On several occasions in the story of the world’s creation in the first section of Parashat Bereishit, God’s pronouncement of a stage of creation is followed by the words “va-yehi khein” – “and it was so.” For example, this phrase appears after the creation of the firmament which separated between heaven and earth (1:7), and when God pronounced the formation of dry land on earth (1:9). One instance of this phrase, however, seems somewhat difficult to understand. After Adam’s creation, we read, God instructed Adam that he was given plants and fruits to eat, as were the animals, and the verse then concludes, “va-yehi khein” (1:30). Unlike in the previous instances of “va-yehi khein,” where this phrase refers to the creation of that which God proclaimed should exist, here, the context is the designation of vegetation as food for animals and human beings. The question thus arises as to the meaning of “va-yehi khein” in this verse. What “came into being” after God informed Adam of the vegetation assigned to him and to the other creatures as food?
The Radak explains that “va-yehi khein” in this verse means that God created the desire within each creature for the food appropriate for that species. This marked a distinct, and crucial, stage of the process of creation, whereby each species of animal – including the human being – was given a craving for the species of plants that are beneficial for that creature.
A different approach is cited in the name of Rav Simcha Bunim of Pashischa (in Chedvat Simcha, Parashat Bereishit). He suggested that the assigned vegetation actually became edible food only at the time of God’s pronouncement. While it is unclear precisely what this means, Rav Simcha Bunim claimed that until God announced to Adam that the various types of vegetation would serve as sustenance for different species, this vegetation had no nutritional qualities and could not be used for food. The phrase “va-yehi khein” thus refers to the nutritional properties of different species vegetation which make them suitable as sustenance for humans and animals, properties which were created once God made this pronouncement to Adam.
On this basis, Rav Simcha Bunim suggested answering a question posed by numerous commentators regarding the story told later of Hevel’s sacrificing sheep as an offering to God (4:4). The Gemara (Sanhedrin 59b) famously comments that meat was forbidden for human consumption until after the flood, and thus Hevel offered as a sacrifice something which was not permitted to be eaten. The commentators raised the question of whether Hevel’s sacrifice could be reconciled with the well-established rule (Menachot 6a) allowing sacrificing only food which is permissible for consumption. Seemingly, Hevel’s sacrifice violated this rule, as sheep were not proclaimed permissible for human consumption until after the flood. Rav Simcha Bunim suggested answering this question by asserting that before the flood, animals were not considered food at all. Just as vegetation had no nutritional properties until after God proclaimed to Adam that it should be used as food, similarly, other living creatures were not suitable at all for nourishing human beings until God’s proclamation to Noach following the flood. As such, sheep in Hevel’s time was not forbidden food; it was not food at all. It thus would not have violated the restrictions regarding offerings – just as Kayin, according to Midrashic tradition (Rashi, 4:3), brought inedible flax as his offering.