Breishit: Language and Translation

Language issues in early chapters of Genesis/Breishit include differentiating between “adam” — which may or may not carry a specific gender — and “ish” and “ isha,” who are always gendered.

Genesis/Breishit 1:27 involves a notable shift from singular to plural pronouns as ha-adam (a singular something) is created in what appears to be (plural) variety: “male and female.” Older translations use “man.” “Human” or “humankind” is favored in newer ones. “The earthling” — a gender-neutral term reflecting the relationship of ha-adam to adamah, “earth” — might be more profitably used.

Here are several translations with their grammatical footnotes, if any. (Prose paragraph or poetic line breaks follow the translators’ choice. All emphasis is mine.):

And God created man [ha-adam] in His image, in the image of God He created him [oto (sing. masc.)]; male and female He created them [otam (plur. masc.)]. –JPS; Stone is identical, barring a capital for “Man”

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God did he create it,
male and female he created them. — Fox
[Footnote: The narrative breaks into verse, stressing the importance of human beings. “Humankind” (Heb. adam) does not specifiy sex, as is clear from the last line of the poem.]

And God created the human in his image,
in the image of God He created him,
male and female He created them.
[Footnote: In the middle of this verse, “him,” as in the Hebrew, is grammatically but not anatomically masculine.] — Alter

So God created the human beings [the divine] image, creating [them] in the image of God, creating them male and female.
[Footnote: This translation resorts to the plural to avoid using the misleading masculine pronouns later in the verse….By referring to adam, the text is not describing an indiviudal but a new class of beings that comprises female and male from the start, both of them in God’s image….] — The Torah: A Women’s Commentary ([bracketed inserts] are in the TWC original)

The Stone Chumash includes homelitical notes about the creation of Eve on the same day as, although later than, Adam, while TWC says, “The shift from singular to plural does not convey that man was created before woman.” Alter adds this note:

Feminist critics have raised the question as to whether here and in the second account of human origins, in chapter 2, ‘adam is to be imaged as sexually undifferentiated until the fashioning of woman, though that proposal leads to certain dizzying paradoxes in following the story.

Midrash, many centuries older than anything that might be termed “feminist critics,” however, offer a hermaphrodite being and a two-face male-female creature that is later separated.

From a primarily linguistic point of view, it is useful to compare this first chapter creation with that of 2:24. It is worth noting that 2:24 begins with ha-adam and ends with “ish” and “isha.” This is the first use of “ish” or “isha” in the Torah — whatever one makes of it, there is no ish until there’s an isha.

Then the man [ha-adam] said,
This one at last [zot ha-pa’am]
Is bone of my bones
And flesh of my flesh.
this one shall be called Woman [isha],
For from the man [ish] she was taken. –JPS

And the man said, “This time it is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This shall be called Woman, for from man was she taken.” –Stone

The human said:
This-time, she-is-it!
Bone from my bones,
flesh from my flesh!
She shall be called Woman/Isha
for from Man/Ish she was taken — Fox

And the man said:
This one at last, bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh,
This one shall be called Woman,
for from man was this one taken.” — Alter

and the man said,
This time–/bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh!/Let this one be called woman,/for this one is taken from man.”
[Footnote: Although the word ha-adam (“the adam”) is still utilized here, context indicates a reference to the male. It will be used that way until 3:22, when the inclusive generic sense — the human being — briefly resumes.]

Please see Source Materials for complete citations.

Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.

The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group pursuing spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

Published by


Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

One thought on “Breishit: Language and Translation”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s