Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Noah 5768/ October 13, 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,



“For in His Image”


Dr. Shimon Eliezer (Shubert) Spero


Basic Jewish Studies


The very first chapter of Genesis mentions the important anthropological fact that human beings were created in the image of G-d. This is mentioned again in this week’s reading (Gen. 9:6) and we want to discuss its significance.

In chapter 1 we read, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (1:26); “And G-d created man in His image, in the image of G-d He created him; male and female He created them” (1:27).   The Torah does not say what set of traits comprises that which is called the “image of G-d.”   Perhaps from the blessing that G-d gave them in the verse which immediately follows – “fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth” (1:28) – we are to understand that the image of G-d in man has to do with those characteristics that enable him or her to master nature and rule over all the other animals. In this context we must examine what characteristics human beings have that make them unique in comparison to all other creatures.  From the word “likeness” (Heb. demut) it appears that what is meant is certain characteristics of human beings in respect of which they can be thought to resemble (domeh) G-d in a certain sense. [1]

The Breath of Life

The description of the creation of man in chapter 2 teaches us more about the unique characteristics with which humans were created, even though the terms tzelem (=image) and demut (likeness) are not mentioned:  “The Lord G-d formed man from the dust of the earth.  He blew the breath of life into his nostrils, and man became a living being” (2:7).  It turns out that G-d, in making man, used elements of the earth that had already been created: the earth contributed the body (the material) and G-d gave the soul (the spirit).   Since the Zohar says that “He who instilled the breath of life, blew it from Himself,” we may conclude that every human being has in him or her a “part” of G-d, as it were.   Yet the question stands:   which of those characteristics in human beings can be said to reflect the “image of G-d”?

According to the hints and implications of these verses, most commentators conclude that the image of G-d in man is the power to “understand and think” (Rashi), “the intellect” (Sforno), “wisdom and knowing” (Nahmanides), “the intellectual comprehension through which human beings raise themselves above all other living things” (Maimonides); some add the power of free choice (Sforno) and “the talent of making and doing” (Nahmanides).

It seems to me that in order to understand the significance of the “image of G-d” in human beings, we must understand the ultimate purpose of humans in the world.  Concisely stated, one could say that the objective is for humans to make themselves into moral beings (see Micah 6:8, Jeremiah 9:22). [2]   Philosophical analysis of the concepts of moral judgment and moral responsibility reveals that for any living being to be thought of as having responsibility, that being must have intelligence and cognition, the power of speech, self-awareness, moral understanding, and free choice. [3]   By any empirical examination, these faculties exist only in human beings, and according to the description given by the Torah, they are characteristics that belong to G-d Himself.   Thus we can say that these are the characteristics that were included in the “image of G-d” and were instilled in human beings with the intention of providing them with the necessary tools to be moral agents.  In this context perhaps we can understand the famous (although not so easily comprehendible) saying of Rabbi Akiva (Avot 3.14):

Beloved [of G-d] is man, for he was created in the image [of G-d]; greater still was the love [shown him] in that it was made known to him that he was created in the image of G-d, as it is said: for in His image did G-d make man. 

This saying is somewhat difficult.   Why did Rabbi Akiva choose to cite the verse from this week’s reading (Gen. 9:6), when the original and most suitable verse appears to be the verse in chapter 1? Furthermore, if Rabbi Akiva was referring not only to Jews but to all mankind (“beloved is man”), do we expect the entire world to read the Torah and “know” from there that they were created in the image of G-d?

The full verse in Parashat Noah reads:   “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did G-d make man.”   According to the Sages, this verse prohibits murder and is one of the seven commandments required of the descendants of Noah. [4]   However, the formulation here is unlike that of other proscriptions commanded of the descendants of Israel.   In contrast to the usual formulation, “You shall/must not …,” such as that found in the proscription against eating “live flesh” – “You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it” (9:4, also see Rashi on this verse) – the prohibition against bloodshed takes the form of a passing remark in the context of various instructions given under the heading of G-d’s “blessing” to the survivors of the flood:   “G-d blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them. . .” (9:1). The prohibition against bloodshed was not written as a direct command to human beings, rather as G-d’s response to the possibility that humans might shed their fellow’s blood.   In such a case G-d tells us that He will require that person’s life; his blood shall be shed.

The Moral Image

The formulation “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” expresses, above all, G-d’s requirement, demand, and expectation of law and justice from human beings; and this is the connection with the second half of the verse:  “for in His image did G-d make man.”   Not only does the image of G-d in man make humans prized and lofty beings, it also gives them precisely those faculties that enable them to sense the divine demand and requirement of justice, law, and integrity, as well as to have free choice, which makes them responsible for their actions; in other words, it gives them a sense of morality.  Therefore, when Rabbi Akiva sought a prooftext to teach that every human being must be aware that he was created in the image of G-d, he chose precisely the verse in Parashat Noah that relates the image of G-d to the idea of morality.

In conclusion, when we wonder about our innate sense of morality, sensitivity to moral values, we should know that it comes from G-d.  Thus, we will acknowledge the extra measure of lovingness on G-d’s part in creating us in His image and informing us of this, so that we can aspire to be like Him – “Just as the Omnipresent is called compassionate and gracious, so too, you should be compassionate and gracious” (Sifre on Deut. 11:22).


[1] Compare this with Genesis 5:3:  “When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot a son in his likeness after his image.”

[2] For only in this way can a person cleave to G-d.  See Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael, ch. 9.   Also cf. Shubert Spero, Morality, Halakhah and the Jewish Tradition, N.Y. 1983, pp. 56-63.

[3] Cf. Tractate Bava Kama 8.4, regarding the deaf, the mentally challenged, and the minor.

[4] It may be said of all the seven commandments expected of the descendants of Noah that they fall under the rubric of natural human morality, as Meir Simhah Cohen of Dvinsk says in Meshekh Hokhmah al ha-Torah, Parashat Nitzavim:   “The Holy One, blessed be He, made common sense axiomatic, just as the ‘whole is greater than the part,’ so that humans beings find in the nature of their soul, engraved on their hearts with no need of learning, the seven commandments required of the descendants of Noah, for a person’s soul is like a book from which one knows the seven commandments of the descendants of Noah.”