Elohim (א-להים) – Used in reference to God when performing strict justice, i.e. calculating and inflexible (cf. Breishit Rabbah 12:15 & 14:1, Shemot Rabbah 30:13, and Pesikta Rabbati 40. See also Rashi on Breishit 1:1). It is also the plural of eloah (אלוה) which is the general term for “god” or “deity,” being coupled with singular verbs when used in reference to God – the plural being what the grammarians call the pluralis excellentiae (“plural of excellence”) or pluralis majestatis (“plural of majesty” – often referred to as the “Royal We”), of which there are many examples in the Tanakh, even in reference to great human figures or those occupying positions of political power (cf. Rav Saadia Gaon, HaNivhar Emunot Ve-Deot II:6). The word underlying both elohim and eloah is el (אל) which can mean deity, but also “power” or “judge.” As such, term can even be used to refer to human judges or courts (cf. Shemot 21:6, Tehilim 82:1, et al).
[G] HaShem (הוי”ה) – The Four-Letter Name, this name of God denotes principally the attribute of mercy (cf. Ibid.). Known also as the Shem Ha-Meforash, this name most aptly expresses the personality and actions of the Creator (cf. Rambam, Guide 1:61) in relation to mankind, and especially Am Yisrael (cf. Shemot 6:1-2, and see Rashi there).
Macro & Micro: Putting It All Together
Based on the above-listed definitions, differences in general context (also listed above), as well as many other details which are too many to enumerate here, it should be clearly seen that is indeed possible to propose an informed and non-forced reading of FN and SN that shows them to be continuous not contradictory at all.
In basic terms, FN (Breishit 1:1-2:3) should be understood to giving a macro perspective – the overall creation of the world (i.e. every location in the world) – and SN (Breishit 2:4-2:25) to be presenting a micro perspective – the development of Adam and Havah in the garden (i.e. in a specific location in the world, namely Eden). In other words, it might be said that FN is dealing with physical cosmology while SN is dealing with anthropology.
In this vein, the following understanding can be easily proposed:
FN begins with a generic declaration of the creation by God (1:1) and then proceeds to describe a planet which is tohu va-vohu (1:2) – “astonishingly empty” according to Rashi and “completely covered with deep waters like an ocean” according to Rav Saadia Gaon – with the unrealized potential for organic life. After this brief introduction, we see the stages of development from the perspective of the entire planet (which may or may not be intended to be sequential) in a series of separations – light and darkness, clouds and seas, water and dry land, etc. – and a series of generations – vegetation, fish, birds, animals, etc. In the end, we see the creation of mankind, creating them generically as “male and female” with a divinely-appointed purpose to rule the earth (1:26-28).
SN begins with a declaration acknowledging the events of FN, but then proceeds to announce the presentation of the toledot (“outcomes” or “recorded genealogy”) of the creation of heaven and earth (2:4). It begins with noting that no vegetation had sprouted, but uses a curious modifying noun “of the field” (2:5, ha-sadeh) which denotes crops which are cultivated rather than just general flora. In fact, the text of SN explicitly attributes the lack of such cultivated crops being due to that fact of there being “no man to work the soil” (2:5). Man is “formed” (2:7, vayyitser…et ha-adam, from yatsar) – meaning that there was a pre-existing creature known as man that was imbued with a divinely-bestowed faculty that enabled human spirituality, rationality, and intelligence (cf. Ramban on Breishit 2:7, Sforno on Breishit 1:26, and Rambam, Guide 1:7). After “the” man (ha-adam in 2:7 – note the definite article) is formed, he is placed in a garden (2:8, 2:15) which has fruit trees (2:9) and rivers flowing from it, which flow to neighboring lands which are deemed good for mining various metals and stones (2:10-14). The intention of the man being placed there is to engage it agriculturally (2:15). Shortly after this, various animals “of the field” (2:19-20, see above explanation) are “formed” – i.e., “domesticated” (cf. Rashi and Rav Saadia Gaon on 2:19) – and then given names by the man (2:20), which in an Ancient Near Eastern context implies ownership. A woman suitable for the man’s new pursuits is provided for him (2:21-25) and the couple becomes the model for future marital relationships among mankind (2:24).
