MeAm Lo'ez on Bereishit
The First Day of Creation

Commentary 'excerpts' taken from Yalkut MeAm Lo'ez - Rabbi Yaakov Culi

1:1 IN THE BEGINNING of G-d's creating the heavens and the earth -

Alexander the Great ruled the Greek empire for twelve years and traveled all over the world. (Sefer Yuchsin) When he arrived in the southern part of the Holy Land, he posed a number of questions to the Jewish Elders. (Tamid 32a)

One of his questions was, "What was created first, heaven or earth? Or were they both created together?"

The Elders replied that heaven was created first, basing this on the order of the Scripture, "In the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth." Other Sages had different opinions. The Beit Shammai held that heaven was created first, while the Beit Hillel maintained that the earth was created first. The majority opinion was that they were both created simultaneously. (Chagigah 2; Bereishit Rabbah 8)

One of the foundations of Judaism is the belief that G-d created the world at the precise instant that He desired.

The seventy-two Elders, who translated the Torah into Greek for Ptolemy (Talmi), king of Egypt of the Greek Empire, saw a number of items which could cause harm if translated literally. (Rabbi Bachya ibn pakudah, 1050-1120) Realizing that the king and his men would not be satisfied with various explanations, they changed several phrases that were likely to be misinterpreted.

One of the verses that they changed was this one, "In the beginning G-d created..." In Hebrew, this is bereishit bara Elokim, which can literally be translated as "In the beginning created G-d." One might logically think that the Torah should begin with the diety's name, and therefore one might erroneously think that His Name was "In the Beginning" (Bereishit), and that He created G-d. They therefore changed the order of this verse, translating it as "G-d created in the beginning (Elokim bara bereishit) the heaven and the earth." (Other examples of such changes will be explained, each in its appropriate place.)

From this we see that one must not say anything that may harm people's faith.

The Torah did not say "G-d created in the beginning" in order to demonstrate G-d's humility. (Yalkut; Kli Yakar) Other kings always wish to place their names before everything else. But G-d does not wish to place His Name at the beginning, but in the middle of things.

We also see that before anything else, G-d alludes to Yisrael, which is called a "beginning." (Rashi, from Yirmeyahu 2:3) From here we learn that one should not seek honor and seek to sit in the front. It is a good practice to grant honor tot he lowly.

The second allusion here is to the fact that the world was created only for the sake of the Torah, which is also called a "beginning," (Bereishit Rabbah; Rashi) Since it was created two thousand years before the universe. (Zohar Chadash, p. 8; Bachya) If a person is not concerned with keeping the Torah, he causes the world to deteriorate, and will bejudged accordingly in the end.

Torah Study

After a person dies, he is brought before the heavenly tribunal and is asked, "did you set aside times for Torah?" (Shabbat 2) He must answer yes or no.

G-d told Klal Yisrael, "My children, although I have created an Evil Urge in you, I have also created a good remedy for it. This remedy is the Torah. As long as you study Torah, the Evil urge has no power over you; but if you do not study Torah, then it has the power to make you sin and lose out in the Future World." (Yoma, p. 22; Yalkut, Chapter 37)

One therefore has the obligation to spend at least some time during the day, as well as an hour at night, studying Torah, and he must take it upon himself as an absolute obligation, reciting some Tehillim, reading the Midrash, Ein Yaakov ("Eye of Jacob," the non-legalistic portions of the Talmud, compiled by Rabbi Yaakov ibn Chaviv [1459-1516]), Reshit Chachmah ("The Beginning of Wisdom," by Rabbi Eliahu di Vidas [1550-1587], a major moralistic classic), or Shevet Mussar ("The Staff of Moralism," by Rabbi Eliahu ben Avraham Shlomo HaKohen of Izmir [1650-1729], another important moralistic classic), according to his ability.

One must not say, "When I have leisure, I will study Torah." (Avot) If he does, he will never have such leisure.

Also, let us look into the precise wording of the question that will be asked on Yom HaDin, "Did you set aside times for Torah?" The question could have been simply, "Did you study Torah?" But from the wording, we see that one must actually set aside specific times for his Torah study. (Orach Chayim 155) When this time comes, one must put everything else aside and put all of his affairs out of mind, so as to fulfill his obligation. If some emergency prevents him from studying by day, he should make it up by night, and not go to sleep with his obligation unfulfilled. (Ibid. 238)

The Torah begins with the words, "In the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth." This teaches that everything in heaven and earth was created for the sake of the Torah, which is called a "beginning."

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said that the reason why the Torah does not begin with G-d's Name, saying "G-d created in the beginning," is to teach us not to pronounce G-d's Name in vain. (Bereishit Rabbah 1)

NOTE: In both the Shema' and in the beginning of the Torah, G-d's Name occurs after two words.

Later we shall discuss how the angels cannot pronounce G-d's Name until after they say three words, and the Jew can pronounce it after two words. In any case, one should not use G-d's Name at the beginning of a sentence.

