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Bereishit | The Creation of Man and Woman

Rav Michael Hattin
21.09.2014

 

This Shabbat we begin anew the reading of the Torah, after having celebrated its completion during Simchat Torah.  The parasha of Bereishit, describing in terse but charged language the creation of the cosmos and the early, disquieting history of humanity, presents us with a myriad of thought-provoking passages.  The essential outline of this creation, though, is clear: it is a divinely guided process which inexorably moves from the general to the particular, from the simple to the complex, from the inanimate to the animate and finally to man.  The broad sweep of Divine concern that suddenly brings the universe into existence ex nihilo (out of nothing) is quite quickly brought into sharp focus on that most frail and noble of creatures, Adam.  This man, his mate and primarily their progeny occupy the remainder of the Torah's interest, the rest of the cosmic and earthly order fading into the background and becoming the muted canvas upon which the drama of God's interactions with humanity are played out.  The relationship between that first man, that first woman and the Deity is thus a critical one, imbued with a potential both grand and grave.

 

I would like to direct our attention to the section that narrates the creation of the first human beings.  We will closely follow the account of their formation, pay strict attention to key words and phrases, and receive guidance along the way from the traditional sources and classical commentaries.  We shall, in fact, discover that the commentaries disagree concerning the interpretation of the passage, reflecting a disagreement that is preserved in much earlier Talmudic and Midrashic sources.

 

"And God said: Let us make 'Adam' in our image after our likeness, and they shall have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over the animals and the whole earth, and over all things that walk upon the earth.  And God created the 'Adam' in his image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.  And God blessed them and said to them: Be fertile and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.  Have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every beast that walks the earth... " (Bereishit Chapter 1, verses 26-28)

 

In these few short verses, the unique majesty of humanity is spelled out.  Created in God's 'image,' they alone of all of the world's creatures possess this most precious of gifts; it is one which endows them with both unusual power as well as the ability to forge a link with their Creator.  In this passage, the word 'Adam' appears for the first time, but significantly, it is not introduced as a proper name.  The mechanism of this creation itself, its presumed various steps and stages, is here shrouded in mystery.  Only the broadest possible outline, enough to trace the essential attributes of the first humans, their vocations, and no more, is here recorded.  Male and female make their appearance almost contemporaneously, in a lyrical verse emphasizing their equal claim to the Divine Image.  Together they stand to receive God's blessing and His instruction, and to secure the imprimatur of 'and God saw all that He had done and behold it was very good.'

 

How different is the picture that emerges from the more detailed passage in Chapter Two: 

 

"And Hashem God fashioned the 'Adam' out of dust from the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the 'Adam' became a living creature.  Hashem God planted a garden in Eden towards the east and there put the 'Adam' which He had fashioned... Hashem God commanded the 'Adam' saying: Of all of the trees of the garden you may surely eat, except for the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge... Hashem God said: It is not good for the 'Adam' to be alone, I will fashion a compatible mate to help him.  Hashem God fashioned all of the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky and brought them to the 'Adam' to see what he would name them... the 'Adam' named all of the animals and all of the birds of the sky and all of the beasts of the field, but did not find among them any that were compatible.  Hashem God caused a very deep sleep to fall upon the 'Adam' and he slept; He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh in its place.  Hashem God built the rib that He had taken from the 'Adam' into a woman and brought her to the 'Adam.'  The 'Adam' said: This time it is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh; this one shall be called women (Isha) for she was fashioned from man (Ish).  A man shall therefore leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife and become one flesh..." (Bereishit Chapter 2, verses 19-24)

 

We can immediately point out some obvious distinctions between this account and the one narrated by the Torah in Chapter One.  First of all, the four letter name of God here introduces every mention of the Creator.  Secondly, the account of man's creation is much more detailed.  We learn that the first human was fashioned from the dust of the earth, the 'adama' from which the name 'Adam' is derived.  Thirdly, the first man, although materially complete in every respect, remains lifeless and inanimate until the breath of life is blown into his nostrils.  The most glaring distinction between the two accounts, however, concerns the creation of the first woman.  Here, her creation seems to be temporally far removed from that of her mate, occurring only after a naming exercise which is said to encompass all of the creatures on the planet.  Her formation is not the result of an independent creative act by God but rather due to a procedure that entails the removal of the first man's rib and its refashioning into a complete woman. 

 

The implications of this reading are clear.  The account in Chapter One is a general outline of the creation and serves to acquaint us with some of its basic features.  All existence is brought into being by the free and deliberate will of the Creator, and that creation contains an inherent hierarchy with humanity at its apex.  That humanity, composed of male and female elements, is the recipient of both God's blessing as well as His charge.  The more detailed account of Chapter Two explores in greater depth the relationship between the male and female, and indicates that her creation was the result of the male's existential aloneness and was only precipitated by his dawning awareness of that fact.  None of the other creatures, apparently, could fill the void in his being.  Significantly, she, unlike the females of other species, is fashioned from his very body, implying a connection and cohesiveness between the two that none of the other creatures are to experience.  The account of the first chapter is thus general in scope; that of the second chapter, while describing the very same events, does so in finer detail. 

