Lost In Translation: Beresheet

In Israel, we just celebrated Simchat Torah (lit. Joy of the Torah) – the joyful holiday that marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah reading and the beginning of a new cycle. Yes, my dear friends, the year has flown by and we are in Beresheet again! I know we were reading the book of Acts before the holidays, and we will get back to it, however, Genesis is such an amazing book and there are so many wonderful nuances that are completely lost in translation, that I choose to enter a new Torah Portion cycle again – along with entire Am Israel – the people of Israel! I think you would agree that the correct reading of this Book of Beginnings is crucial, because our understanding of God’s design for man depends on it! And even though these chapters are bottomless, and there are many details that can only be seen in the original Hebrew text, this year I’ve decided to focus on the message of the word adam. Mistranslations surrounding this word abound in these first chapters—while it is precisely in these chapters that the true understanding of God’s message and God’s design is so crucial. I would like to open with an amazing insight that I found in some commentaries recently, which I hope will give you hope in these strange and trying times that we live in.

And the evening and the morning …

We would all be familiar with this repeating pattern, this firm structure of the first chapter of Genesis—at the end of each day of creation, we have this sentence: “And the evening and the morning were…” Of course, this sentence occurs in every translation, but one needs to know Hebrew in order to recognize the profound idea that it represents. The Hebrew word for “evening” isערב  (erev) and it has the same root that we find in the word לערבב, meaning “to mix, to mix up, to confuse”.  On the other hand, the Hebrew for morning isבוקר  (boker), and it shares a common root with several words that have to do with checking, reviewing, even controlling. So, the sentence And the evening and the morning… is not just separating one “day” from another (whatever we understand by “day”)  –it is also a profound statement that whatever looks chaotic and confused now, will eventually be brought by God to clarity and order. And the evening and the morning were …

The “Bloody” Name

The word adam is one of the most amazing examples of things that can only be seen in Hebrew. There is so much we can say about this little Hebrew word of three letters—so many deep things that are not seen in translation and therefore are  missed completely by a vast majority of readers. My favorite example, the one that I used to start my first lesson with, is: when is the first time we meet Adam in the Bible?

When we read our English Bible, there is no Adam in Genesis 1—we first encounter Adam in Genesis 2. (Most translations introduce him in Genesis 2:20, although some do speak of Adam in verse 19). However, in Hebrew we see Adam in Genesis 1:26, in the famous: “let us make a man”. Why?

The explanation, of course, comes from the Hebrew language. While in English, Adam is always a personal name, in Hebrew, it also means “human” and can be used in both a collective and an individual sense. In Genesis 1, “adam” is used in the collective sense: not only the individual Adam, but all of humanity was created on the sixth day. In Genesis 2 and 3, the generic and personal usages are mixed. This interplay between the individual “Adam” and collective “humankind”, and the ambiguity throughout the narrative, certainly adds a new dimension and brings additional depth to the crucial events of Genesis 3 – something that is completely lost in translations.

There are two different words that ‘jump’ at us from this name. The first one is dam – blood. Why? Why would the word dam be within Adam? We know that the theme of blood goes through the entire Torah – through all the five books of Moses – but it starts here, inside of the word Adam! Clearly, this “bloody” aspect is a component of Adam’s name and Adam’s identity from the very beginning, and from the very beginning it shows us that this creature is indeed flesh and blood!

There is another Hebrew word that is connected to the original Hebrew word ‘adam’: adamah – earth, or ground. One cannot really see the etymological connection between ‘man’ and ‘ground’ in the English translation, but in Hebrew, it certainly stands out. In Hebrew, when you say “Adam” you almost hear the word adamah in this name. In fact, they correspond and correlate one to another as masculine and feminine nouns do in Hebrew, which means that their connection is very deep and intimate. For example, in Genesis 3, when God punishes Adam, it’s adamah that is cursed because of this punishment—another proof of this essential inner bond. It is very clear that this ‘earthly’ aspect is also a component of Adam’s identity. Again, why?