It is therefore a mistake to use a greeting such as, "G-d grant you a good Shabbat," or "G-d grant you a good holiday." Rather, one should say, "A good Shabbat may G-d grant you," or "A good festival may G-d grant you."

Similarly, we find that when a person wished to donate a sacrifice to the Temple, he was forbidden to say, "To G-d an offering." Instead, he said, "An offering to G-d."

The reason for this is that no man knows the sum of his days. it is possible for a person to pronounce G-d's Name and then die immediately, before his words are completed. He will then have pronounced G-d's Name in vain.

This is taught by the very first verse in the Torah, "In the beginning G-d created," which teaches that one should even mention G-d's Name at the beginning of a sentence, lest it be pronounced in vain.

1:2 when the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the surface of the deep, and the Divine Presence hovered upon the surface of the waters -

The Torah did not have to tell us what the earth was like before creation, but it does so to teach that everything, without exception, was created in these six days. (Kli Yakar) After this, nothing new would be formed, and nothing that was completed would be changed. The world constantly follows a single set of laws, which were set in the days of creation.

The wicked might then say, "It is impossible for our sins to cause any damage to the world. This would be a change, and, as such, impossible." So the Torah states, "The earth was chaos and void." If a flood is sent from on high to destroy the world, or a fire is sent to consume its inhabitants and annihilate the wicked, this is not considered a change.

At the very beginning the world was "chaos and void." The world as we know it was created out of this state only so people should keep the Torah and not sin. This was a clear condition of creation. If people do not keep the Torah, the world will revert to its original state of chaos and void. Since this was the world's original state, it is not considered a change.

1:3 G-d said, "Let there be light," and there was light.

The Torah now begins to inform us about all the things that were created on each day.

There was a dispute between Rabbi Yehudah and the other Sages regarding the order of creation. (Yalkut; Bachya) According to Rabbi Yehudah, the universe was created in six days, as would be implied by a literal reading of the Scriptures. Rabbi Nehemiah, on the other hand, maintained that everything was created in the very first instant through G-d's original word. All that happened on the other days was that specific things were revealed; everything had been prepared on the first day.

The world was created in the Hebrew month of Nissan (April). (Rosh Hashanah 1) Others maintain that it was created in Tishrei (September). (Targum Yonatan on Bereishit 7:11) Actually, both opinions are correct. In Tishrei, G-d had the thought to create the world, but the actual creation took place in Nissan. (Tosefot, rosh Hashanah p. 22) [Although this is difficult to understand,] it was G-d's will.

Ten things were created on the first day: (Chagigah 12a)

  • Heaven. G-d combined fire and water and congealed them to form the heavens.
  • Earth. This is the sphere surrounded by the heavens. (Yerushalmi, Avodah Zarah 3; Bamidbar Rabbah 13; Yad, Yesodei HaTorah 3)
  • Light.
  • Darkness
  • Chaos. This is said to be an azure substance that surrounds the universe, from which darkness emanates. (Chagigah 12a)
  • Void. This is said to consist of great stones from which the subterranean waters emanate. They are bound there in order to punish the wicked for their sins. (Zohar 11a)
  • Water.
  • Day
  • Night. Light was set aside for day, and darkness for night. Each functions in its proper time, and the two do not mix.
  • The winds that blow from the four directions.

The Four Winds

Our Sages teach that four winds blow each day from the four directions. (Zohar Chadash 13a)

The east wind blows from morning until noon. This brings with it many breezes which bring healing to the world, under the direction of the angel Michael.

The west wind blows from noon until nightfall. It brings along breezes which give beauty to growing things, under the direction of the angel Rafael.

One may ask that since the east wind brings healing, it should be under the direction of Rafael, since he is the angel of healing. But this teaches that everything is in G-d's hand. It is He who sends sickness, and He who provides a cure. One should not depend on any angel, since angels cannot do anything without G-d's permission.

The expected malakh is therefore not in charge of the wind associated with healing. One should set his eyes on high, and repent according to the teachings of the Torah. If he has merit, G-d will then send His angel to heal him.

The south wind blows from the beginning of the night, and it brings along many breezes which warm its coldness. All these are under the direction of the angel Uriel. This wind is very harmful to the sick, but in general, it is beneficial for the world. This is also the time when the wicked in purgatory are judged, since everyone is asleep and there are none to pray for them.

The north winds blows from midnight to daybreak, bringing along many breezes. Strongest of all the winds, it is beneficial for the sick, and for this reason, they feel better in the morning. G-d makes it blow before the righteous in Gan Eden, and they smell the sweet fragrance of its tree and herbs.

When the wind blows strongly, one who hears it should say the blessing. (Orach Chayim 287)

Baruch atah Hashem Elokeinu Melech ha-olam Oseh maaseh vereishit
Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Maker of the work of creation.

After the north wind blows, the heavens and their host, together with the angels, begin to sing praise before G-d. They are joined by the righteous in Gan Eden.

