From Feast upon the Word ( Copyright, Feast upon the Word.
Jump to: navigation, search

I'm putting stuff here that seems too speculative for the main commentary page, much of it based in Jewish mystical lore.

Bet before aleph[edit]

Jewish scholars have put forth various reasons as to why the first word of the Torah, bereshit, begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, bet, instead of the first letter, aleph. Some of the reasons, which are not mutually exclusive, include:

(1) Look forward not backward: The midrash teaches that the letter bet is enclosed on three sides, but open to the front, suggesting the need to look forward, not backward. Since bet is the second letter, there is an implicit emphasis on "second chances".

(2) The second shall be first: Putting the second letter first presages a recurrent theme in Genesis where second sons (Jacob, Joseph and Ephraim in particular; also, Christ comes from Tamar's second twin son) receive the birthright instead of the first son. Also, the Hebrew word for curse starts with aleph while the Hebrew word for blessing begins with bet. Some have suggested that the implicit teaching here is that a me-first attitude leads to a cursed life, while an others-first attitude leads to a blessed life. That is, by letting the second letter be first the Torah is teaching that we should place others' interests ahead of our own (cf. the oft-repeated scriptural phrase "the last shall be first and the first shall be last").

(3) This is not the literal beginning: By using the second letter, the Torah may be saying that this is not the very first beginning, but the beginning that is relevant for us to try to understand. Symbolically, it is important that we keep striving to understand more, without falling prey to pride thinking we understand all that we need to understand about the beginning. There are mysteries that lie hidden (aleph is considered a silent letter) beyond what is written or spoken (bet is a voiced letter) that we should continually strive to understand.

Kline's Creation Weave[edit]

Moshe Kline has written some interesting material about the structure of the creation account.

Elemental approach?[edit]

The significance of Kline's approach seems to depend, at least in part, on on the significance of juxtaposing the three (four) primal elements: fire, wind, and water (and earth, which is often viewed as being formed from the other three). Actually, in the oldest Kaballah traditions, there are six elements (in the ten elements, tohu and bohu roughly mean unformed and unfilled):

A Palestinian Midrash of the fourth century (see Epstein, in "Rev. Etudes Juives," xxix. 77) asserts that three of the elements—namely, water, air, and fire—existed before the creation of the world; that water then produced the darkness, fire produced light, and air produced wisdom ( = "air" = "wisdom"), and the whole world thereupon was made by the combination of these six elements (Ex. R. xv. 22). The gradual condensation of a primal substance into visible matter, a fundamental doctrine of the Cabala, is already to be found in Yer. Ḥag. ii. 77a, where it is said that the first water which existed was condensed into snow; and out of this the earth was made. This is the ancient Semitic conception of the "primal ocean," known to the Babylonians as "Apsu" (compare Jastrow, "Religion of Babylonia"), and called by the Gnostics βύθος = (Anz, "Die Frage nach dem Ursprung des Gnostizismus," p. 98). Rab's enumeration of the ten objects created on the first day—namely, heaven, earth, tohu, bohu, light, darkness, wind, water, day, and night (Ḥag. 12a) [the Book of Jubilees (ii. 2) has seven.—K.]—shows the conception of "primal substances" held by the rabbis of the third century. It was an attempt to Judaize the un-Jewish conception of primal substances by representing them also as having been created. Compare the teaching: "God created worlds after worlds, and destroyed them, until He finally made one of which He could say, 'This one pleases Me, but the others did not please Me' " (Gen. R. ix. 2). See also "Agadat Shir ha-Shirim," ed. Schechter, p. 6, line 58.
So, also, was the doctrine of the origin of light made a matter of mystical speculation, as instanced by a haggadist of the third century, who communicated to his friend "in a whisper" the doctrine that "God wrapped Himself in a garment of light, with which He illuminates the earth from one end to the other" (Gen. R. iii. 4; see Abraham, Apocalypse of; compare Ex. R. xv. 22: "After He had clothed Himself in light, He created the world"). Closely related to this view is the statement made by R. Meïr, "that the infinite God limited or contracted Himself [] in order to reveal Himself" (Gen. R. iv. 4; Ex. R. xxxiv. 1). This is the germ of the Cabala doctrine of the "Ẓimẓum," in idea as well as in terminology.

The weave pattern[edit]

I'm not too sure what is unique to Kline's approach and what others have studied, but Kline's main point has to do with analyzing the first three days of creation in parallel with the next three days of creation:

  • Fire (Mon & Thu): The first ((Gen 1:3-5) and fourth (Gen 1:14-19) days of creation have to do with light and darkness.
  • Wind/air and water (Tue & Fri): The second (Gen 1:6-8) and fifth (Gen 1:20-22) days have to do with separating "the waters which were under the firmament" (water) from "the waters which were above the firmament" (air), and creating the birds (in the air/wind) and the fishes (in the water).
  • Earth (Wed & Sat): The third (Gen 1:9-13) and sixth (Gen 1:24-31) days have to do with creating the earth and plants and beasts and man, respectively.

This structure underscores the distance between man (on earth) and God (represented by light/fire). It highlights a contrast between the first three days and the last three days, where the first three days are abstract and less tangible while the last three days are specific and tangible.


I'm still not sure if any of this is very significant. The points Kline makes didn't strike me as particularly insightful or relevant. But one notion I like is thinking about man's journey to God as a reversal of the creation elemental pattern: Starting on earth, we have to descend into water by being baptized before we can ascend to heaven and reenter the presence of God (light). The descend before ascend pattern seems recurrent in scriptures, particularly in Isaiah and and Christ's teachings (humble yourself and then be exalted).

I'm sure there's a lot of Kabbalistic writings on these topics, which I might look through a bit when I have the time and energy. I'd appreciate any thoughts from others who are familiar with this literature.

Related links[edit]

  • Creation and evolution: Manfred Davidmann on how Genesis is describing a form of evolution.
  • Scripture theory: These articles are written a bit roughly (non-native speaker), but seem to have some interesting ideas. There are a series of articles actually starting here, but the creation articles are as follows:
  • General theories: Overview and flaws of main theories regarding creation account.
  • The yom problem: Interesting discussion of how Hebrew words are used (yom = day]
  • A close look at Genesis 1: Verse by verse discussion of words used in Genesis 1.
  • Chaotic set theory: Shows interesting useage of three names of God in connection with three floods in Genesis representing matter, life, and mind (I don't like these names, but the structures in the text seem interesting).
  • A week of weeks: Gets into quantum mechanics and stuff I'll need to read a lot more carefully to understand....