Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ha’azinu-Shabbat Shuva 5768/ Parashat Bereshit 5768/ October 6, 2007

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 Poetry of Creation


Tzvi Shimon


The Paul and Helene Schulman Center for Basic Jewish Studies


One of the prominent characteristics of Scripture is its wide variety of literary styles and genres.   Biblical works can be divided into those that are written primarily in prose, such as the historical books (e.g. Early Prophets) and the assorted law codes, and those that are mostly poetry (for example, Psalms and the Song of Songs) , which would include the wisdom literature (Job, Kohelet) and poetic passages in the latter prophets. [1]   In many books one finds both styles combined, whether in a single narrative or in a cycle of narratives.

Scholars have tried to understand the combination of styles and have raised several hypotheses to explain the presence of poems or fragments of poetry within prose passages. [2]   I would like to examine two examples of transition from prose to poetry in Parashat Bereshit, and suggest an explanation for both of them.

The first account of creation is characterized for the most part by its concise and uniform style.  However, the structure which is repeated for each of the six days of creation – “G-d said … and G-d saw… [3] and G-d called … and there was evening and there was morning” – is put aside when we come to the seventh day.  Just as the Sabbath contrasts with the six days of creation in terms of its content – resting as opposed to doing and creating--the poetic style of the verses that deal with the Sabbath differs markedly from the prose style of the six days of creation.  Scripture suddenly comes forth with a poetic style, characterized by parallel constructions and repetitions (Gen. 2:1-3):

Introductory words:   “The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array.”

1.     On the seventh day G-d finished the work that He had been doing,

2.     And He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done.

3.     And G-d blessed the seventh day and declared it holy,

Concluding words: “because on it G-d ceased from all the work of creation that He had done.”

Not everyone perceives that these verses, recited at Kiddush on the eve of the Sabbath, are none other than a poem, a song for the Sabbath day.  The poem is comprised of five lines:  an opening, the body of the poem, and a concluding line.  The refrain is the identical expression melakhto asher ‘asa in lines 1 and 2, “the work that He had done,” as well as the words, “the seventh day.”  The first and second lines parallel each other, as do the two halves of the third line.  The first two lines in the body of the poem begin with a verb and continue with the refrain “the seventh day,” with the addition of the phrase, “the work that He had done.”  They are also semantically parallel, relating the same message–G-d ceased from His work on the seventh day.   The two halves of the third line of the poem parallel each other in content and include two verbs in place of the single predicate in the earlier two lines, giving the seventh day a special status – He blessed and He sanctified.   The parallel constructions and the repetitions clearly indicate that the account of the seventh day in the narrative of creation is presented in poetic form.   It should further be noted that each of the three lines in the body of the poem consists of seven words.   Thus, the song of the Sabbath deliberately revolves around the number seven, which might be considered another poetic touch.

The marked change in style and the transition from prose to poetry in the story of creation apparently is intended to emphasize the juxtaposition of the Sabbath to the days of creative work.   The contrast between these days finds expression in the difference of style.  The days of creating form a continuum of orderly activity, formulated in an identical prose style that suits their essence.   The Sabbath, the day of sanctity and rest, the day on which all creative activity is suspended, is described in poetry.

The Garden of Eden

We find a transition from prose to poetry also in the story of the garden of Eden.  The prose narrative switches to poetry with Adam’s response to the creation of woman (Gen. 2:23):

This one [Heb. zot] at last/ Is bone of my bones/ And flesh of my flesh.

This one [le-zot] shall be called Woman/ For from Man was she [Heb. zot] taken.

This verse employs many characteristics of poetry.   It has a clear rhythm:   the first line is comprised of three stichs (a stich is a unit of poetry; the Greek word stichos means “a line”) of two stresses each; the second line has two stichs of equal weight and three stresses each.  In the first line, the construction, “bone of my bones,” parallels the phrase, “flesh of my flesh.”  The second line has a chiastic structure (A-B-B-A):  the word zot (= this one) begins the first clause and concludes the second; the word ishah (= woman) concludes the first clause and its parallel, the word ish (= man), begins the second clause; further, in both parts of the sentence the verb appears in the middle.   There is a play on words between ish and ishah and assonance (identical sounds).   Likewise, there is a three-fold repetition of the word zot (= “this one,” female), to emphasize the subject of the poem – woman.

Expression and Content

The poetic style of Adam’s words stands out in contrast to the prose style that characterizes the surrounding narrative, expressing a change in mood.  Until Woman was created, man felt lonely; even G-d affirmed that “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18).  Nor did the creation of the animals provide a remedy, since this attempt ended with a declaration of dissatisfaction:  “But for Adam no fitting helper was found” (Gen. 2:20).  The bleak mood of loneliness and lack of completeness in the works of creation took a turn for the better with the creation of Woman.   The man breaks out in song, in a poem that expresses his rejoicing. This stands in sharp contrast to the loneliness that he felt in the preceding prose narrative.

It follows from these examples that sometimes changes in the literary genre, such as a transition from prose to poetry, are intended to create or emphasize a contrast in the existing story.   In the first account of creation, the transition from prose to poetry brings out the essential difference between the day of rest and the six days of activity.  In the story of the garden of Eden, the transition from prose to poetry emphasizes Adam’s rejoicing over the creation of Woman, in contrast to his loneliness prior to her creation.

In the wake of these two poems in Parashat Bereshit, the Song of the Sabbath and the Song about Woman, we continue to sing in praise of the Sabbath day (by saying Kiddush) and in praise of the Woman of Valor (reciting Eshet Hayyil, “A Woman of Valor”, ch. 31 of Proverbs, on Friday night).

[1] There is an approach that takes issue with a sharp distinction between prose and poetry in the Bible.  J. L. Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry, Parallelism and its History, New Haven 1981, pp. 59-95, gives broadest expression to this approach, preferring to relate to different levels in the stylistic flow of the text.  See  R. Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, New York 1985, pp. 3-6.

[2] For example, J. W. Watts, “‘This Song:’ Conspicuous Poetry in Hebrew Prose,” in Verse in Ancient Near Eastern Prose, ed. J.C. de Moor and W.G.E. Watson (AOAT 42), Darmstadt 1993, pp.345-358.

[3] Appears in all days of creation, save for the second day.