Genesis 1:1 בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ׃

Question: Why did the Author of Genesis choose the word בראשית instead of בראש?

I am pretty sure that the word ראשית is derived from ראש, but I am not entirely sure why one would be prefered over the other in this verse. I know ראש is commonly translated as "head," but can also be translated in other ways, such as "beginning" in Judges 7:19 and elsewhere. And I guess a beginning is like a "head" of time, so it kind of makes sense that ראש can be used to refer to a beginning. I know ראש can also be used to refer to the first or most preferred of something, which one might call the "head" of something.

The thing is, ראשית also has a similar range of meanings. It can mean "beginning," but also "first" (Numbers 24:20) or "firstfruits" (2 Chronicles 31:5).

So, I don't see much difference between a ראש and a ראשית. It seems that one difference is that ראשית is never used to refer to the physical part of the body containing the brain, at least not in Scripture. (If it is used in this sense elsewhere, however, that would be interesting. Please inform me if this is so.)


By the way, it seems very elegant that the second word of Genesis, ברא, takes its consonants from the first word. But this neat little poetic trick would still work if בראשית ברא were changed to בראש ברא. But, taking into account Masoretic vowels and the number of syllables, could it be that "בראשית ברא" sounds better to the ear?

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    ית is added to certain masculine nouns to make smaller feminine counterparts. So, ראש would be "the beginning", and ראשית would then be "the very beginning", i.e. the first instant/moment of the beginning. – enegue Jun 16 at 7:25
  • Like a diminutive? – Sola Gratia Jun 16 at 12:00
  • @enegue does that production rule also already apply in Biblical Hebrew? – Keelan Jun 16 at 18:24
  • @enegue That is very interesting! I did not know the ית suffix sometimes carries that meaning. But then why would ראשית be "the very beginning" and not "the little beginning?" – Pascal's Wager Jun 16 at 21:41
  • @Keelan has brought to my attention that it may only be a function of modern Hebrew. However ית is definitely a Biblical Hebrew means of forming a feminine noun from a masculine. Whether anyone can confirm "for sure" its "diminutive" function in Biblical Hebrew I can't say. – enegue Jun 16 at 21:55
up vote 2 down vote accepted

ראשׁית is probably an abstract of ראשׁ, i.e. beginning instead of head. It is indeed odd that ראשׁ is used as beginning as well (Judg. 7:19). However, note that in that case it is clear that the word cannot mean a physical head. In Gen. 1:1, בראשׁ could perhaps be read instrumentally as with a head, meaning thinking well, wisely, etc. Then, ראשׁית would have been used to force an abstract meaning. Another possible explanation is that the original sources of Gen. 1:1 are from a time in which ראשׁ did not yet have the abstract meaning.


Some linguistic background: enegue triggered me to look up the semantics of feminine endings for masculine nouns. By their comment, Modern Hebrew uses -it as a diminutive. However, I think this is unrelated, for two reasons.

First, diminutives push a word to the background, so it would not be "in the very beginning" but rather "in some minor beginning". This is not appropriate for the word in context.

Second, with endings like this it is quite likely that multiple originally distinct semantics overlap. In Hebrew, -it is also used for personal names, deriving from the deity name `Anat (Rosenhouse, JSS 2002, p. 105). I would expect the diminutives to be related to these personal names, as these two are often related cross-linguistically. However, we have a second etymology for -it; Joüon and Muraoka discuss it in §88Mi of their 2011 grammar. The ending -it would originate from a feminine t appended to a ל’’י root. Later, this ending would have become an ending for abstract nouns.

In the ל’’י roots the t of the feminine, when added to the i of the root, gave the ending it, e.g. bki + t > בְּכִית weeping. This it ending became a sufformative of the abstract in other roots: רֵאשִׁית beginning; אַחֲרִית end; שְׁאֵרִית rest; חִתִּית terror; תָּכְנִית measure. Concrete nouns are very rare: חֲנִית spear; זְכוֹכִית glass.

They also refer to §101b which discusses the same sufformative1 for ordinals and fractionals (שְׁלִישִׁית third, one third), which are of course in a sense abstract as well.

1: For the term sufformative, see this Linguistics.SE post.

  • I think you're on to something, that ראשית must always be abstract whereas ראש can be either concrete or abstract depending on the context. Thus it seems plausible, as you propose, that ראשית was used in order to force an abstract meaning. But I don't think your other possible explanation, that Genesis 1:1 was written when ראש would have always had to have a concrete meaning, is probable. (Given that the books of the Pentateuch were written roughly the same time.) After all, Exodus 12:2 uses ראש חדשים to refer to the beginning or first of the month. – Pascal's Wager Jun 17 at 5:50
  • @Pascal'sWager yes, that would indeed be the situation. Exodus 12:2 can of course still be redacted later on, or Genesis 1:1 might draw on much earlier oral material, which would allow for the second explanation. But that cannot be falsified, currently, so I agree with you that we should probably prefer the first explanation. – Keelan Jun 17 at 8:09

This question is only valid if one translates the first word of the bible as a stand alone phrase, in the simple absolute state--"In the beginning" (this is actually the traditional reading), however if we choose to translate differently then there would be no such problems.

