Sefer Breishit Introductory Shiur:
The Importance of "Parshiot"

One of the most significant - but often overlooked - ways that Chumash conveys messages is through its division into "parshiot". As we begin our study of Chumash with Sefer Breishit, we dedicate a short introductory shiur to this important topic.

Introduction: What is a "Parshiya"?
First of all, don't let the word "parshiya" [small 'p'] confuse you with the name Parshat Ha'shavua [capital 'P']!

When we say "parshiya" [or sometimes we'll type "parshia", or just "parsha"; plural="parshiot"] we refer to the 'paragraph' like divisions of the text that are found in the Sefer Torah. On the other hand, when we say Parsha [with a capital 'P'], we refer to the weekly shabbat Torah portion (e.g. Noach, Lech L'cha, Va'yera, etc.) - through which we complete the entire Torah once a year.

[What we have referred to as "parshiya" could be (and usually is) referred to as simply a "parsha". However, this word too often becomes confused with Parsha [=Sedra], so in order to avoid confusion, in this shiur we refer to it as a "parshiya". In later shiurim, however, we will often refer to them simply as "parsha" and/or "parshiot", but always with a small 'p'.]

From a thematic perspective the "parshiya" divisions are very important, for they were given by God to Moshe Rabeinu together with the Torah! Therefore, if God found it necessary to provide us with "parshiya" breaks to aid us in our study of His Torah, it only makes sense that we should pay careful attention to them when we study. In fact, Rashi himself provides us with a very similar insight:

"These short breaks were given [together with the Torah by God] to allow Moshe Rabeinu the opportunity to contemplate from one "parshiya" to the next, [in order] to understand the flow from one topic to the next, [and if this was necessary for Moshe Rabeinu] then even more so - we who study Chumash must pay attention to these breaks!" (see Rashi's commentary to Vayikra 1:1)

In contrast, the "Parshat ha'Shavua" division of Chumash - i.e. the weekly sedra (technically speaking, Sedra is the proper name for what we call Parsha) - reflects a tradition that began during the Babylonian exile, over a thousand years after the Torah was first given.

With this in mind, it's important to clarify an important point. Should one speak of the 'theme' of a certain Parsha (e.g. the theme of Parshat Noach), this statement can be misleading, for God never composed Parshat Noach (or Parshat Lech L'cha etc.) by itself. Instead God gave an entire Sefer (book) to Moshe Rabeinu. Hence, when someone speaks of the theme of a certain Sedra, he is simply explaining why Chazal chose to group together a certain set of psukim together (over others) into one weekly reading.

[Recall that when the custom first began, Chazal were free to choose to begin or end any Sedra from any point that they wished. Note as well that often when one gives a 'dvar Torah' and speaks of the theme of a certain Parsha, he may actually be referring to a sub-theme within that Sefer that is contained within that specific Parsha. However, it remains important to recognize that the division of Chumash into Parshiot ha'Shavua is not an intrinsic division within Chumash.]

On the other hand, when we speak of the 'theme of Sefer' [e.g. the theme of Sefer Breishit or Shmot etc.], we attempt to uncover God's underlying message in that Sefer. [Recall that God originally gave Chumash to Moshe Rabeinu in five books, that is why we call it chumash (=five).] In other words, that fact that God chose to include all of the stories in Sefer Breishit into one complete book implies that it should carry one basic underlying theme. In fact, many commentators (e.g. Ramban and Seforno in their introductions to each Sefer) attempt to uncover that theme.

This assumption is important for it provides the basis for the methodology that we employ in our weekly shiurim. Our analysis of "parshiot" will be helpful in our attempt to uncover the primary theme (or themes) of each Sefer; and in turn we will use those themes to help appreciate the detail of its various stories (and/or mitzvot).

Ptuchot & Stumot
As you are probably familiar, there are two types of "parshiya" divisions:
1) "ptuchot" = open
[Indicated by a gap of blank spaces until the end of a line; the next 'parshiya' begins at the start of the next line.] (See board 1)
2) "stumot" = closed
[Indicated by a gap of at least nine spaces; the next parshia can begin on that very same line.] (See board 2)

As a rule of thumb, a "parshiya ptucha" usually indicates a major change of topic, while a "parshiya stumah" indicates a more subtle one, but (as we will see) there are many exceptions.

