Congregation Ohave Shalom - Young Israel of Pawtucket

On-line Tanach Class
In the Beginning...

1. What is the role of the first Pasuk in Bereishis, in relation to the rest of the story of Creation? Is it a description of the six days which follow in the Torah, or is it a prologue, depicting the creation of Heaven and Earth before the creation of life on Earth?

2. What are the "Heavens" and "Earth" described in the Creation in the first verse in the Torah?

Re-defining "Bereishis"

Ibn Ezra

There are two central approaches to the questions above, and their point of difference lies in an understanding of the word, "Bereishis," the very first word in the Torah.

The standard translation of "Bereishis" is "In the beginning," and one might think this an unassailable understanding. However, according to the Ibn Ezra, this is incorrect. Note the "Yud-Tav" at the end of the word. Says Ibn Ezra, this indicates "Semichus," a link between that word and the next. The difference between "In the beginning" and "Bereishis" is akin to the difference between "son" and "son of." Hence, Ibn Ezra views the proper translation of "Bereishis" as "In the beginning of," rather than "In the beginning."

Let us re-visit the first sentence in the Torah. "In the beginning of;" the beginning of what? The Ibn Ezra argues that it is: "In the beginning of Gd's creation of the heavens and the earth." Stated differently, this sentence is a headline for the Creation story. "In the beginning of Gd's creation of the heavens and the earth, and the earth was..."

The Ibn Ezra is not the only one to adopt this view. Rashi presents this as the literal reading of the words, stating, "Should you come to explain it in its literal sense, explain it thus: In the beginning of the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the earth was..."

This approach follows through into an understanding of what "Shamayim" and "Eretz" are. Ibn Ezra argues that "Shamayim" refers to the physical "sky," and is synonymous with the term "Rakia" to be used later. He understands "Eretz" as the physical "earth," synonymous with "Yabashah," which appears later. The rest of Creation is merely an explanation of how this came about.


The second approach to this verse is articulated by Ramban. He understands the first verse as a prologue describing initial, pre-Creation events. According to Ramban, "Shamayim" is not the physical realm which we term "the heavens." Rather, "Shamayim" describes a "Chomer Hiyuli," a super-form which is of one nature, and "Eretz" describes another super-form of a different nature. From these two entities, everything else was created. There is an instant of creation from nothing, and then the rest of Creation is the metamorphosis of raw materials into their final forms.

Ramban recognizes the grammatical difficulties raised by the word, "Bereishis," but ultimately he rejects the notion that the meaning of "Bereishis" must be defined by other usages of "Reishis" in the Torah. Terming "Bereishis" an hapax legonum. ["Hapax legonum" refers to a term of singular usage and meaning within a text] is not beyond the pale of acceptable interpretation.


This difference also carries into an understanding of the verb, "Bara." According to Ramban, this refers to creation of the physical [matter or energy] from nothing, without any raw material. This is the creation of the initial Heaven and Earth raw materials.

Ibn Ezra argues against this, though, pointing out that there are other uses of the verb, "Bara," which are not descriptive of creation ex nihilo. [In later essays we will come across two examples - " HaTaninim [1:21]," and "Zachar Unekeivah Bara Osam [1:26]" - and elaborate on them there.] According to Ibn Ezra, "Bara" does not have to imply creation from nothing; it could also imply creation, and demarcation of limits.

Tohu / Bohu

Their dispute also carries into 1:2, and the odd terms, "Tohu" and "Bohu."

According to Ramban, "Eretz" is a metaphysical form, a primeval matter from which all matter would emerge. Based on this idea, 1:2 is to be understood in metaphysical references, too.

The translation, based on Ramban's view, is: "And the physical super-matter was intangible, yet containing all of the basic elements of the universe [Tohu], and it was given a form [Bohu]. There was darkness, as primeval Fire did not cast light, but was a contained form of energy, instead." "Tehom," "the depths," refers to the combination of Earth and Water. "Ruach Elokim" denotes a description of Gd in the best terms a human can comprehend, identifying the ethereal "Air" with the untouchable and distant Gd, floating above the Water.

According to Ibn Ezra, our story is completely different. He defines "Eretz" as the physical planet Earth, and he views 1:2 as a continuing description of the forming of our planet.

Ibn Ezra translates the verse this way: "The physical planet was empty [Tohu and Bohu], and there was darkness on the depths. The wind was carrying out a mission as an emissary of Gd, to dry out the water and make the land habitable."

Day 2

On looking at the Creation of Days 2 and 3, though, Ibn Ezra would appear to be in trouble. After all, look at what is created then: the land and the heavens [1:6-10], which Ibn Ezra said were created back on Day 1! For Ramban there is no problem; the "Shamayim" and "Eretz" of 1:1-2 were metaphysical, and the descriptions on Days 2 and 3 are of the physical, mundane plane.

The Ibn Ezra responds to his problem by pointing out that the verb used in the "creation" of Day 2 and Day 3 is not "Bara," but rather, "Asah." "Asah" connotes a form of creation akin to preparation of materials which are already there. Hence, the earth and heavens were created beforehand; this was merely re-arrangement and preparation of what was there. The Ramban himself brings a similar approach, to resolve the problem facing those who disagree with him.

  • Main Chumash Page
  • Main Archive of Classes Page
  • Main Ohave Shalom Page