Bereshit 5767 – is Rashi Abel to Raise Cain?

(Genesis 1:1-6:8)

This week we begin the story over again. As most know, the story begins with chaos and void, God says “let there be light” and there is light, then God takes seven days to create the rest of the world, ending with male and female created in God’s image. After all this work, God takes a well deserved and blessed Shabbos schluff. This is followed by the story of the first man, another version of why the animals were created to keep the man from being lonely, and finally with the creation of the woman. We then find out that one of these creatures is a little more wilily than the rest, and it isn’t the coyote. The snake convinces this woman, now named Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and in the resulting mess everyone is booted out of Eden. The snake ends up never wearing boots again, though told might make one a home every once in a while. Today I want to pick up right where that ends.

1. And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bore Cain, and said, I have acquired a man with the Lord. 2. And she again bore his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. [Gen 4:1-2]

The story of Cain and Abel is one of those places where usually one reads the literal version, skips the genealogies afterwards and goes straight into a distant relative of theirs: Noah. Yet as one reads carefully, questions begin to show up. We are not the first to ask those questions, generations of commentators have asked the same questions. One of those questions occurs only a few verses later

4:17. And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch.

Where did he get a wife from? For those who only see this as legend, it is easy to move out of the legend and say from the next city over. But for those who want to keep the text consistent, it isn’t as easy. According to the literal text there were four people on Earth at this point: Adam, Eve, Abel, who is six feet under by this point, and Cain. No mention of girls hopping into the scene anywhere.

As I said last week, I haven’t gotten too much into Rashi yet, and one of my goals is to increase my perspectives of the text with other commentaries. Rashi, an acronym for Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, was a Medieval French commentator on texts, writing commentaries for the Torah and the Talmud. Unlike the Tannaim who wrote the midrashic commentaries, and needed to make sure everything had a logical argument, Rashi was man of few words, and would merely make a quick comment about the text, usually based on that rabbinic tradition. While the Rabbis would note multiple interpretations, Rashi would give one. In a sense Rashi did to commentary what Maimonides would do to Mitzvah in the Mishneh Torah: he standardized it. To this day, his commentary is the prime one. Open a Chumash, and more likely than not if there is Hebrew commentary it will be Rashi’s. Most orthodox do not quote Rabbinic Midrash first: they quote Rashi.

This is so true that in the earliest Chumashim with commentary, Rashi is always included, usually in a smaller font that the text. Yet for Italian printers, this presented a rather big problem due to its smallness. Very small type made of lead has a high chance of being damaged and printing wrong, particularly if it has a lot of right angles as does Hebrew. This was not the first time such a problem existed of course. The Roman font used for Latin and the rest of European languages had the same problem. The Italian printers solved the problem of the roman letters by changing the font to one with curves in it instead, named after the inventors. We therefore have the italic fonts we know today. Similarly the Jewish Italian printers in typesetting commentaries into the Tanach and Talmud used a font of small curved letters which would not break or bend in printing. But instead of naming after the typesetters, most people named it for the commentary they were most often typesetting for: Rashi.

Yet for the modern eye, it is not an easy read. And so I have avoided trying to read Rashi in the original for a while. But in this case I gave it a try, and found a few vocabulary words I did not know. Yet, after translation of one of them, I had a rather startling surprise.

CAIN…HIS BROTHER ABEL etc. the “et’s” are amplification. This is to teach you that a twin girl was born with Cain, and with Abel two (girls) were born. This is why it says “and she added” (cf. Gen R. 22)

The mystery of the missing girls is solved in a rather simple way: They married their sisters. Rashi, being a good scholar, did cite where he got this from as well, the Midrash Genesis Rabbah 22:2

AND SHE CONCEIVED AND BORE CAIN. R. Eleazar b. ‘Azariah said: Three wonders were performed on that day: on that very day they were created, on that very day they cohabited, and on that very day they produced off- spring. R. Joshua b. Karhah said: Only two entered the bed, and seven left it: Cain and his twin sister, Abel and his two twin sisters.

