Minding Our Words

Bereishit By :  Anne Lapidus Lerner Assistant Professor Emerita of Jewish Literature Posted On Oct 17, 2014 / 5775 | Main Commentary | Gender

On Simhat Torah, we complete the reading of the humash—all 79,796 Hebrew words of it—and when we’re done, what do we do? We roll it up to the very beginning and start to read it all over again. Words, words, words. Devarim (Deuteronomy)—which, of course, means “words”—ends with Moses’s death after the conclusion of his lengthy final oration; Bereishit opens with God demonstrating the power of words by creating the world with them.

The majestic, eloquent opening of Bereishit, the daily report of Creation, is chanted on Simhat Torah. But we conclude with Shabbat, the goal of creation (Gen. 2:4). This week, we go back to the beginning again, and proceed from that orderly first Creation story through the messiness of a different Creation account that takes us through the narrative of the wickedness that eventually prompts the Flood.

But words have power that extends well beyond the text itself. They have a power in shaping our lives, our culture, our often-unarticulated assumptions. Three such words in the two opening chapters of Genesis are tzela, ‘ezer, and adam. Each of these words has a long and honorable history of translation, but, for now, let’s keep it literal: rib, helpmeet, and human, respectively. Their impact upon our individual and shared sense of self, on our relations with others, on our way of being in the world, is hard to overestimate; yet they seem so innocuous. Together, particularly when read through the lens of age-old religious traditions of interpretation, they have shaped our vision of what it means to be a woman or a man.

Asked to describe the biblical story of the creation of woman, most of us would respond, almost unthinkingly, that she was created from Adam’s rib. After all, the story is well known. God puts the human to sleep and removes one of its ribs, building it into a woman.

ויַּפֵּל ה’ אֱ-לֹהִים תַּרְדֵּמָה עַל-הָאָדָם וַיִּישָׁן וַיִּקַּח אַחַת מִצַּלְעֹתָיו וַיִּסְגֹּר בָּשָׂר תַּחְתֶּנָּה: וַיִּבֶן ה’ אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת-הַצֵּלָע אֲשֶׁר-לָקַח מִן-הָאָדָם לְאִשָּׁה וַיְבִאֶ הָאֶל-הָאָדָם:

And Lord God caused a slumber to fall upon the adam, and it slept and He took one oftzalotav [its sides, usually translated as “ribs”] and closed the flesh in that place. And Lord God built the tzela [side, rib] He had taken from the adam into an ishah [woman] and brought her to the adam.[i](Gen. 2:21–22)

Despite the brevity of the text—only 26 words in the Hebrew—we can picture every step along the way: the scalpel, the blood, the stitches, the woman, the man. While each of us may imagine some of the details differently, what seems incontrovertible is that the woman is a latecomer, an afterthought. The man is at the pinnacle of creation; the woman is clearly depicted as inferior. He is whole; she is made from secondhand materials—a mere part, almost an appendage.

A closer look at the Hebrew word tzela leads us to different conclusions. The word appears 40 times in the Hebrew Bible. In 23 of those, it means a “side,” not a “rib”; in 15, it means a “side room.” The only places that it is translated as “rib” are the two occurrences here in the story of the creation of woman. That makes “rib” an unlikely translation, and transforms our mental image of what happened. Woman was part of the original adam, which had two sides. She was incorporated into the divine plan for the creation of humanity from the very beginning. As such she was not an afterthought, not secondary, but equal to its other part, which became a man.

But, there is certainly room to object that the woman was designated as an ‘ezer, a helper, for the man. As such, whenever she was created, she was not the primary actor; she was there to serve him. Again, a close look at the biblical text opens other avenues of interpretation that are probably more accurate. Let’s look again at the numbers. There are 21 occurrences of ‘ezer in the Hebrew Bible, including the two here in Genesis 2. Sixteen of those clearly refer to God. A memorable example is in Psalm 121:1–2: “I lift my eyes unto the hills, where does my help [‘ezer] come from? My help comes from God, Creator of heaven and earth.” Overwhelmingly ‘ezer comes from a source that is not inferior, but superior. One could argue that, based on these texts, woman is actually superior to man. I prefer to state simply that she is clearly not inferior.

Finally, let’s take a look at the word adam itself. God introduces it in Genesis 1:26: “God said: ‘Let us make an adam in our image, according to our likeness.’” This creature, the last to be created before the first Shabbat, will partake of the divine. At the same time the word itselfseems to be a masculine equivalent of the word adamah (earth), which had appeared at the end of the previous verse. Ab initio this creature seems to incorporate different, even opposing, elements. The text continues, “And God created the adam in His image, in the image of God He created it, male and female He created them” (1:27). The adam that God has created is both singular and plural, male and female. This is an egalitarian description of the creation of human without gender hierarchy or belatedness.

Seeing the creation of human as simultaneously incorporating male and female is not a modern invention. In Genesis Rabbah, an early collection of rabbinic expositions of Genesis, one finds this record of the attempt of a group of Rabbis to understand these texts.

אמר רבי ירמיה בן לעזר: בשעה שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא את אדם הראשון, אנדרוגינוס בראו, הדא הוא דכתיב: זכר ונקבה בראם.
אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמן: בשעה שברא הקב”ה את אדם הראשון, דיופרצופים בראו ונסרו ועשאו גביים, גב לכאן וגב לכאן.
איתיבון ליה, והכתיב ויקח אחת מצלעותיו?! אמר להון: מתרין סטרוהי, היך מה דאת אמר: (שמות כו) ולצלע המשכן דמתרגמינן ולסטר משכנא וגו ‘.

Rabbi Yirmeyah ben Leazar said: “At the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first adam, He created him an androgyne, as is said, ‘Male and female He created them,’ etc. (Genesis 5:2).”

Rabbi Shemuel bar Nahman said: “At the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first adam, He created him double-faced, then He sawed him apart and made him two backs, a back on this side and a back on the other side.”

To this they object: “But it is written, ‘and He took one of tzalotav [“its sides,” usually translated as “his ribs”]’ (Genesis 2:21)?” He responded to them: “[mitzalotov means] one of its sides, as is written, ‘And for the other side wall [tzela] of the Tabernacle,’ etc. (Exodus 26:20).” (Gen. R. par. 8:1)

Rabbi Shemuel bar Nahman’s persuasive argument did not hold sway. For millennia, these texts have most often been read as creating gender hierarchy. Now that many of us inhabit a world in which men and women are, perhaps too slowly, reaching parity, we can revisit the issues and look at the meaning of the words.

As it is with our understanding of the words of the biblical text; so it is with our own words. Just a short time ago, we confessed our sins, many of them committed through the misuse of words. As Proverbs 18:21 reminds us, “Death and life are in the hands of the tongue.” Let us resolve to use the richness of our languages, of our words, to bring life to our sacred texts and to enrich our lives and those of others, women and men, with our careful usage.

Dr. Anne Lapidus Lerner, an emerita member of the faculty and a former vice chancellor of JTS, is the author of Eternally Eve: Images of Eve in the Hebrew Bible, Midrash, and Modern Jewish Poetry.

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


[i] All translations mine. When translating biblical and midrashic texts I have used masculine pronouns for God to avoid misrepresenting the original understanding of the text.