Sefer Bereshit | ספר בראשית

Today, we usually speak of the Torah or Chumash being the first, and holiest, division of Tanach, an acronym of Torah-Neviim-Ketuvim.1 Laws from the Torah have the status of דאורייתא (de-Orayta), Aramaic for “of the Torah,” in distinction from those derived from Nach.2

Table of Contents

The Books of the Torah

Our names for the five books of the Torah are Bereshit (Genesis), Shemot (Exodus), Vayikra (Leviticus), Bemidbar (Numbers), and Devarim (Deutoronomy).3 However, neither these names nor the term “Tanach” were much used by Chazal or through much of the Middle Ages. Tanach (or Anach) first appears in the ninth century in the Masorah ha-Gedolah (Masora Magna, or lengthier Masoretic notes on the Biblical text) but the corpus of holy writings was more often referred to simply as Mikra (“Scripture”)⁠—collectively, or in reference to an individual verse, which is also called a mikra (pl. mikraot), and which in modern Hebrew we call pesukim (sing. pasuk). As a whole, the corpus was also called “the Twenty-Four (כ”ד),” in reference to the traditional division of the canon into 24 books.4

The names for the books of Tanach that we use now are not untraditional; they appear, variously, in rabbinic literature, Geonim, and Rishonim, following a venerable practice of referring to works by their incipit, the first (significant) word that occurs in the text. However, the Hebrew incipits were not widely used in premodernity. The traditional names by which the five books of the Torah are known are:

(Anglicized) GreekTransliterationMeaning of Traditional TitlesTraditional Hebrew Title(s)Modern Hebrew Title
GenesisMaaseh Bereshit, Sefer Briyat Olam, Sefer ha-YasharThe account of creation; creation of the universe; the book of the righteousמעשה בראשית, ספר בריאת עולם, ספר הישרבראשית
ExodusYetziyat MitzrayimComing out of Egypt; Book of the Covenantספר יציאת מצרים, ספר הבריתשמות
LeviticusTorat Kohanim5The priestly codeתורת כהניםויקרא
NumbersPekudimEnumeration or censusפקודיםבמדבר
DeuteronomyMishneh Torah6Retelling of the Lawמשנה תורהדברים

Overview of Sefer Bereshit

Each of the books of the Torah has its own characteristics; in the case of Bereshit, these are grandeur and awe, narrative with a thematic focus on families, early and unusually direct encounters of the Divine, a paucity of legal material (there are only three commandments in Sefer Bereshit, according to Rambam’s enumeration as adapted by Sefer ha-Chinuch), and the longest timespan of any other division of Tanach (except for the later recording of Jewish history in Divrei ha-Yamim7), covering thousands of years rather than hundreds or decades.

The Structure of Sefer Bereshit

In contrast to the following four books of Chumash, which have more distinct sections and time divisions, there is a lot of subjectivity in the following suggested structure. In general, the book can be divided into a universal history of humankind from creation, followed by a second section detailing the story of three generations of the the family of Avraham, who came to know Hashem and was given a promise by Him that his children would become a sacred nation in their own, sacred Land (sacred in the sense of set-apart, which is what the Hebrew root k-d-sh (קדש) literally means).

The coherence of the first division of Bereshit is emphasized in the text itself by the symmetrical arrangement of the toldot (“begat”) sections which number ten generations from Adam to Noach and another ten generations from Noach down to Avraham.

The second section of Bereshit is longer and more detailed, following the specific lives of the Avot, patriarchs (Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov) and the Imahot, matriarchs (Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah).

Universal History: Bereshit 1-11

  • Creation: Bereshit 1:1-2:3
  • From Adam to Noach: Bereshit 2:4-5:32
  • From Noach to Avraham: Bereshit 6:1-11:26

The Call and the Promise: Bereshit 11-50

  • Avraham and Sarah (Bereshit 11:27-25:18)
  • Yitzchak and Rivka (Bereshit 25:19-35:29)
  • Yaakov (Yisrael), Rachel, and Leah: Bereshit 27:1-36:43
  • The Children of Israel (the Twelve Tribes): Bereshit 37:1-50:26
    • Yosef in Egypt

Major Midrashim on Sefer Bereshit

Sefer Bereshit has an important, expansive, and early (Amoraic) collection of midrash devoted to it, Bereshit Rabba.8 Many of the aggadot of Bereshit Rabba are well-known through their citation in Rashi’s commentary. It’s important to note that the other “Rabbot” collections of midrash on Chumash are later compositions with a different character (particularly on Shemot, Bemidbar, Devarim; Vayikra Rabba is probably relatively early as well).9 The collection we know as “Midrash Rabba” covering all five books of the Torah is an invention of early printers, who created a “complete set” for readers’ consumption. The other major midrash on Sefer Bereshit is Midrash Tanchuma, which covers the whole Chumash.

Major Mefarshim on Sefer Bereshit

Bereshit boasts an omnibus of commentary from the Rishonim and Achronim. The classic, indispensable commentaries of Rishonim include Rashi, Ibn Ezra (both the Long Commentary and the Short), Rashbam, Ramban, Rabbenu Bachya, Radak, Ralbag, Seforno, and Abravanel, among many others; of the Achronim, Gur Aryeh, Ha-Emek Davar, Shadal, Kli Yakar, Malbim, R. S. R. Hirsch, and Aderet Eliyahu (the Vilna Gaon).

Parsha Guides for Sefer Bereshit


  1. The /k/ sound softens into a /ch/ as in “Bach” in certain places in a word according to Hebrew grammar. Meaning “The Teaching,” “The Prophets,” and “The Writings,” Tanach is also a hierarchical division. Torah has the highest sanctity, having been transmitted to Moshe, a uniquely profound prophet. It is followed by those books revealed through nevuah (prophecy, though different in kind from Moshe’s), and finally by the Ketuvim composed under ruach ha-kodesh, the holy spirit. The canonization of Tanach, undertaken by the Men of the Great Assembly, was also inspired by ruach ha-kodesh. The latter two divisions of Tanach are often known by the acronym Nach.
  2. However, de-Orayta law comes not only from the Written Torah but also from the Oral Torah.
  3. The names conventionally used in English, you’ll notice, are of Greek origin; they are ancient translations into Greek of the names by which the books of the Torah were known in antiquity.
  4. We appear to have more books today due to the influence of Christian printers, who divided the books differently and inserted chapter and verse numbering. So, for example, in Jewish tradition Shmuel and Melachim are each counted as a single book. The Jewish tradition of dividing verses, paragraphs, and sections in the Bible was recorded by the Masoretes (baalei ha-masorah) using cantillation marks (taamei ha-mikra) and vowelization (nikkud) and is reflective of ancient, authoritative, and orally transmitted reading traditions.
  5. The halachich midrash on Vayikra is alternately known as Sifra or itself Torat Kohanim.
  6. You’ll note that this is the title Rambam chose for his legal code, though it was perhaps more commonly known as the Yad ha-Chazaka.
  7. By Ezra and Nechemia, according to Bava Batra 15a, part of a long baraita about the authorship of the various books of Tanach in Bava Batra 14a-15b.
  8. Note that the earliest collections of aggadic midrash were collected later than the earliest collections of halachic midrash, which were first collected in the Tannaitic period; although, both contain material dating earlier than their period of redaction.
  9. On the other hand, several of the Megillot also have Amoraic midrashim devoted to them: Eicha Rabba, parts of Esther Rabba, and Ruth Rabba, though the midrashim on the other megillot contain early material also.