What did Cain “say” to his brother, before killing him?

The verse in question reads:

Genesis 4:8: “Cain said to his brother Abel; Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.”

The biblical narrator does not disclose what was actually spoken between the two brothers. Ibn Ezra suggested that Cain spoke to his brother about the words YHWH had said to him. However, one might argue that it is doubtful Cain would have told his brother everything God disclosed to him, namely, the divine reprimand. Abel’s silence is striking. The Jerusalem Targum offers a moving Midrashic paraphrase of the narrative:

And it was when they went out to the field, Cain answered and said to Abel his brother, “There is neither justice nor is the world accountable to an Ultimate Judge, nor is there another world [beyond this one]; neither is there a good reward given to the just, nor will vengeance be exacted of the wicked. Nor was the world created in goodness, nor is the world conducted with goodness. Therefore this is the [real] reason why your sacrifice was accepted with good will, and mine was not accepted with good will [The universe is a capricious reality, and God is indifferent to the welfare of humankind –MS].” Abel replied to Cain, “There is justice, and there is a Judge: there is another world, and a good reward is given to the just, and vengeance taken of the wicked. The world was created with goodness and it is governed with. But ultimately, everything goes according to the quality of the deeds. Because my works were superior to yours, my offering was accepted with good will, and yours was not accepted with good will.” And as they two disputed on the field and Cain arose against Abel his brother, and killed him.

Midrashic interpretation adds a nuance that does not appear in the original biblical story that is suggestive. The absence of brotherly concern and empathy on the part of Abel toward his brother’s failure only made Cain feel more resentful toward his successful brother. Instead of de-hostilizing his angry and resentful brother, Abel’s self-righteous attitude only added more fuel to the fire. Whereas at first Cain felt anger at God, now he directs his anger toward God via his brother, who has now given him an excuse to “even the score.” So long as Abel lived, Cain thought he would live the most marginal kind of existence. Once Abel was dead, Cain thought that his low self-esteem would cease.

Did Cain Repent?

Genesis 4:13: וַיֹּאמֶר קַיִן אֶל־יְהוָה גָּדוֹל עֲוֹנִי מִנְּשֹׂא –Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear!”

This statement is a direct response to the punishment God had just given him! It doesn’t occur to him that he is deserving of death! Instead, he complains about losing his livelihood and having to wander. Ultimately Cain builds a city rather than accepting his punishment in defiance of God’s judgment. Like his father Adam, Cain refuses to take responsibility for his actions. Someone else is always to blame; whether it was God or his brother, he is not responsible. There is a fair consensus among the commentators who think that Cain does not express contrition over what he did; Cain worries only about the severity of his retribution.

However, an older rabbinic interpretive tradition suggests that Cain is well aware of the enormity of his sin and realizes there was nothing he could do to ever be forgiven. Cain cannot escape the memories of murdering his brother in cold blood.

One Midrashic text adds a most remarkable subtext to the dialogue that took place between Adam and Cain after the death of Abel. Adam wishes to know what transpired between Cain and God. Cain tells his father: “‘I repented and am reconciled,’ replied he. Suddenly Adam began beating his face, crying, ‘How awesome is the power of repentance, and I did not know! Then he [Adam] arose and exclaimed, ‘A Psalm, a song for the Sabbath day: It is a good thing to make confession unto the LORD’ (Ps. 92:2-3).”

When Did Adam First “Know” Eve?

Rashi is of the opinion that Eve’s pregnancy occurred before Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden,[1] since the verb for “know” יָדַע (yāda‘) is written in the pluperfect, signifying that Adam had known Eve just as he always “knew” her—before the “Fall.”[2] Had they not procreated in the garden, Adam and Eve would never have been able to observe the first of God’s commands, “Be fruitful and multiply.”

The Torah purposely utilized a euphemism of “knowing” rather than using a more vulgar expression like וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ — “and he fornicated her” as in Genesis 34:2. Ramban asserts that יָדַע in this case means more than just intellectually knowing; יָדַע denotes “to know personally by way of experience.”[3] In other words, Adam did not “know” Eve in a casual manner, he knew his wife intimately as a life partner and friend.

