Leshon Ima – Mother Tongue with Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin, Special To The Observer
Our secular calendar received its final form in the year 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII after multiple changes over many years. January is named to honor the two-faced Roman god Janus, who guarded the gates of Rome. It is possible that the two faces eluded to the past and to the future, to the year that ended and the year which is about to begin.
The Hebrew word for beginning is reshit. This word is used in the Hebraic culture in several meanings. In honor of the new secular year, let us examine the word reshit and its many uses.
In the Bible, reshit is mentioned more than 50 times. It means beginning, inception, outset, commencement, choice, first action, first fruit, and best.
Reshit is derived from the word rosh, which also has multiple meanings. Rosh means head, leader, summit, beginning, section, principle, foundation and more. Reshit can be either a noun or an adverb depending on context.
Most notably, reshit connected to the preposition be, meaning in, forms the adverb bereshit, the word that launches the Hebrew Bible (Gen 1:1).
Not all scholars agree as to the exact translation of the word, but bereshit is usually translated as in the beginning, pointing to the genesis of the cosmos.
The word bereshit appears four more times in the text of the Bible, all in the Book of Jeremiah (26:1; 27:1; 28:1; 49:34). There it is used in a historical context, referring to the onset of the reigns of kings Jehoiachim and Zedekiah and it means the start of.
There are a few idiomatic phrases where bereshit is used to indicate either genesis or original placement.
First and foremost, or as we say in Hebrew, reshit kol, we should mention the term maaseh bereshit, the act of genesis or cosmogony, referring to God’s creation of the universe (Chagigah 2:1).
In that wondrous universe, mibereshit, from the onset, God created chayot berashit, the primordial animals, and placed them in yearot bereshit, the primeval forests.
Moreover, the term Chatan Bereshit is used to indicate the first reader of Torah on Simchat Torah and Shabbat Bereshit is the Shabbat in which the reading of Torah begins anew, from the Torah portion Bereshit.
We should also mention the term reshit chochmah, first wisdom (Ps. 111:10), and colloquially to begin with or first condition.
Finally, in modern literature we find the term anshai bereshit, the people of the beginning, used as an honorary title for the first Zionist pioneers in Israel.
We’ll end our short survey with the biblical proverb, Reshit chochmah k’neh chochmah, the beginning of wisdom is to acquire wisdom (Prov. 4:7), meaning, the first step toward becoming wise is to imbibe the teaching of wisdom even before understanding and acting upon it.
As we welcome the year 2015 let me, mibereshit, from the onset, wish all our readers a happy and healthy year.
Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin is a professor of biblical literature at Spertus College in Chicago and an adjunct professor of Bible and Hebrew at New College of Florida.
To read the complete January 2015 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.