In honor of Simchat Torah, the holiday on which Jews celebrate the yearly completion of reading the entire Bible and begin the cycle again, scholars and laymen alike ask the question, “Why does the Torah begin with, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1) rather than starting with the first Biblical commandment, which arrives much later, the blessing of the new moon?”
“There are many rabbinical discourses on this topic,” stated Roni Segal, academic adviser for eTeacher, an online language academy specializing in Biblical Hebrew, to Breaking Israel News. “Some of these interesting insights are gleaned only by understanding Hebrew.”
The first sentence of the Bible reads in Hebrew:
בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
B’raysheet ba-RA Eh-lo-HEEM ayt ha-sha-MA-yim v’-ayt ha-A-retz
Ayt is made up of the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph/tav. In fact, the Hebrew alphabet is referred to as aleph/tav. Therefore, the literal translation of the first sentence in the Bible can be understood as, “In the beginning, God created the Hebrew alphabet and then He created the heavens and the earth.” From this, the sages understood that the the Hebrew alphabet was used as building blocks to create the heavens and the earth.
Another explanation is that aleph/tav is read as ayt (אֵת). Ayt is an unusual Hebrew word which does not have an exact translation and is not found in other languages. It is used to point people in the direction of the object of a sentence and also indicates that something is complete. Ayt, in this context, teaches that God created the heavens and earth in their totality.
This idea is also indicated by the seven Hebrew words which make up this opening sentence. The number seven, in Judaism, represents completion. For example, the Sabbath is the seventh day. God created the world in six days and on the seventh day it was completed and therefore, He rested. The world was complete.
Additionally, the sages discuss the significance of beginning the Torah with a beit rather than an aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Aleph, which represents God Himself, has the numerical value of one in Biblical numerology. God instead chose to start the Torah with the letter beit (בְּ), which has the value of two.
“Jewish tradition teaches that God created the world in order to have relationship with his creation,” explained Segal to Breaking Israel News. “This is symbolized by the Torah beginning with the letter beit which indicates duality-the meeting of heaven with earth. God wants man to actively seek Him out and pray towards Him.”
The letter beit also stands for “dwelling place”, “house” and “palace” as in the word bayit (בַּיִת). By starting the Hebrew Bible with this letter, God is symbolically communicating with us that we should make the Bible a place where we dwell, feel at home and and become the prince and princess to the King.
“On Simchat Torah, as we complete the yearly reading of the Torah and immediately beginning again, we are reminded that the Bible must always be kept in our hearts and minds,” noted Segal. “We know that God created a world where nothing is random. Therefore, it is intriguing to note that the last word in the Torah is יִשְׂרָאֵל (Israel). This makes the last Hebrew letter of the Torah a lamed (ל). Connecting this last letter with the first letter of the Bible beit together, forms the word lev (לב). Lev means heart. Studying the Bible, especially in Hebrew enters the heart and builds love for God and His creations.”
Learn more about Biblical Hebrew here.