Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bereshit 5769/ October 25, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


The Lord and Regret

Dr. Yair Barkai


The concluding verses of this week’s reading (Gen. 6:5-8) raise a number of difficulties, one of which we shall focus on in this article:

The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.   And the Lord regretted [va-yinahem] that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened.

The Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created – men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret [ki nihamti] that I made them.”

But Noah found favor with the Lord.

The verb n-h-m that appears in these verses means to regret.  But how can one attribute regret to the Holy One, blessed be He?  Biblical commentators have dealt with the problem of the corporeality of G-d that is raised by these verses ("His heart was saddened") as well as with the theological difficulty of understanding the regret that is ascribed to G-d, taking vastly different approaches:

The Question is Out of Place

Some commentators hold that discussing such questions is out of place, among them the author of Kli Yakar:

The issue of this regret … has been plumbed to the depths, many scholars dwelling at great lengths to find an answer, one saying this and another that, but they all are but striving to conceptualize.   There are many similar issues in the Torah that are obscure and unfathomable, and with all of them my mind tells me definitively not to dwell at length on their interpretation, because human intelligence cannot encompass them, because all these uncertainties arise due to our imagining the Almighty’s capacity of knowing to be like our own, but Scripture tells us the opposite:  “For My plans [or thoughts] are not your plans” (Isaiah 55:8).   So how can we fathom the thoughts of the Almighty when we have no power to even imagine them?

In his opinion, the difficulty stems from a mistaken perception on the part of those who try to attribute to G-d ways of thinking that are similar to human thought, something that had been ruled out by the prophet Isaiah, as cited above.  If we internalize the notion of the human inability to grasp the way the Divine functions, we rule out the questions that we have raised and other similar questions.

The Metaphorical Approach

Most commentators invoke the Talmudic saying, “The Torah speaks in human terms,” [1] as a response to the difficulties raised above.  For example, Radak:  “When it says that He ‘regretted,’ this is the Torah speaking in human terms, for in truth, ‘He is not human that He should change his mind [le-hinahem]’ (I Sam. 15:29), for in the Almighty there is no change of will.”   A similar interpretation is given by Ibn Ezra and Nahmanides.

The generally accepted understanding of this expression is that even though the Torah is divine, its language is human.   The corporeal expression that “His heart was saddened” can also be understood in this manner.   This sort of expression was used so that the reader would understand what was being said about an abstract deity.   Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed 1.26; Friedlander translation, p. 111) has this to say on the matter:

You, no doubt, know the Talmudical saying, which includes in itself all the various kinds of interpretation connected with our subject.  It runs thus:  “The Torah speaks according to the language of man,” that is to say, expressions, which can easily be comprehended and understood by all, are applied to the Creator.    Hence the description of G-d by attributes implying corporeality, in order to express His existence:   because the multitude of people do not easily conceive existence unless in connection with a body, and that which is not a body nor connected with a body has for them no existence.

The redactor of the most recent Hebrew edition, Moshe Schwartz, comments on this:

In the Talmud this remark is to say that the Torah contains certain verses that should be taken in the plain sense and not expounded homiletically…   Maimonides gives this saying an altogether different meaning.  Maimonides uses this expression … to say that the Torah employs language that is suited to the understanding of the masses, and therefore one should not take the Torah’s words at face value.  Thus it appears that Maimonides gives this expression exactly the opposite meaning it had in the Talmud.

The Lexicographic Approach

Some commentators base their resolution of the difficulties presented by these verses on linguistic considerations, as does Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:

Hinahem (Nif'al) denotes:  to change one’s opinion due to some external factor.  Thus it was with Saul:  “I regret” (nihamti – the Lord said to Samuel; I Sam. 15:11).  Although the Lord had made Saul king, Saul no longer was worthy of the crown.  Saul having changed, the Divine decision also changed…  Human beings, however, change their minds on their own, with no external factor … and for that the expression is mitnahem (hitpa'el, a reflexive form of the verb).  Therefore it says of the Lord (Numbers 23:19), “G-d is not man to be capricious, or mortal to change His mind [ve-yitneham].”

Thus the nehamah, or change of mind, does not stem from a process of regret on the part of the deity, but rather is a response to His observation of the errant behavior of human beings:  “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth.” It was that external factor, and not regret regarding His original plan, that led to G-d’s change of mind.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch concluded his remarks with a philosophical-theological note:

