Sunday, March 21, 2010

Genesis Rabbah I,X: The ABCs of Creation

Why was the world created with a B? So asks R. Jonah in Genesis Rabbah I.X. Why was the world created with a word starting with B (Hebrew bere’shit)? If someone asked me that, I would exclaim, “What?! Do you lie awake nights thinking of these things?” But the answer is probably yes – things like this kept students of the Torah in Late Antiquity tossing and turning until they could discuss the question ad infinitum. Here is part of the discussion from Genesis Rabbah I.X.

למה בב׳ להודיעך שהן שני עולמים, ד״א למה נברא בב׳ שהוא לשון ברכה, ולמה לא בא׳ שהוא בלשון ארירה, ד״א למה לא בא׳ שלא ליתן פתחון פה למינים לומר היאך העולם יכול לעמוד והוא נברא בלשון ארירה, אלא אמר הקב״ה הריני בוראו בלשון ברכה והלווי שיעמוד׃
Why (was the world created) with a B? To make known to you that there are two worlds. (The letter B carries the numerical value of 2 in Hebrew. The reference is to this world and the world to come.) Another interpretation: Why was the world created with a B? Because it begins the word “blessing”. And why not with A? Because it begins the word “curse” (in Hebrew). Another interpretation: Why not with A? So that an opening might not be given to the minim (that is, apostates, infidels, or heretics) to say, “How will the world be able to stand when it was created with a letter standing for “curse”? But rather, the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “Behold, I created it with the letter standing for “blessing” and by this association (?) may it stand!
ד״א למה בב׳ מה ב׳ זה יש לו ב׳ עוקצים אחד למעלה ואחד לאחריו, אומרים לו מי בוראך, והוא מראה להם בעוקצו שלמעלה, אומר זה שלמעלה בראני, ומה שמו, והוא מראה להם בעוקצו שלאחריו י״י שמו׃
Another interpretation: Why (was the world created) with a B? Because B has 2 points, one (points) above and one after it. (When) they say to it, “Who created you?”, then it will appear to them with its point that is pointing above (as if) saying, “This one who is above created me.” “And what is his name?” And it will appear to them with its point that is pointing after it (as if saying) the LORD is His name. (Perhaps referring back to 'aleph or A, the first letter of the alphabet that begins the word for God--Elohim--in Gen 1:1)
ר׳ לעזר בר אבינה בשם ר׳ אחא כ״ו דור היה קורא א׳ תיגי לפני הקב״ה, אמר לפניו רבונו שלעולם אני ראשון שלאותיות ולא בראתה עולמך בי אתמהא, אמר לו הקב״ה העולם ומלואו לא נברא אלא בזכות תורה, למחר אני בא ליתן תורתי בסיני ואין אני פותח אלא בך אנכי י״י אלהיך (שמות כ ב)׃
R. Eleazar bar Abinah in the name of R. Aha: (For) twenty-six generations, the one called A argued before the Holy One, blessed be He, saying before Him, “Master of the Universe, I am first among the letters , but you did not create your world with me, how strange!” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “The world and everything in it was only created on account of the merit of the Torah. Tomorrow, I go to give my Torah at Sinai, and I will not open except with you: “I am the Lord your God (Exod. 20:1).
We’ve seen number-sayings before in Genesis Rabbah I.IV. Now we have alphabet-sayings. At least they didn’t get past A and B because that was a lot of text to work through, even though the Hebrew wasn’t necessarily that hard. (They’ll get to more letters on a completely unrelated topic in I.XI.) There are a few odd forms, but with rabbinic Hebrew, it’s usually possible to easily get the gist without fully understanding the morphology. I don’t quite know how to parse ליתן for example. From context, it looks like an infinitive of נתן “to give” but the infinitive in biblical Hebrew is irregular לתת. I still don’t quite know how to explain it, but I know what it means.

Today’s episode on Genesis Rabbah has been brought to you by the letter B and the number 2.


  1. First of all, I am glad that you are posting on B"R again. It's a great text!

    Second, in your first paragraph, the word you render as "association" is actually better rendered as "Woe!" or "Oh that!" (see Jastrow p. 67 s.v. 'lw'y).

    Third, the infinitive form for ntn is actually quite common in rabbinic Hebrew. For a discussion, see M. H. Segal, A Grammar of Mishnaic Hebrew, pp. 77ff (on pay-nun verbs). In fact, on p. 78, Segal even suggests that this infinitive form might even be older than BH (= Biblical Hebrew) forms (citing 1 Kings 6:19)!

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Interesting. The RH infinitive morphology is so familiar to me that the BH seems strange! Fernandez (pp. 144-5) explains the morphology but not how it came about. In RH, "the infinitive has the same form as the imperfect minus preformative. Thus, just as the BH infinitive לִקְתֹל corresponds to the imperfect יִקְתֹל, so in RH לִיתֵּן corresponds to יִתֵּן.”

    Of course, there are exceptions.

    (There was attrition in the use of the infinitive from BH to RH. The infinitive absolute disappeared entirely. Just about all that is left is the infinitive construct with the prefixed ל.)

    [Shameless plug: check out my blog at I alternate English-only posts with notes on the Hebrew text.]

  3. Jordan, I came up with "association" from לווי "attachment" (Jastrow p. 695) from a root meaning "to join" (לוה, Jastrow p. 697). I was uncertain anyway so I put the question mark. I didn't find the entry on p. 67. How would I translate that? "And by that, oh that it might stand!" ??

    Carl, that explanation makes sense except that יִתֵּן retains the preformative of the impf in ליתן.

    I suppose I should have Fernandez or Segal on hand for grammatical questions, but it's just me, Jastrow, and my BH and aramaic grammars.

  4. The י in ליתן is a vowel letter (I haven’t heard them referred to as matres lectionis, but that’s what they are.) They’re used much more in RH than in BH.

    I can't believe I missed that לווי. I haven't found a contemporary English word that expresses the deep distress of of לווי without sounding out of place.

  5. Carl, thanks! of course, it's a vowel letter. I should've thought of that. The expansive use of vowel letters in RH and Jastrow's inconsistent means of indexing words with them has been a source of much frustration and page flipping.

  6. Just in case you didn't have this info:

    Jastrow can be downloaded free at and

    It can also be accessed online at

  7. I think the use of "halevai" is consistent with the modern use: "Behold, I create it with an expression of blessing and hope, so that it may stand".