King David was able to determine the precise moment of midnight. He kept a harp hanging over his bed, and when the north wind would blow on it at midnight, it would wake him up. He would then recite psalms of praise to G-d.

The winter nights are very long, and many people remain up until close to midnight, engaged in their affairs. When they hear the cock crow, each one should study a short Torah lesson in any language that he understands. (Orach Chayim 1) Even if it is very short, G-d accepts it, since the intention is good.

In our introduction, we discussed dividing the weekly portion so that one could study some in the morning and the rest before bedtime. It is not proper to go through the entire section by day and not learn anything at night.

If words of Torah are heard in a house by night, there is a promise that it will not be destroyed. (Eruvin 2) Bit if words of Torah are not heard at night, it can cause fire to break out, destroying many homes and cuasing much tragedy. (Sanhedrin 10) One should therefore put effort into learning Torah at night.

One must not think that he can fulfill this obligation by studying Torah one night a week. The neshama is not satisfied with this. He must study Torah every night; just as he must sleep each night, and eat every day, so must he study Torah.

Everything depends on habit. If one begins studying every night, it soon becomes second nature to such an extent that he will not be able to fall asleep without his nightly lesson. We know that if, for any reason, a religious Jew forgets to pray, he feels an intense lack. This is strong evidence that the soul cannot sustain itself without keeping the mitzvot and studying the Torah.

Our Sages also taught us that when the east wind blows, all the other winds are still. (Gittin 31a) The north wind also blows with the other daily winds, and without it, the world could not edure them. Since the north wind is temperate, neither too hot nor too cold, it offsets the effects of the other winds.

1:4 G-d saw that the light was good, and G-d separated between the light and the darkness.

The light that was created on the first day was extremely brilliant. We can have some idea of it if we imagine a small room filled with intense lights, illuminating it from all sides.

With this primeval light, it was possible to see from one end of the universe to the other. (Bereishit Rabbah; Tosefot, Shabbat 22) One could see not only tangible things, but even ethereal things, which are normally invisible. (Zohar 2; Moed Katan, Chapter 2; Chagigah 12a; Yad Yosef. Also see Zohar Chadash) This light was very fine, filled with glowing mental power. Through it, one could attain knowledge with which he could see to the ends of the world. (Bereyshit Rabbah; Zohar Chadash)

Since human beings would be evil, such as those in the generations of the Great Flood, the Tower of Bavel, and the idolatrous contemporaries of Enosh, they were not worthy of enjoying this light. G-d therefore set it aside for the righteous in the Olam Haba. The light that remains in our world is merely a seventh of the light that existed during the days of creation. Some say that this primeval light was 60,075 times as bright as the light of the sun.

1:5 G-d called to the light: "Day," and to the darkness He called: "Night." And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

G-d formed the light out of the darkenss itself. it is therefore possible to call night "day." Thus, for example, in the Shabbat eve prayer, we say "this Shabbat day," even thought it is night. Similarly, on the eve of the Rosh Chodesh we say, "This day of the Rosh Chodesh." The same is true of all the other festivals. It might seem logical to change the wording so as to say, "This night of the Shabbat," or "this night of the Rosh Chodesh." But since light was created from the substance of darkness, it is appropriate to call darkness "day." (Bachya)

For this reason, the Torah states, "It was evening, and it was morning, one day." It does not say "the first day," as it subsequently states, "the second day," and "the third day." The intent is to teach that both day and night are considered "one day." (Author's own opinion)

Since the Torah states, "It was evening and it was morning," we learn that day follows night. (Chulin, Chapter 5) [It is for this reason that the Shabbat and festivals begin at sunset of the night before.] It might seem logical that night should follow day, but the opposite is true, [since light was created out of darkness].

Some say that eight things were created on the first day, while another opinion lists only four. (Pikei Rabbi Eliezer; Yalkut 5)

Everything was made by G-d Himself.

Even though the angels logically should have been created on the first day, G-d did not wish to do so, since it might then be assumed that they helped Him in the act of creation. (Bereishit Rabbah) For this reason nothing intelligent was created on the first day.

The only living thing created on the first day was the Angel of Death. This angel is alluded to by the "darkness" in the verse, "and darkness on the face of the deep." (Yafeh Toar) Since it is universally known that this angel's task is to destroy, none would say that it participated in the original act of creation.

There is an opinion that the angels were created on the first day, even before the heaven and earth. (Zohar Chadash 88a) According to another opinion, the first thing to be created was the Throne of Glory, followed by the angels, the earth, Gan Eden, and Adam. (Ibid. 76a) Things created before heaven and earth are not mentioned in the Torah, since mortal humans need not ponder hidden things, and not everyone is fit to learn the mysteries of the Torah. The Torah therefore begins with the creation of heaven. If a person attempts to seek that which is beyond his ken, he is told, "Lift your eyes to the heavens and gaze at the sky and all its host. Your mind cannot even grasp all this. Therefore, study the Torah to know what you must do." (Ibid. 89a)

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