These "parshiya" breaks are so important that a Sefer Torah without them is "pasul" (not valid). In this regard, I recommend that you read chapter eight in Rambam's Hilchot Sefer Torah where he not only explains the importance of these "parshiya" breaks, he even lists each and every one of them to make sure that sofrim [scribes] will write their Sifrei Torah properly!

So What Are the Chapters?
To the surprise of many students, even though just about every Chumash in print today uses a chapter/verse system, this division of Chumash into chapters is not a Jewish tradition. It is however a very useful convention, as this system has been used by just about every publisher of the Bible (regardless of religion or language) since the invention of the printing press (15th century).

[These chapters seem to have originated some time no later than the twelfth century, and they are based on the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible by the 'Church fathers'). By the fifteenth century, that division into chapters became standard in most Jewish editions of the Bible as well. This is all a very interesting topic (if you like academics), but more detail is beyond the scope of this week's shiur.]

Therefore, when we study Chumash, its division into chapters is a very useful convention, and a helpful reference that reflects how other people may have understood [or misunderstood!] its topics, but it certainly does not carry any prophetic significance. In contrast, the division of Chumash into Seforim [books] and "parshiyot" is of paramount prophetic significance, and hence it will always be taken into consideration in our shiurim.

Tanach Koren
To easily identify these important "parsha" breaks when studying Chumash it is very useful to use either a "Tanach Koren", or (what is known as) "Rav Breuer's Tanach".

[The Tanach Koren (named for its beautiful Hebrew font designed for that publication) was first published in the sixties, and is probably the most widely used Tanach in Israel today, both in schools and shuls. More recently Mosad ha'Rav Kook also published a complete Tanach based on the famous manuscript of the Keter Aram Tzova, and edited after exhaustive research by Rav Mordechi Breuer, one of Israel's most renowned Bible scholars. Both publications provide the reader with a very accurate and clear printing. (Which Tanach is 'better' has become a 'hot topic' in the Yeshiva world, and therefore, I refrain from taking a stand.)]

It's difficult to explain why, but I can guarantee you that once you become accustomed to studying with this style of Tanach, you will quickly find how useful a tool it becomes for analytical study of Chumash, especially in regard to appreciating "parshiot".

[Speaking of Mikraot Gedolot, for studying the classical commentators (e.g. Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Seforno etc.) I highly recommend that you use the seven volume Torat Chayim version (published by Mosad ha'Rav Kook). It is a very accurate work, contains excellent footnotes, and is very easy to read. For those of you who do not have a local bookstore where you can purchase these seforim, I hope to provide a link (soon) on my website from where they can be ordered by mail.]

In some Chumashim, and quite often in Mikraot Gedolot versions, the "parshiya" divisions are noted by letters instead of spaces. Usually the Hebrew letter "peyh" notes where a "parsha ptucha" should be (see board 3), and the Hebrew letter "samech" notes where a "parsha stuma" should be (see board 4).

Big Parshiyot and Small Ones!
Even though we have noted that "parshiyot" act more or less like paragraph breaks, we find numerous exceptions that are thematically very significant. We will demonstrate this by undertaking a quick analysis of all the "parshiyot" in Parshat Breishit.

Using a Tanach Koren, take a quick glance at the story of Creation in chapter one. Note how each day of Creation is delimited by a "parsha ptucha" (see board 5). This reflects a very logical 'paragraph like' division.

Now, take a look at what happens in chapter two! A new "parshiya" begins with the story of Gan Eden in 2:4 and continues for some forty psukim - all the way until 3:15 (see board 6), and there we find "parsha stumah"! Then, to our surprise we find a "parsha stumah" that lasts for exactly one pasuk. The next "parshiya" is also "stumah" and continues for five psukim until 3:21 (see board 7).

