There is a particularly “Jewish way” of reading the Bible that is notably different from the way that other religious traditions read their sacred texts. Because Judaism sees Torah as being divinely gifted to us, there is an assumption that every tiny detail of the Torah has significance and meaning. Sometimes, we even search out minute grammatical clues to find hidden secrets within the text. Judaism tends to read the Torah with a figurative microscope.
Often, modern Jews view such attention to the Bible’s minutiae as an exercise in hyper-pious navel gazing. Sometimes, we think that attention to tiny detail is just a way of finding whatever it is that we want to find in the text. Both of those things, I think, are sometimes true, but I have found that extremely close readings of the text can often reveal insights that are both profound and clearly part of the Torah’s true intention. This week’s Torah portion contains a classic example of a minute detail that carries tremendous meaning.
Let’s start at the beginning…literally. This week’s Torah portion is B’reishit, the first Torah portion that begins our annual reading of the Torah. It’s famous first words are, “B’reishit bara Elohim,” which is usually translated as, “In the beginning, God created…” On the whole, it is not a bad way of putting the words into English. However, this translation fails to convey a stunning fact about Hebrew grammar and the Bible. The very first verse of the Bible, the very first word, and the very first letter, contains what may be called a grammatical “mistake.”
One thousand years ago, the great commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (known as Rashi), observed that the word b’reishit cannot be explained grammatically in this verse. The vowel called “sh’va” is under the letter bet in the word b’reishit, which means that the word must be in the “construct state” (s’michut). This is the form of a noun that is the first part of a noun-noun pair. (We have noun-noun pairs in English, too, in words and phrases like “doorknob,” “dining room” and “house-builder.” However, in Hebrew, unlike English, there are complicated grammatical rules for creating such pairs.) Because the word b’reishit is in the construct state, it should be translated as “In the beginning of.” If the text had wanted to say “In the beginning, God created,” there would have been a simple way of saying that by changing the sh’va to a kamatz –”bareishit” instead of “b’reishit.”
Rashi points out that in every other place in the Hebrew Bible that contains the word b’reishit (there are four more of them) the word clearly has this meaning. For example, in Jeremiah 26:1 we read, “B’reishit mamlechut Yehoyakim,” “In the beginning of the kingdom of Jehoiakim.” The form of the word b’reishit can only mean “in the beginning of...,” and the word that follows it should be a noun that answers the question, “in the beginning of what?”
The problem – from a grammatical point of view – is that the word following b’reishit in Genesis 1:1 is not a noun. The next word is bara, a verb that means, “He created.” A word-by-word translation of the whole phrase, b’reishit bara Elohim, would have to be something like: “In the beginning of God created.” Obviously, that is not going to work as a translation into English because it doesn’t make any sense in English.
How do we understand, then, the first three words of the Hebrew Bible? Why does the Bible begin with a phrase that is such an untranslatable, ungrammatical mess? Obviously, it is not just a “mistake.” The unusual grammar of the first word of the Bible – even though very small – must have some intentional significance. As Rashi says, the detail is screaming out to be interpreted.
When did God create the world? It was in the beginning of God created the world. The tautology makes no grammatical sense or temporal sense, but it makes great spiritual sense. The world was created, but it never stopped being created. The world has a beginning, but it is a beginning that has never ceased.
The Torah begins by telling us that it does not exist in time the way that other stories do. It exists in a suspended moment that cannot be pinpointed on a timeline. The difference of one little vowel in the pronunciation of one word can convey a meaning that can change the way we read the entire Torah.
“B’reishit bara Elohim.” In the beginning of the beginning that is always beginning, God created the creation that is still.
RABBI JEFFREY GOLDWASSER is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai in Cranston. He is the author of the blog “Reb Jeff,” from which this d’var Torah is adapted.