The traditional explanation goes like this: the man is called Adam because ‘the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth” (‘Adamah’). However, there are many different interpretations – and today I want to share with you the one that you may not have heard before. This interpretation belongs to the great Rabbi of the city of Prague (16th century), Judah Loew ben Bezalel (widely known to scholars of Judaism as ‘Maharal of Prague’). He was wondering why a man was the only one to be named after the ground—after all, were not the animals also created from the earth? Here is his answer. While the animals were created ‘almost completed,’ both man (‘Adam’) and the land or the ground (‘Adamah’), evolve and develop; they were both created in a basic, pure status, and they both require long and hard work in order to reach their greatest potential and bring forth fruit.

Let us sum up the things that we see in the first man’s name in Hebrew: Undoubtedly, the “bloody” and “earthly” aspects form the original components, not only of Adam’s identity, but of God’s message to humanity: this “flesh and blood” man needs to be developed after he comes into this world, otherwise his “bloody” and “earthly” components prevail. We see this happening almost right away, in Genesis 3 and then in Genesis 4, where both words form one of the most tragic verses in the whole Bible: The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground (קול דמי אחיך צעקים אלי מן האדמה). And, speaking about man’s development, maybe this is a good time to quote the answer that was given by a Jewish sage to a student asking the traditional question: To whom is God speaking in Genesis 1:26 when He is saying: “naase adam” – let us make man”?
The answer was: “God is speaking to you, and to me, and to everyone. From the very beginning of His Word, He is saying to everyone: ‘If you choose, if you allow me into your heart, together – you and I – through this Word, naase adam, will make a man (human) from you!’”


An Amazing Creature

Let us address yet another “lost in translation” aspect: the question of male and female. Whom did God create in Genesis 1? Everyone knows the story of Genesis 2: first, God forms Adam from dust and places him in the Garden of Eden, and only at the end of this chapter is a woman created from one of Adam’s ribs. This is the traditional understanding: Creation of the man occurs first, whereas creation of the woman occurs sometime later, after all the animals are created. However, some Jewish commentators read this story in a very different way!

Genesis 1:26 first refers to adam in the singular, but then says that “they shall rule”. Who are “they?” We find an answer in verse 27, where the nature of this creation is clarified: “male and female He created them[1]. The truth is that “let us make man[2] of English translation is a very unfortunate rendering of the Hebrew word “adam”: this word simply means “human” and doesn’t necessarily denote a male only. We see it very clearly in Genesis 5: He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them adam.[3]

So, was it one being or two? A number of rabbinic passages maintain that the first human was actually comprised of both genders. Thus, Midrash Bereshit Rabba says: “man and woman were originally undivided, i.e. adam was at first created … hermaphrodite”. In Midrash Leviticus Rabbah we read: “At the time that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, created Man, He created him as an Androgynous”. According to this concept, God creates a human who is both male and female.

In Genesis 2, God is looking at this two-gendered creature and for the first time in all His creative work He says: lo tov – “not good”[4]. This was clearly not the ideal way of creating a male/female couple, so God divided them into two separate people. That’s why, when a man and woman marry, they become “one” again: they return to God’s original design before man and woman were separated!

If this article whets your appetite for the Hebrew insights into the book of Genesis, you might be interested to read my book “In the Beginning” from the series “The Bible Stories you don’t know”. To get this or my other books, click  here. As always,  I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding  eTeacher  wonderful courses (juliab@eteachergroup.com)

 

[1] Gen. 1:27

[2] Gen. 1:26, adam here is usually translated as Man.

[3] Gen. 5:2, adam here is usually translated as Mankind.

[4] Gen. 2:18

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. smartcashbuilders

    Awesome again, very enlightening!

  2. Nick

    Thank you Julia! I’ll have to re-read this a few times. There is so much more in Genesis than the “original sin and depravity” narrative I grew up hearing! This is why I began to study Jewish thought and philosophy several years ago.
    Nick