Permit us a general remark on the use of corporeal imagery in the Bible. Scholars have philosophized about these expressions in order to keep human beings away from corporeal views, ultimately creating the danger that the character of the deity will become increasingly obscured.  Had this been the Torah’s objective, it could easily have avoided using such expressions.  However, avoiding anthropomorphic expressions would present a greater danger than the former.  The corporeal expressions in this passage safeguard two fundamental tenets of the faith:   the freedom of G-d and the freedom of man.   For it says, “The Lord saw.…”   This means that the evil of man was not inevitable; G-d saw man’s wickedness before He knew about it:   this expression is confirmation of man’s freedom.  The fate of man is not a result of physical causality; before coming to a decision, the Lord considered the matter, and He was saddened by his verdict.  All this confirms the Lord’s character and preserves the purity of the faith.  This view is shared by the eminent Jewish scholar, Rabad:  “Faith in G-d’s personality, as it were, is more important than the learned investigations done by those who wish to deny corporeality” (Glosses of Rabad, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3.7). [2]

The Midrash Approach

Genesis Rabbah (Theodor-Albeck edition), chapter 27:

And the Lord regretted that He had made  Rabbi Judah said:  I regretted having created him on earth, for had I created him in Heaven he would not have rebelled against Me.  Rabbi Nehemiah said:   I am comforted [menuham] that I created him on earth, for had I created him in Heaven, just as he stirred rebellion among the beings on earth, so too would he have stirred rebellion among the Heavenly beings.  Rabbi Aivo said:   I regret creating an evil impulse in him, for had I not created an evil impulse in him, he would not have rebelled against Me.  Rabbi Levi said:   I am comforted [menuham] that I made him out of the earth. 

And His heart was saddened – Rabbi Berakhya said:  It is like a king who built a palace after the plans of an architect, and upon seeing the palace he did not like it.  With whom should he be displeased?  Is it not with the architect?  So too G-d's heart was saddened.  A gentile once asked Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah, “Do you not admit that the Holy One, blessed be He, knows what is to happen in the future?”  “Yes,” he replied.  “But is it not written, ‘His heart was saddened’?”  Rabbi Korhah responded, “Have you ever had a son born to you?”   “Yes,” he said.   “And what did you do?”   Responded the gentile, “I rejoiced and made others rejoice also.”  “But did you not know that in the end he must die?”  “At the time of joy," he said, "let there be joy and at the time of mourning let there be mourning.”  “So, too,” Rabbi Korhah said, “is the way of the Holy One, blessed, be He, for Rabbi Judah ben Levi said that the Holy One, blessed be He, mourned over His world for seven days before bringing on the Flood, for it says, ‘His heart was saddened…’ and later it says that the king grieved over his son (II Sam. 19:3).”

In the above passage two pairs of Sages have a difference of opinion over the expression va-yinahem.   With the first pair, Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah, the former interprets the expression as regret, and the second as consolation, from the word nehemah.  Rabbi Aivo follows Rabbi Judah, and Rabbi Levi follows Rabbi Nehemiah.  Thus the Creator’s attitude towards identical objects, in Heaven and on earth, changes diametrically according to the interpretation of the word va-yinahem.

The parables in the second part of the homily relate the two problems with which we have dealt (the corporeality of G-d and the idea of His feeling regret) to the expression, “His heart was saddened.”  The question that is put in the mouth of the non-believer shows a negative attitude toward the expression, since it ostensibly shows a flaw in the faith.   The author of the commentary, Yefeh To’ar (Rabbi Samuel Yafeh Ashkenazi, Turkey, 16th century), finds a difficulty with the homily, and has the following to say:

Indeed, the comparison does not sit well.  For there [in the parable] the father rejoices in his offspring, even though he will ultimately die, for it is the way of the world for those who are born to die, and he rejoices in the days of life that are allotted him.   But here, (in what the parable supposedly explains), the Lord wipes them out in a flood, when they were not created to this end; so how can one maintain that the Scriptural expression, “His heart was saddened,” means that initially He rejoiced in their creation; and how could the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoice in His creatures that are doomed because of their evil, given that He knows what lies in the future?   This difficulty probably accounts for Rashi adding to the words of the homily the comment, “So, too, is the way of the Holy One, blessed, be He:  although it was clear to Him that in the end men would sin, and would be destroyed, He did not refrain from creating them for the sake of the righteous men who were to issue from them.”      

In line with this we can understand why the weekly reading for this Sabbath  concludes with verse 8:  “But Noah found favor with the Lord.”  A hint to what we have said herein can be found in Noah’s very name, which attests to his essence (Gen. 5:29):   “And he named him Noah, saying, ‘this one will provide us relief [connecting Noah with Heb. niham, “to comfort”] from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the Lord placed under a curse.’”

[1] This expression frequently arises in the Talmud as representing Rabbi Ishmael’s approach; for example, see Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 3a.

[2] Rabbi Hirsch’s explanation fits in with the interpretations in the Vitri mahzor and in Rashbatz (Magen Avot 51b) of Rabbi Akiva’s well-known remark:  “All is foreseen [tzafui], yet freedom of choice is granted” (Avot 3.15).   Tzafui can also be taken to mean observed at the time an act is done, and not as in the usual interpretation (by Maimonides) – foreseen before the act is committed.