Bereishit with a Capital Bet

Bereishit By :  David Marcus Professor Emeritus of Bible and Masorah Posted On Sep 22, 2013 / 5774 | Torah Commentary

With this week’s parashah, we once again commence the cycle of reading the Torah from the first chapter of Genesis, which begins with the Hebrew word bereishit. Attentive readers may note that, in the Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, this first word is printed with a large Hebrew letter, bet, and is followed by an asterisk with an explanation stating that the bet is written large in accordance with traditional editions of the text. This clarification may have been deemed necessary because this oversized bet is not in the manuscript that the editors of Etz Hayim use as the basis for their edition, namely the great Leningrad Codex, the oldest complete Hebrew Bible in existence dated to 1008 CE.

However, the bet of bereishit is not the only letter that is printed in a different font in this week’s parashah. In chapter 2, verse 4, the letter heh of the word behibar’am (when they were created) is printed in small (miniscule) type. In fact, there is a scribal convention that every letter of the alphabet is written somewhere in the Bible large and small and that, in the Torah, every letter of the alphabet is somewhere written large. For example, in traditional humashim, or Bible editions, there is a large aleph on the word Ashrekha at Deuteronomy 33:29, a large gimel on the word vehitGalah at Leviticus 13:33, a large dalet on the word ’ehaD at Deuteronomy 6:4, and so on. Why are these letters written large and small? The truth is that we really do not know, although many theories have been advanced. It might seem obvious that, in the word bereishit, the first letter would be written large because it is the start of a new book in the Torah. But other books of the Torah do not have large letters written with their first words (e.g., the first word of Exodus, v’eleh, does not have a large vav). Neither do the first words of the other three books, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The only books of the Bible that are written with large letters at the beginning are Proverbs, which has a large mem on the first word; Mishlei, Song of Songs, which has a large shin on the first word, shir; Qoheleth, which has a large dalet on the first word, dibrei; and Chronicles, which has a large aleph on the first word, Adam.

Various explanations have been advanced for these large letters. One theory is that they mark a significant statistical point in the text. For example, the word vehitGalah of Leviticus 13:33, written with a large gimel, is the middle verse of the Torah, or the word gahOn of Leviticus 11:42, written with a large vav, is the midpoint of the Torah in letters. Another theory is that these big letters emphasize the precision of the reading. A good example of this is in the first line of the Shema‘ (Deut. 6:4), where there is large ‘ayin written in the word shema‘, and a large dalet in the word ’ehaD. The scribe is thereby cautioned: watch out, do not write shema‘ (hear!) as though it were shema’ with analeph, which would change the meaning to “perhaps” (“Perhaps O Israel”); rather, be careful to write it with an ‘ayin (hear; “Hear O Israel”). Similarly, with the last word, the scribe is warned: watch out, do not write ’ehad as though it was ’aheR with a resh, which would change the meaning to “another” (“the Lord is another”); rather, be careful to write it with a dalet (one; “the Lord is our god, the Lord is one”).

But these reasons apply to a very small proportion of the cases of large and small letters and, because of this, most of these large and small letters have attracted midrashic or homiletical explanations. Thus a popular midrashic explanation of the large ‘ayin and dalet in the verse containing the Shema‘ is that these two letters should be joined to form the Hebrew word ‘ed(witness). The thought would then be, as expressed in the Hertz Humash, that “every Israelite by pronouncing the Shema‘ becomes one of God’s witnesses, testifying to His Unity before the world.” Another example of a midrashic interpretation is in our parashah in chapter 2, verse 4, where the letter heh of the word behibar’am is printed in small font. Here, the midashic explanation for the small heh is that it stands as an abbreviation for “the Lord.” Therefore, instead of translating the phrase with the impersonal “when they (the heavens and earth) were created,” which is the correct grammatical interpretation, one should translate “when the Lord created them.” This would bring God directly back into the Creation story as indeed God is when we read our first verse with the large bet of Bereishit“when God began to create heaven and earth.”

One thing is quite clear: the scribes entrusted with the responsibility to preserve and protect the text of the Hebrew Bible did so with the utmost fidelity to tradition. These scribes were known as Masoretes, and the text they preserved is known as the Masoretic text. To the Masoretes, not only was every word to be carefully guarded, but also every letter: each word had to be written properly with its consonants and full vowels. Each letter had to be written in accordance with tradition, whether in regular, large, or small font. The result of their enterprise is called the Masorah,which not only ensures the accuracy of the biblical text, but is testimony to the sanctity of the Torah. This is a good lesson for us as we commence rereading our Torah. Not only do the words of Torah have significance, but also the letters. When we study the biblical text with its large and small letters, we engage in a spiritual practice symbolizing our love for God and Torah. Our appreciation for the smallest detail of the text that has sustained us for thousands of years is, in many ways, an expression of our joy in God’s revelation.


The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.