At first glance, this division seems to be rather absurd! Why should some forty psukim continue without any "parsha" break, even though there are plenty of spots in between that would easily qualify for a paragraph break? Then, immediately afterward we find a mere pasuk that becomes its own "parshiya" (i.e. 3:16).

Clearly, these examples prove that a "parshiya" break is not always the equivalent of a paragraph break. Instead, sometimes the Torah will intentionally group numerous psukim together without any "parsha" break to emphasize a certain point, and sometimes, the Torah will intentionally provide a "parsha" break at a spot that does not necessarily require one. However, when the Torah does this, we should assume that it carries some thematic significance.

Let's return now to this example and attempt to understand why. Note that the lengthy 'parshia' (2:4-3:15) contains not only the story of God's creation of man in Gan Eden (i.e. 2:4-25, and hence the chapter break at 2:25), but also story of the "nachash" and man's sin (3:1-15) (see board 8). The lack of a "parsha" break between these two stories already alludes to the intrinsic connection between them, i.e. between the "nachash" (and what he represents) and the motif of the Gan Eden environment.

Immediately afterward we find a one line "parshiya" that describes Eve's punishment, and then another very short "parshiya" that describes Adam's punishment (see board 9), and then yet another "parshiya" that describes mankind's punishment (i.e. the banishment from Gan Eden in (3:22-24) (see board 10)! Clearly, the fact that the Torah delimits each form of punishment with a "parsha" break alludes to the thematic importance of "schar v'onesh" [Divine retribution] in Chumash - the concept that God holds man responsible for his deeds. As we should expect, this will emerge as a primary Biblical theme, and these short "parsha" breaks help emphasize its importance.

Let's return now to Parshat Breishit. Note that chapter four - the story of Cain and Abel - forms its own "parshia". Then in chapter five, we find a separate "parshia" for each one of the ten generations from Adam to Noach. Note however that all of these "parshiot" from man's exile from Gan Eden (see 3:22) until the story of Flood (see 6:5) are "parshiot stumot" (see board 11)! As we shall see, this too will be thematically significant.

We will return to these topics in our shiur on Parshat Breishit, but to help you prepare for that shiur (and for all the remaining shiurim on Sefer Breishit), we conclude with some pointers for self-study that will apply what we have discussed thus far, and as usual, some more questions for preparation.

Finding the Theme of Sefer Breishit:
A self-study guide

Part One: Charting the "Parshiot"
With this background in mind, I'd like to introduce you to a methodology that I have found very useful when teaching. For the most basic level of preparation for class, I ask the students to scan through an entire Sefer (or at least one section at a time), noting its division into "parshiot". Then, we take a sheet of blank paper, and along the left margin, we prepare a long list of short blank lines. [The page should look like this:
    _______ etc. ]

Then, after reading (or scanning) each "parshiya", we attempt to summarize its primary topic in four words or less! For some "parshiot" this is very easy, for others it is quite difficult (but try your best). As we proceed, you'll understand why it is so important to be concise.

Then, we record that brief (one phrase) summary on the blanks lines on the sheet that we prepared; one line for each "parshia".

Ideally, we should do this list for the entire Sefer, but usually this is not very practical, so we choose instead one unit within the Sefer at a time. For example, in Sefer Breishit, we begin with the first twelve chapters.

After our listing of the parshiot is complete, we contemplate the list, looking to group together only the most obvious units. For example, when studying Parshat Breishit, the seven parshiot of the seven days of creation form a distinct sub-unit. Similarly, the nine parshiot of "toladot" in chapter five also form a distinct unit.

To indicate these grouping on our list, we mark these units with 'greater than' signs. At the end of that sign, we write a short phrase the describes that group. The following example will illustrate this, as it shows the results of this method for the first three chapters of Sefer Breishit .
[You'll need to view this in a non-proportional font.]

day one      \
day two       \
day three      \
day four         --- 7 days of Creation
day five       /
day six       /
day seven    /
Man in Gan Eden    \
Eve's punishment    \__ Gan Eden
Adam's punishment   /
Expulsion          /

Usually, you will quickly see how several parshiot immediately group together, while many others stand alone. Again, be careful to group parshiot together only according to the most obvious groupings. If it's not obvious, don't group it. [e.g the parshia of the Cain & Abel story (chapter four) would stand alone, since it's not part of the Gan Eden narrative, nor is it part of the toladot in chapter five.]