Mark Twain, in his short but moving essay “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” echoes Ramban’s point and in some ways goes far beyond his Kabbalistic insight. The author takes a midrashic position that, while Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, they were–for all practical purposes–strangers in Paradise. It was only after their expulsion from the Garden that they grew to love one another. Twain has Eve saying:

It is my prayer, it is my longing, that we may pass from this life together–a longing which shall never perish from the earth, but shall have place in the heart of every wife that loves, until the end of time; and it shall be called by my name. But if one of us must go first, it is my prayer that it shall be I; for he is strong, I am weak, I am not so necessary to him as he is to me‑‑life without him would not be life; how could I endure it? This prayer is also immortal, and will not cease from being offered up while my race continues. I am the first wife; and in the last wife I shall be repeated.


At Eve’s Grave:

Adam: Wherever she was, there was Eden.[6]


[1] In fact, Rashi goes one step further and argues based on the Talmud (from T.B. Sanhedrin 38b) that their children were actually born before the expulsion! It is obvious that this interpretation was championed by the rabbis as part of their polemic against the Christian doctrine in “Original Sin”. Indeed, there is nothing in the text that would indicate that the children were born before the “Fall”; it is evident from the text that they must have been born afterward. Kimchi differs with this interpretation, and he sees the pregnancy as a result of the “Fall,” for it was afterward that the desire for human sexuality was born. Ibn Ezra concurs, observing that it was only after the “Fall” that Adam realized that he was not going to live forever, so he and his wife co-created life together. There is no linguistic or textual evidence from the phrase וְהָאָדָם יָדַע אֶת־חַוָּה that Adam never had sexual intimacy until after the expulsion from Eden. Cf. Maharsha’s notes on T.B. Yebamolth 18b.

[2] For the Early Church Fathers, the rabbinic analysis went against their theological belief that all of Adam and Eve’s children were born in a state of sin. They contended that if Adam had begotten children in a state of innocence, they would have been free from sin. This argument is not very convincing. God created human sexuality before the expulsion for good reason, for without sex, the human race would have becomes extinct soon after it was created.

[3] Igereth HaKodesh, c. 2.

[4] Gen. 19:5; Num. 31:17–18; Judg. 19:22.

[5]If we expand Ramban’s midrashic observation, we might also suggest that there are other nuances of (yāda`) that are lexically worth considering. Often when we speak of God “knowing,” as an euphemism for looking after a person one cares for (cf. 2 Sam. 7:20; Nah. 1:7; Ps. 144:3). This idea could fit here as well—i.e., as a result of Adam’s looking after Eve, he came to discover her as a person, and loved her. “Knowing” is sometimes used as a synonym for “revelation,” (Exod. 6:3). This idea would suggest that while the primal couple was in the garden, there was no intimacy and revelation of the Other. As a result of the expulsion, they discovered one another in love.

[6] “The Diary of Eve” reprinted in “The Diaries of Adam and Eve,” (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000), 195-199.

Jewish Ethics 101: Do not place a stumbling block before the blind … (Lev. 19:4)

One of the most important and yet neglected ethical proscriptions of the Torah is the famous passage, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:4). Talmudic tradition stresses the importance of not taking advantage of another person’s ignorance. Thus, we find: “ How do we know that one should not hold out a cup of wine to a Nazirite  or a limb from a living animal to a Noahide? From Scripture, which says, “You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind.”

The point of this law teaches us that nobody should prey upon the weaknesses or flaws of another human being by taking advantage of that person’s ignorance. Based on this injunction, rabbinic tradition teaches that there must be truth in advertising. Beyond that, weapons should not be sold to people unless it is for the express purpose of self-defense. In addition, one should not even offer bad advice—especially if the person who is giving it stands to gain from  it. An example of this might be someone who is trying to persuade a neighbor to sell his house so that he will get rid of them.

Scriptures further admonishes the citizen, “You shall fear your God.”  Rabbinic expositors note that this warning seems especially appropriate for offenses that cannot be detected and that, therefore, are readily concealed. The deaf cannot hear what is being said about them, and the blind cannot see who causes them to stumble. However, God sees and hears on their behalf and will punish their tormentors.