This doesn’t help explain much, leaves a lot more questions, but tells us where Rashi got his ideas. In tractate Yebamot there is passages which mentions the reason as Rashi mentions it

Because it is written, “And again she bore his brother Abel” [which implies:] Abel and his sister; Cain and his sister. [Yebamot 62a]

However trying to read this in English wont help much — the problem is the Rabbis and Rashi were messing with Hebrew grammar to come to their conclusion, and so it does not come over well in translation. In English when one says “The cat drank the tea” we know that the subject “cat” was doing something to the object “tea.” Because we had the word “the” in front of each noun we are talking not about general classes of things, cats and tea, but a specific thing. “A cat drank tea” is different than “A cat drank the tea.” “The tea” is a direct object. In English we have a word order of noun-verb-noun which tells us where the direct object is. But imagine we had the word order of “drank the tea the cat.” That would be difficult to figure out what was the subject and object, yet that is the order in biblical Hebrew: verb-noun-noun. To see how confusing this could be, in literal word order Genesis 1:1 reads:

Created God the Heavens and the Earth

One could be mistaken that the Earth actually created God! Yet, in Biblical Hebrew, there is a mechanism to prevent confusion. One usually marks the direct object with the word “et” in order to figure out what is the subject and what is the object. So Genesis 1:1 is actually read:

Created God (et) the Heavens and (et) the Earth

Now to our verse in chapter 4:2. Marked with et’s the verse reads:

She bore (et) his brother (et) Abel.

Grammatically, however there can be problems with this sentence. One can interpret it to mean:

She bore (et) his brother; she bore (et) Abel.

This is a fine translation, if you assume someone left out a verb. But one can question this way whether this other sibling was Abel or someone else. Yet, if you interpret that “his brother Abel” is one direct object, then you have one too many et’s! To the rabbinic mind however the Torah is perfect and everything is there for a reason. If there is an extra “et” God’s hinting at something. The phrase “She again bore” helps in seeing what. “Again” is also the word for “Add”, as Rashi mentions. There is more being born that what the text literally says, according to this hinting code. And that thing that is being hinted at is….a twin sister, which solves the problem of who would Cain marry.

Not to leave enough alone however, the Rabbis reason that if the “et” in “Abel” means a sister, maybe the “et” in 4:1 “et Cain” also means a sister. But if that is true, then the et “his brother” might mean a sister too. So in the end we have three et’s, and the three twin sisters Rashi mentions. Cain’s et is one twin sister; Abel’s two et’s are the other two.

Okay, I know what you are thinking, that I’m being a little fast and loose with the text. Yet, there was a school which was that fast and loose with the text, and they did have their detractors. We actually hear more about them again in Genesis Rabbah 22:3, dealing with our verses:

WITH THE HELP OF (ET) THE LORD.(4:1) R. Ishmael asked R. Akiba: ‘Since you have served Nahum of Gimzo for twenty-two years, [and he taught], Every ak and rak is a limitation, while every et and gam is an extension, tell me what is the purpose of the et written here?’

To make things confusing, this “et” is a different one, meaning “with.” Yet it was these schools who has issues with text interpretation. R. Ishmael, probably dripping with sarcasm, asks R. Akiba about rules which allow everything with et to have more meanings than it literally has, and every “only” with more limitations. Akiba was known to use a variety of rules which allowed one to be fast and loose with the text, in the same way we saw with this business of twins. Akiba’s rival R. Ishmael wasn’t happy with that, and in the preface to his commentary he actually published the 13 rules that he thought should be used for legal commentary, and believed all others should be invalid. And like Rashi, the 13 are perceived as the most legitimate, and are still around, even taking its place as part of the morning weekday liturgy’s morning blessings. Open an Orthodox siddur and find the Rabbi’s Kaddish between the morning blessings and the Morning Psalms. Look up a paragraph or so and there you will find R. Ishmael’s 13 rules.

But even with R. Ishmael’s system being the dominant one, raised to the point of prayer, the hermeneutic of amplification wasn’t dead. Rashi used it in our verse. In many places in Talmud, it is used, yet often accompanied with debates from rival schools about its legitimacy and its use. From the literal text, the story of Cain and Abel is one about legitimacy, and the fight about one legitimate answer. That fight continues to this day, even in the holy realm of commentary. The rabbis intellectually fought over the legitimate use of a hermeneutic precept. Rashi believed his filtered version of commentary was the legitimate one, which many still agree with. Two generations after Rashi, though, his own grandsons would challenge much of his view of the Talmud, found to this day on the opposite side of every Talmud page from grandpa. And today, the fight over the legitimacy of the literal interpretation of these first few chapters of Genesis continues.

Cain and Abel may have started the story of who is legitimate, but it continues today. Yet thinking about this explanation I also noted something else. Everything had its twin, or even two. For every male there was at least one female, for every opinion there was a least one dissenting one. Being absolutely right, as Cain became by killing his brother was a mistake. It is in the dialogue and debate that everything grows. Although to make things easier to understand we have Rashi, and Mishneh Torah and its successor the Shulcan Aruch, those codifications kill debate. And it is in the debate of Torah that, As the Perkei Avot reminds us, the Sechinah resides.

May your dialogues be good ones.


Trainer, App developer. Author. Artist. Proprietor of and Host of Slice of App Pie Show

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