[Note, when using this method the distinction between "ptuchot" and "stumot" is less critical.]

Upon completing this process for the entire list, we reach the second level, for a new list has now formed towards the right, reflecting the summaries of the most obvious sub-units from level one.

Now we treat the new level in the same way that we treated the first level. We analyze our new list, again looking to group together the most obvious units. When we finish level two, we proceed to level three, etc.; and slowly, our list begins to look like a tournament. However, as we proceed from level to level, we need to apply a bit more creative thinking when grouping into sub-units, for the connection from one unit to the next will not always be so obvious.

In case you didn't catch on yet, our assumption is that if we continue this process, sooner or later there will be a 'winner' (on the right margin) - i.e. a short phrase that describes all of the sub-units of the entire Sefer - and that 'winner' is none other than the primary theme of the Sefer.

This methodology is far from an 'exact science', and it gets complicated at times (and doesn't always work so smoothly); but it certainly helps the student follow the thematic flow of a Sefer.

As we will see in future shiurim, it becomes an excellent tool to help appreciate not only what the various commentaries say, but also to understand why they argue.

As preparation for our shiurim over the next three weeks, try to complete this 'tournament' for Sefer Breishit, or at least for the first twelve chapters. Don't expect for everything to be easy, and don't expect to find simple answers all of the time, but try your best. As you study, be sure to relate to the questions in Part Two below.

Part Two: The Flow of Topics in Sefer Breishit
[Note, the 'answers' to the remaining questions will be dealt with primarily in the shiur on Parshat Noach and later shiurim as well.]
1) The story of the Creation is clearly the first topic of Sefer Breishit, even though it is clearly not the theme of the entire Sefer.
Where, in your opinion, does the story of "Creation" end? Relate to the following possibilities, and attempt to find support (textual, thematic, or both) for each one:
a) 1:31 - At the end of Perek Aleph, after the "Six Days of Creation"
b) After Shabbat, at the conclusion of the "Seven Days of Creation"
c) After the creation of Chava
d) After man's expulsion from Gan Eden
e) After the story of Cain and Abel
f) After the story of the Flood
g) After the story of Migdal Bavel
For each possibility, how would you define the 'Creation' and how would you define the 'next topic' of Sefer Breishit after the story of Creation? Be sure to explain how that 'next' topic 'flows' from the story of Creation?
2) Based on your previous knowledge of Sefer Breishit, can you suggest an overall theme for the entire Sefer? If so, how does the beginning of the Sefer fit into that theme?
3) Based on your answers to the above, would you consider chapter four (the story of Cain and Hevel) a continuation of the 'gan-eden' narrative [what we refer to as Perek Bet]? If so, why? What similarities do the two narratives share, and what are the differences between them? (In your answer, relate to the concept of Divine retribution - otherwise known as "torat ha'gmul" or "schar v'onesh").
4) Read chapter five (listing the genealogy from Adam to Noach) and carefully study its structure. Could this chapter be considered a continuation of "perek Aleph"? If so, explain why.
5) Where, in your opinion, does the story of the "mabul" begin? Relate to the following possibilities:
a) 5:1 ("Toldot Adam")
b) 5:28 (the birth of Noach)
c) 5:32 (the story of events during Noach's lifetime)
d) 6:5 (God's decision to destroy mankind)
e) 6:9 (the beginning of Parshat Noach)
According to any of these possibilities, how does the list of "toladot" in chapter 5 relate to the story of Creation which precedes it, and to the story of the Flood which follows?
6) As you study Parshiot Breishit and Noach, note how the lists of "toladot" relate the complex stories the follow them.
Can you discern a pattern?
Can you explain why this may be significant?

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