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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Bereishis (71)

This week we begin a new round of Torah study for the year 5771. We should look for new insights in the Torah, in Rashi and in the commentators.

We begin with a puzzling Rashi

Genesis 1:20, 21

20: And G-d said: "Let the waters teem with crawling beings of living soul (Hebrew: Nefesh Chaya) and birds that fly over the earth across expanse of the heavens."

21: And G-d created the great sea giants and every living soul (nefesh hachaya) which creeps that the waters teemed with their kinds; and all winged bird to its kind. And G-d saw that it was good


20) Living soul (Hebrew: Nefesh Chaya): Rashi: That there should be in it life.


A Question: What has Rashi taught us here that we did not understand ourselves?

The words Nefesh chaya obviously mean "a living soul!

Can you explain this?

What is bothering Rashi?

Your Answer:


An Answer: The word "chaya" means life but it also means beast (see for example verse 25). So Rashi's comment comes to correct any misunderstanding. Here it does not mean the soul of a beast, because we are not talking about beast exclusively,

it means a living soul,

How does Rashi know these words do not mean the soul of a beast?

Your Answer:


An Answer: This verse speaks of sea creatures. Certainly beasts are not sea animals so that cannot be its meaning in this verse.


We see that verse 21 also uses the term "nefesh Chaya". Here too Rashi comments with the very same comment: "A soul that has life."

The question is glaring.

What would you ask?

Your Question:


A Question: Why does Rashi have to tell us again the same lesson? That the words ' Nefesh Chaya' mean a living soul?

Can you explain this?

Hint: Read the verse.

Your Answer:


An Answer: I would suggest the following: The sea giants (Taninim) mentioned here may be whales. Whales are fish, they swim in the waters all the time, but biologists categorize them as mammals. Mammals breathe air (whales do too) and mammals give birth to living offspring whales do as well, while fish, on the other hand, lay eggs which are fertilized outside the mother fish by the male fish.

Considering this we could say the whale is more like a beast (chaya) than a fish. And I might have thought that these words ' Nefesh Chaya' refer to the Taninim. But the Torah does consider the Taninim an animal.

So perhaps Rashi is telling us that even if the subject of the verse is whales and other swarming beings - they are not called living beasts, as we might have understood the words Nefesh Chaya . So Rashi says that here too the words Nefesh Chaya mean "being who have life in them."


See verse 24 where it says:

"G-d said: 'let the earth give forth a nefesh chaya, each according to its kind, animal, and creeping thing and beast of the land, each according to its kind; and the animal according to its kind and every creeping thing of the earth according to its kind. And it was so."

And again Rashi comments on the same words - " nefesh chaya" by saying "which has life in it."

Why again this time?

Your Answer:

Not easy.


A speculative answer: There is an important principle in interpreting Rashi which is little known. An early commentator on Rashi, the Sefer Zikaron, has taught the some Rashi comments do not come to answer a question or to prevent a possible misunderstanding, they come simply to reject a Midrashic interpretation that was known in Rashi's time and possibly accepted by the people as the p'shat. But it the Midrash was not p'shat and Rashi's comment comes to disabuse us of the idea that the Midrash is p'shat . The Midrash in Bereishi Rabbah comments on these words "This is the spirit of Adam the first man." As it says "And he blew into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a nefesh chaya."

So Rashi's short comment on this verse may be just to reject the Midrashic interpretation. The words do not mean "The spirit of Adam" they mean simply "that which has life in it."


Rashi repeats the same brief comment three different times on the words nefesh chaya when these words appear in different verses one after the other. In each case he does so for different reasons. In the first case, to help us avoid a misunderstanding of these words, in another case to reject a Midrash.

In short, each comment must be seen in its own particular context.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

"What's Bothering Rashi?" is produced by the Institute for the Study of Rashi and Early Commentaries. The five volume set of "What's Bothering Rashi?" is available at all Judaica bookstores.

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