Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bereshit 5764/ October 25, 2003

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.
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Parashat Bereshit 5764/ October 25, 2003

The Missing Samekh
Prof. Ido Kanter
Department of Physics
The significance of letter combinations as well as their order of appearance in the Torah in general and in the act of creation specifically was much deliberated in the commentaries. In this connection, one recalls the familiar question of why the Torah begins with the letter bet (Bereshit) and not aleph? Many comments have been made about this, among them: "The Torah began first with the letter bet and all the tractates of the Talmud begin on daf bet ("page 2"), so that man should be aware that he has not achieved even the letter aleph.[1]

The significance of all twenty-two letters for the wholeness of the act of creation is accepted as an approach voiced in kabbalistic literature (Sefer ha-Yezira ch. 2, section 5): "Twenty-two letters of foundation, He engraved them (hakkekan ), He chiseled them (hatzevan), He weighed them (shakelan) He purified them (tzerefan) and changed them and formed from them the soul of all things created and all that shall be created in the future".[2]

However, any person carefully reading the first chapter of Bereshit will see that all the letters occur there except for the letter samekh. To be precise, the first occurrence of the samekh is in chapter 2, verse 11, where the Pishon river is described as surrounding (sovev) the whole land of Havila. The conclusion to be drawn from these facts is that the letter samekh does not appear in the chapter depicting the creation of the world, a surprising situation that demands explanation.

Lacking a reasonable answer based on the peshat, I will try to establish an explanation based on the drash. The samekh is a geometrically closed letter,[3] as hinted by the word sagur, "closed", which itself is spelled with samekh and by its first appearance in the Torah, in the word ha-sovev, "surrounding".

As we know today, based on cosmological studies, the universe is spreading, expanding in all directions at every moment, and it may even continue to expand forever.[4] Therefore the world created by G-d could not have been created in an enclosed space, and this is hinted at by the absence of the letter samekh in the text of the creation.

I will conclude with the somewhat obscure words of the Sforno, which, however, seem to allude to a similar idea about an expanding universe:[5]
And the earth was desolate and void - That earth, which was created, was an amalgam of primeval matter called tohu and primeval form called bohu, for it would not be suitable (possible) for primeval matter to exist without being clothed in some form. This, then, was the first amalgam perforce, of matter and substance (form). The Torah is explaining that primeval matter was a totally new creation (there being no matter preceding the world's creation). The matter in this initial amalgam is called tohu for it only possesses potential but no actuality, as it says ki tohu hema "for they are vain" (I Sam. 12:21) that is, something not existing in reality, only in the imagination. The form of that initial amalgam is called bohu for in it the tohu is found, in actuality.[6] The prophet calls avne bohu "stones sunk in the primeval mire" (Is. 34:11), any object which does not remain in a given form for an appreciable period of time, just as we call the initial form bohu which immediately clothed itself in a variety of forms (namely the four elements).

[1] Itture Torah on the Book of Bereshit as well as others.
[2] My thanks to Mr. David Bennet for pointing out this source.
[3] The issue of the closed state of the samekh and the hint of limitation it contains appears in the book Igra de-Kala by Rabbi Zvi Elimelekh Shapira ( Medinov, 1910), in the name of a book Derekh Edotekha, on the verse: "And G-d said, let there be light".
[4] See Prof. M. Kaveh's article , Parashat Hashavua 364 (Hebrew).
[5] Sforno-Commentary on the Torah, trans. and ed. Raphael Pelcovitz (Artscroll, 1987), 2 vols., vol. I, page 11 (on Gen. 1:2).
[6] Sefer Habahir understands bohu as bo hu, "it is within it".