The fact is that the word reshit is scattered 50 times throughout the bible, and in all the instances besides for one, in Isaiah 46:10, this word is in the construct state (which means that the head noun is connected to the next noun by the word "of"). You can read here for more on this. So it is reasonable to assume that here too the word reshith is in the construct state and means "In the beginning of". This rendering of the Hebrew looks to verse 2 for the completion of the sentence--"In the beginning of God's creating the heavens, the earth was empty and void...", or "When God created the heavens the earth was empty and void..."

In this understanding, the bible is not speaking of the beginning of time or the beginning of the cosmos, but describing the primordial formless state of the earth at a given point in time. There is evidence from other ANE cosmogonies that this reading is to be favored. That would effectively eliminate your problem of why ראשית instead of ראש, since the biblical author did not intend to speak of the beginning of the cosmos (if there was ever an absolute beginning of creation according to the biblical authors) but to describe the world in the initial period of its chaotic existence, thus the choice for "the beginning of" rather than "In the beginning".

See this question which may be particularly helpful here. See also Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989) , p. 5, for a fuller discussion on this.

  • You might be right, I'm not entirely sure yet. A couple questions though: #1. How do we know that ראשית is in the construct form? What would the absolute form be? #2. Even if your translation is correct, why would the author use ראשית instead of the construct form of ראש? – Pascal's Wager Jun 17 at 5:25
  • @Pascal'sWager as I said, ראשית is found 50 times throughout scriptures and is always in the construct state except for one in Isaiah, so judging by majority this reading ought to be favored. Furthermore, there is evidence from ANE cosmogonies (e.g. Enuma Elish) that this was the typical introduction in the ancient creation myths, so ere again the evidence points to "when", rather than "in the beginning". As for your other question, ראשית because it ends with ית can be either in construct or in absolute, but ראש can never be in the construct, simply because of the way Hebrew is structured. – Bach Jun 17 at 11:56
  • I'm a little confused. Why can't ראש be in the construct? In Leviticus 1:4, ראש העלה is translated as "the head of the burnt offering." – Pascal's Wager Jun 17 at 18:00
  • @Pascal'sWager indeed you are right. My mistake. What I intend to say is that the word ראש doesn't change its form whether it is in its absolute or construct state, but ראשית clearly indicates that it is in the construct state, it switches from ראש or ראשונה to ראשית. So while you are right that ראש is not wrong here, ראשית is definitely clearer. Imagine if it would say בראש ברא אלהים, then it would def seem like the first word connotes the beginning of creation, but not so with ראשית which can easily read as an initial period in the creation of the cosmos. – Bach Jun 17 at 18:40
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    There's also ראשית as absolute in Deuteronomy 33:21. This is a creative solution, but I'm not sure I can agree with what you say that ראשית is necessarily in construct state, since even if ראשית is rarely attested as absolute, other -ית words are (e.g. שארית in Isaiah 37:32) – b a Jun 17 at 19:42

While בראשית and בראש are from the same root ,and while they both original meaning connected to the "head" (very top/starting of something) - they are not refer to the same thing in the sentence when the come with ב:

בראשית is relevent to TIME, and בראש is relative to PLACE.

Note: בראש can refer to time with additional noun next to it like: בראש השנה, בראש חודש.


As for your question: in order to say בראש instead of בראשית we should add another Noun to the verse that will mention time - and it will be less elegant.

I used to wonder why בראשית and not בהתחלה but got some answers (pseudo-answers) from the Numerology. Another good reason for the author to use ראש root is ברא next to it.

  • בראשית is relevent to TIME, and בראש is relative to PLACE. - I like this answer, but would you be able to provide any refrences to a Lexicon for support? – James Shewey Jun 16 at 15:49
  • PLACE like in the term: בראש המחנה that mean in the tip of the people. Or בראש הרשימה in the top of the list. You can read in the BDB Dictionary biblehub.com/hebrew/7218.htm and see some biblical referances in order to compare. – A. Meshu Jun 16 at 18:00
  • The first sentence is misleading, since בראשׁ and בראשׁית are both compounds formed from two roots. – Keelan Jun 16 at 18:11
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    @Keelan as always - thank again for downvoting. Maybe a better way to say will be changing the PLACE to SPACE ( so that place is also in that list). My poor English maybe got something to do with my word choice. Thanks again, and good luck! – A. Meshu Jun 16 at 18:29
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    I will write/compose more explanation. – A. Meshu Jun 16 at 19:00

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