“The Book of Humankind”
(updated and revised from Bereshith 5764-2003)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

More than 2000 years ago, the rabbis of the Babylonian Jewish community divided the Torah into 54 portions and began the practice of reading the entire five books of the Torah on an annual cycle, rather than the previously practiced triennial cycle. And so, for the last two thousand years, as soon as the reading of the book of Deuteronomy is completed on the festival of Simchat Torah, the annual Torah reading cycle immediately starts again with the book of Genesis.*

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bereshith, we find the quite well-known, yet enigmatic, verse: (Genesis 5:1) זֶה סֵפֶר תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם, בְּיוֹם בְּרֹא אֱ־לֹקִם אָדָם, בִּדְמוּת אֱ־לֹקִם עָשָׂה אֹתוֹ, This is the book of the history of humankind. On the day on which G-d created the human being, He formed him in the likeness of G-d.

To place this verse into context, the Torah has just concluded the tragic narrative of Cain and Abel and recorded the descendants of Cain. The end of Genesis 4 records the birth of a third son to Adam and Eve, whose name is Seth. Genesis 5 tells of the descendants of Seth, and concludes with the birth of Noah. The words: זֶה סֵפֶר תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם–this is the book of history of humankind, underscores that despite the vast differences between human beings, like Cain and Abel, we are all descended from the same source, and reflect the endowments of G-d, in whose image all humankind was created.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the word סֵפֶר (book) comes from the Hebrew word לִסְפֹּר–to count. This implies that although numerous items may be found and counted, all of G-d’s creations eventually come together and are systemically connected to one other. Says Rabbi Hirsch, this verse teaches that “The whole history of humankind with its lowest depths and its loftiest heights which shows human beings in the most varied happenings, forms one whole…” and that due to our Divine endowment of freedom of will, a human being can “be higher than an angel…or [worse] than the devil.”

Interestingly, there is a major debate over this verse in the Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Nedarim, chapter 9. Rabbi Akiva is quoted as saying: וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ, זֶה כְּלָל גָּדוֹל בַּתּוֹרָה, Love thy neighbor as thyself (Leviticus 19:18)this is a fundamental statement of the Torah. A lesser-known sage, by the name of Ben Azai, citing Genesis 5:1, declares, זֶה סֵפֶר תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם, זֶה כְּלָל גָּדוֹל מִזֶּה–This is the book of the history of humankind–is an even greater fundamental principle than loving your neighbor as yourself.

Were it not for this debate, the verse “Zeh sefer toldot adam,” would probably be rather obscure as verses go. After all, virtually the entire world knows the verse “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” which has become a fundamental principle of humankind. What then does the verse “Zeh sefer toldot adam,”--this book is the history of humankind, contribute to our understanding?

Some commentators suggest that this verse underscores that all of humankind comes from one set of parents, and that this family relationship is far more important than loving thy neighbor as thyself. After all, loving thy neighbor underscores the importance of emotional relationships such as neighborliness or friendship, whereas, “Zeh sefer toldot adam,” underscores the fact that we are all connected by blood, and that we are all one family–literally brothers and sisters.

Expanding on his previous comments, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch argues that Ben Azai’s statement is far greater than R’ Akiva’s and far more comprehensive, because it underscores a much more significant and higher union of all humankind. Says Rabbi Hirsch, “This verse looks on the greatest criminal, the greatest degeneration, the greatest bestiality, all as תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם –all as developing out of one human being, the one creation in the likeness of G-d, all entered together in G-d’s great book of the world in which He enters humankind.”

But perhaps, also, the verse “Zeh sefer toldot adam,” is a more significant verse because it is open to more far-reaching implications than “Loving thy neighbor as thyself.” The “book” that is referred to as “the history of humankind,” is the book that every person writes during his/her own lifetime. At the end of a person’s days, that book is carefully reviewed. It is, after all, that book that determines the value of a person’s life. It is not merely a single instance of loving a neighbor as oneself, or showing kindness to particular friends. It is an “accounting” that each person must give at the end of his/her days.

At the very end of a person’s life, what does that person have to show? Only the good deeds, the meritorious acts, and the charitable gestures performed during one’s lifetime. And even more significant than that, a person must show the תּוֹלְדֹת–the disciples, the descendants the progenies that were produced. Are there “offspring” that have been nurtured to maintain the ethics and morals that the deceased had practiced? Has he/she left behind disciples and children who will follow in his/her footsteps?

In light of this, the comment of the philosopher Eliezer Berkovits, with respect to the controversy of “Who is a Jew?” becomes much more telling. “A Jew is not merely one who has a Jewish mother, or a Jewish father,” said Professor Berkovits. “A Jew is one who has Jewish grandchildren!” In effect, Berkovits declares that a Jew is one who has been able to transmit his/her Jewish values to succeeding generations.

Once again, we see how a seemingly minor, almost insignificant, verse takes on a world of meaning, enlightening us with revolutionary ideas about the value of human life.

As we, once again, start the annual cycle of the Torah reading, this verse serves as an early road mark indicating how much there will be to learn from the study of this sacred text.

May you be blessed.

*Some Jews in Palestine and Egypt continued the triennial cycle until late in the 12th century CE.