 

At the same time, however, there is a more ominous implication in this reading.  The woman is formed out of the rib of the man, who precedes her in time as well as in Divine attention.  He is the primary being, and she is a secondary one fashioned out of one of his ribs.  This rib, notwithstanding its integral association to the man's body, is hardly an essential organ and is in fact removed from him with no ill after effects.  The overall hierarchy of creation in which humanity occupies the most exalted position therefore is seemingly extended by a further hierarchy within humanity itself.

 

This explanation, containing elements both troubling and inscrutable, is advanced by R. David Kimchi (Provence, 13th century, known by the acronym RaDaK,) as well as by the Seforno (Italy, 16th century).  The Radak writes (Ch. 2, end of verse 18): 

 

"The human differs from all other creatures who were created as male and female.  The initial human, however, was male.  This is a reflection of his advantage over the female, over whom he rules and whom he can command, for she is like one of his limbs.  This is unlike all the othspecies in which the male enjoys no such preference... Since the man is the essence of the creation having been created first, and the woman is subsidiary having been fashioned from his substance, he therefore possesses greater abilities than the female in all respects, whether physical or intellectual." 

 

The somewhat more mitigated words of the Seforno (Ch. 2, verse 18) suggest that the female is only slightly less exalted than the male, who would otherwise have no claim to her assistance for the fulfillment of his needs. 

 

The kernel of these views is in fact preserved in the Midrash, which states (Bereishit Rabba, Parsha 17, paragraph 6):  "Shmuel says: God took one of the man's ribs from among the others."  In the more colorful but less flattering Talmudic formulation (Talmud Bavli Berachot 61a, Eiruvin 18b), the opinion is expressed that God's removal of the 'rib' actually refers to the tailbone of the man!  Clearly then, by understanding that the woman is fashioned from the man's rib, Radak's conclusion seems not only conceptually warranted, but in fact inevitable.

 

It should by now be obvious that the critical word in the text around which the above comments pivot is the infamous 'rib.'  "Hashem God caused a very deep sleep to fall upon the 'Adam' and he slept; He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh in its place.  Hashem God built the rib that He had taken from the 'Adam' into a woman and brought her to the 'Adam.'"  In the original Hebrew, the word for 'rib' is TZELA.  Thus, "He took one of his tzelaot and closed up the flesh in its place.  Hashem God built the tzela that He had taken from the 'Adam' into a woman and brought her to the 'Adam.'"  That tzela unequivocally means rib is, however, by no means certain.  Of the forty usages of the term in the Tanakh, only two are understood to mean 'rib' in its narrow anatomical sense, and those two are the very subject of our investigation!  The vast majority of the other usages of the term have to do with the world of buildings: 

 

"And you shall fashion the boards of the Tabernacle out of acacia wood lengthwise.  You shall make twenty boards for the southern direction... as for the second side (tzela) of the Tabernacle on the north, also twenty boards... you shall make five bars of acacia wood for the boards of one side (tzela) of the Tabernacle... and for the second side (tzela)." (Shemot Ch.  26)

 

The fundamental meaning of the word tzela is therefore more precisely rendered as 'side,' from which the cognate meaning of rib is derived, since the ribs define the sides of the upper body.  That this is in fact the case is borne out by the verb form of tzela which occurs in the account of Jacob's nocturnal struggle with the mysterious stranger.  Jacob emerges from the contest victorious but suffering from a dislocated hip.  As dawn breaks, Jacob passes the place later known as Penuel nursing his injury and limping - 'tzolea.'  Here, the verb tzolea is clearly associated with 'side,' since to limp is to place all of one's weight on one side of the body. 

 

Having established that 'tzela' can  certainly be rendered as 'side,' we can now reassess the meaning of the narrative in Chapter Two: "Hashem God caused a very deep sleep to fall upon the 'Adam' and he slept; He took one of his sides and closed up the flesh in its place.  Hashem God built the side that He had taken from the 'Adam' into a woman and brought her to the 'Adam.'  The 'Adam' said: This time it is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh; this one shall be called woman (Isha) for she was fashioned from man (Ish)."  According to this reading, the first woman is not fashioned from the first man's rib at all but rather from his 'side.'  Or, to employ the striking language of the opposing view recorded in the Midrash and Talmud "Du partzufin nivra ha-adam" – the 'Adam' was initially created as a two-faced creature!  In other words, the initial human being was not male only, but was rather a composite being made up of a male and female joined at the back.  The act of 'creating' the women was really just the act of separating this creature into two discrete sides, one male and one female. 