The basic components of both FN and SN may also be seen as follows:
|Creation of the human species in general
||Specific human couple being “formed” (i.e. modified) into spiritual and fully rational beings
|Creation of the world and what it contains (i.e. a general perspective)
||Formation of a “garden” (i.e. agricultural plot) in a specific location, complete with cultivated crops and domesticated animals
|God is referred to by Elohim, creating definite boundaries and physical “laws” (i.e. the natural order) as applies to the universe as a physical entity – i.e. the raw natural order
||God is referred to by HaShem Elohim, creating a defined system of human society, industry, and relationships (HaShem being a name signifying self-expression and covenant-devotion to human beings) – i.e. the raw natural order plus the imposition of man’s rational faculty on that order
Far from being contradictory, FN and SN constitute the Torah’s expression of two different and important beginnings – general and specific – each account complimenting the other.
The Neolithic Revolution
According to modern anthropology, humans have undergone several stages of development. The longest stage of human development lasted from their inception (estimated around 2.6 million years ago) until around 5,000-10,000 years ago, known generally as the Paleolithic and Mesolithic eras. During this time, humans were hunter-gatherers that were basically nomadic and lived in groups, very much akin to packs of animals. They had no developed language, only primitive superstition as their religion (if any), and no technology other than primitive implements made of stone, bone, and wood. They ate only what they could fish, hunt, gather from the wild, or scavenge. Human life continued this way until the time which anthropologists call the Neolithic Revolution.
General estimates are proposed for its subtle beginnings (i.e 10-15,000 years ago), but generally date its most complex and punctuated phase (a sort of “boom”) in the region of Mesopotamia (and particularly in region of Sumer in southern Mesopotamia, the site of modern-day Iraq) between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. This estimate works well if we understand the current Jewish calendar as being representative of the record from mankind in the “Garden” (retrojected at some point when calendrical years began to be tracked by human society) rather than being representative of the complete span of time since the initial creation – which is dated at roughly 13.5 billion years ago.
Thus, Breishit 2:4-2:25 seems to record (not in the technical sense) the evolution of Adam and his mate, Havah, and their sanctification by HaShem from the primitive, brutish (and one could even say that in many ways it was animalistic) hunter-gatherer mode of life, to a more refined pair of the human species which engaged in cultivation of plants for harvest, domestication of fowl and livestock, the systematic use of language, spirituality, monogamy, and other positive developments of the Neolithic Revolution. These developments set the stage for the eventual building of civilizations and societies (cf. Breishit 3-4), which in turn set the stage for the very purpose of the world: Israel and the observance of the Torah (cf. Rashi on Breishit 1:1).
The ultimate goal of this divine bestowal and direction of human development is to refine a person in his relationship with God and with his fellow man (cf. Rambam, Guide 3:27), leading to the merit of Olam HaBa.
Rosh HaShanah, Teshuvah, & Humanity
“Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a decree of the pasuk, it has in it an allusion [to something deeper], as if to say, ‘Awake, awake you sleepers from your sleep! And arise slumberers from you slumber! Search your deeds, return in teshuvah, and remember your Creator…”
– Rambam, Misneh Torah – Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4
The connection between the theme of teshuvah and creation on Rosh HaShanah is that we, as the Jewish Nation, are called by the kol shofar to return to our essential God-given human distinctions and fully acknowledge the Source of all existence, HaKadosh Barukh Hu. The Torah reminds us of our “animal” potential and the need to re-dedicate ourselves to the ways in which we are different than the animalistic cultures which bustle around us (cf. Rambam, Pirush HaMishnayot – Intro to Sanhedrin 10:1) while we labor in the “garden” of the Torah and the mitsvot (cf. Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on Breishit 2:15). In other words, we are not supposed to be merely “humans” but “Jews” (cf. b.Keritot 6b, b.Bava Metsia 114b, and Maharal mi-Prag, Tiferet Yisrael, chapter 1).
Breishit 1-2 give us a deep explanation of our origins. It tells us that without that which we share in common with the Divine, we are merely an animal living in the outward form of a human body, but not truly people. We would all do well to remember the fate of Nevukhadhnetsar in Sefer Daniel (chapter 4) when HaShem removed from him his Tselem Elohim (“Divine Image”) for a period of seven years. The passage says that the lesson for Nevukhadhnetsar in being made to live like an animal was so that he would “know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of man, and to whomever He wills, He gives it.” (ibid. 4:29)
When hearing the tekiot ha-shofar on Rosh HaShanah, may we all awaken from the sleep of complacency, shake off the slumber of exile, consider our ways, return to the Torah of HaShem our Creator, and recognize that there is only One King who should rule absolutely in kingdoms of mankind.
“Hotamo shel HaKadosh Barukh Hu emet – The seal of the Holy One Blessed is He is truth.” (b.Shabbat 55a)
“Gemar Be-Hathimah Tovah! – Finish with a good seal!”