 

This novel approach does not represent a flight of interpretive fancy but is actually grounded in the text itself.  Returning to the account in Chapter One, we read: 

 

"And God said: Let us make 'Adam' in Our image after Our likeness, and they shall have dominion ... over all things that walk upon the earth.  And God created the 'Adam' in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.  And God blessed them and said to them: Be fertile and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it..." 

 

The recurring shift between the description of the human in the plural ('they shall have dominion,' 'male and female He created them,' 'God blessed them and said to them') versus the singular ('Let us make Adam,' 'in the image of God He created him') is indicative of 'his' initial state.  The 'Adam' is at one and the same time a single creature, as well as a binary entity made up of male and female components.  The two components that make up this dual creature are fashioned simultaneously by God, and remain cohesively joined during the bestowal of the blessing and injunction.  Only later, in the process described in Chapter Two, are the two halves separated in order to form freestanding male and female human beings.  In other words, there is no hierarchy between the male and female, no temporal gap separating them in creation, no special measure of Divine attention accorded to a man formed first and thus deemed primary in the scheme of things.  Instead, we have an account of a human being, a male/female creature, formed and fashioned to be the crown of creation, beloved of the Creator and guided by His word, complete in every respect and lacking only the individuality which discreteness confers.  It is important to point out that this alternate view stating that 'the initial human being was a two-faced creature' is adopted by R. Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, 12th century) and R. Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban, Spain, 13th century), two of the pillars of biblical exegesis.  It also seems to be the reading accepted by the Talmud (see Talmud Bavli Berakhot 61a and Eiruvin 18b).

 

Significantly, the name of this initial human being is 'Adam,' but aside from the first time that the name appears (Let us make 'Adam'), it is always preceded by the definite article ('the').  Only at the end of the parasha does it become the proper name of the first man.  The use of the definite article indicates that a proper name is not being used, any more than one would say 'the Abraham' or  'the Sarah.'  How then to understand the first time that 'Adam' occurs, absent the preceding definite article?  Usually, the phrase is translated 'Let us make man,' but the interpretation suggested above negates that reading, since the initial human being was not exclusively a man at all.  Knowledge of a simple rule of grammatical etiquette obviates this difficulty.  When a noun or idea is introduced for the first time, the definite article cannot be employed, since its use would imply prior familiarity with the thing.  Thus, if I am describing to you my new blue cap, I introduce the thing by saying "I bought a new blue cap."  After this initial introduction I can go on to describe its features by employing the definite article: "THE new blue cap has a visor and an elastic strap."  Introducing the blue cap to you for the first time by saying "I bought the new blue cap" is unintelligible, because you know nothing of the blue cap to begin with.  Similarly, in the description of the vessels of the Tabernacle (Shemot Chapter 25), the first mention of each vessel is always without the definite article (an ark, a table, a menora) and all subsequent ones incorporate it (the ark, the table, the menora).

 

Knowing from Chapter Two that the human was fashionedout of the dust of the earth or 'adama,' it is now possible to understand this oft-quoted phrase.  'Let us make man' ought to be rendered 'Let us make an earthling,' and all subsequent uses of the term which occur without fail with the definite article ought to be translated 'the earthling.'  "And God said: Let us make an earthling in our image after our likeness, and they shall have dominion ... over all things that walk upon the earth.  And God created the earthling in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them."  The term 'earthling' is, of course, genderless, just as the first human being was not exclusively male or female but both.

 

Having established the validity of this reading, we must finally ask ourselves a fundamental question: what is the meaning of this interpretation?  Why is the first human being so curiously created?  What lesson of importance is conveyed by this account?  Or, to phrase the question differently in order to begin to formulate an answer: if the initial human being was in fact a two-faced creature containing at the outset the complete male and female personalities joined at the back, in what way could one possibly argue that the earthling was alone?  After all, the impetus for the act of separation was aloneness: "Hashem God said: It is not good for the 'Adam' to be alone, I will fashion a compatible mate to help him."  Where is the aloneness when two human beings are so close that they share the same body?  What greater togetherness could there be than two human beings sharing the same blood that courses through their veins?

 

In typical Talmudic fashion, we will answer the question with a question.  The Talmudic discussion on this topic records a query which at first glance appears to be casuistic but actually is terribly profound.  "According to the one who says that the first human being was a two-faced creature joined at the back, which one walked first, the male or the female?"  In other words, when two human beings are joined at the back, of necessity one leads and the other is forced to follow.  When two human beings are joined at the back, they can never look in the same direction.  When two human beings are joined at the back, they are not the paradigm of unity but actually the loneliest creatures in the cosmos.  The awesome truth of the male/female relationship is here cast in sharp relief.  A man and a woman may join in union, may agree to economic partnership, may share the very warmth of their bodies; but if they are not looking in the same direction, if their goals remain disparate, if one leads and the other follows against their will, then true togetherness will always elude them.  Only by looking eye to eye, walking side by side, and focusing on the same destination will they truly merit to become Ish and Isha, man and woman, one flesh.  This is the lesson of "Du partzufim nivra ha-adam."

 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

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