Both Jewish and Christian tradition stress the importance of not asking God not to bring us to temptation, “Our Father who art in Heaven… Thy will be done … lead us not into temptation” (Mathew 6:13). Jesus’ prayer is reminiscent of a passage mentioned in the Talmud which teaches that no person should never intentionally bring oneself to temptation, for if David could succumb to temptation, how much more could lesser mortals![1]

Moral people need to be aware of their shortcomings and weaknesses. Failure to recognize these flaws will prove injurious to one’s health or happiness.  The Sages teach in the Mishnah, “Never be sure of yourself until the day of your death.” Yet, as a good Catholic friend once taught me, “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.” Just because we made mistakes in the past, doesn’t mean we can’t become better people–despite ourselves. Knowing our fragility as human beings is the key to our personal salvation and eventual character transformation. Continue reading “Jewish Ethics 101: Do not place a stumbling block before the blind … (Lev. 19:4)”

More Reflections on Abortion

Abortion, as such, is not discussed in the Tanakh. Explanations  as to why it is not legislated or commented are at best speculative. The biblical world was much more concerned with the survival of its members, rather than with the willful termination of its unborn. Archaeological evidence suggests that in ancient Israel the infant mortality rate was about 50%.

Discussions concerning abortion are ancient indeed. The Torah imposes a fine on the assailant for causing abortion of a woman’s fetus in the course of a quarrel, and the penalty of death if the woman’s dies as a result of the assailant’s attack. “When two people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exod. 21:22-23).

Ancient Discussions

If the Code of Hammurabi is of any indication, the Torah had in mind only financial damages but did not advocate the death penalty for the death of the fetus—regardless how premature or maturely it was. In Section 209: Hammurabi writes, “If a man strike a free woman and cause her fruit to depart, he shall pay ten shekels of silver for her fruit.” Continue reading “More Reflections on Abortion”

Early Jewish and Christian Views on Abortion: A Comparison for Discussion

The question regarding abortion in our modern era continues to be one of the most important topics of our age; given the complexity about questions pertaining to the beginning of life, along with the technological advances that are constantly being made, no one religious tradition can be reduced to a particular perspective. Christians and Jews alike each struggle with this matter. Rather than arbitrating the issue concerning abortion, I would much rather present the texts and let the readers along with their friends debate the topic with passion. As with any intellectual discussion, it is always important to be respectful of the Other’s position. We can disagree without being disagreeable. That being said, one of the questions that ought to be raised is, “How does an individual’s personal theology affect the way s/he views abortion?” Context is everything! Another question readers might want to argue is, “What are the points of convergence and divergence among the ancients regarding abortion?”

* Judaic Sources on Abortion

Philo says: “But if the child which was conceived had assumed a distinct shape (Exod. 21:22) in all its parts, having received all its proper connective and distinctive qualities, the man who injures the pregnant woman shall die; for such a creature as that is still considered a human being, whom he [the assailant) has slain while still in the workshop of nature, who had not thought it as yet a proper time to produce him to the light, but had kept him like a statue lying in a sculptor’s workshop, requiring nothing more than to be released and sent out into the world” (Special Laws 3:108:3).

Josephus says, “The Law orders all of the offspring to be brought up and forbids women either to abort or to do away with a fetus, but if she is convicted, she is viewed an infanticide because she destroys a soul and diminishes the race” (Against Apion, 2.202).

On the authority of R. Ishmael it was said: A heathen is executed even for the murder of an embryo (Sanhedrin 57b).

If a woman is having difficulty in giving birth [and her life is in danger], one cuts up the fetus within her womb and extracts it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over that of the fetus. But if the greater part was already born, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life [nefesh] for that of another (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6).[1]

“When a pregnant woman is about to be executed, one does not wait for her until she gives birth; but if she has already sat on the birth stool, one waits for her until she gives birth… Rav Judah said in the name of Samuel: If a woman is about to be executed one strikes her against her belly so that the child might die first, to avoid her being disgraced” (T.B. Arachin 7a-b).[2]

Elsewhere in the Talmud, we find a remarkable conversation that is purported to have taken place between the Roman Emperor Antoninus (believed to be the famous Roman philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius, who once visited the Holy Land in 175 CE, not long after the failed Bar Kochba revolt)[3] and Rabbi Judah HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah. The question posed is especially fascinating: When does the soul enter the human body? Is it from the moment of conception, or is it from the time the embryo is formed? At first Rabbi Judah argued for the latter, but Antoninus offers an ingenious counter argument:  He objected: ‘Can a piece of unsalted meat go for three days without becoming putrid?’ (i.e., Likewise, if the sperm-cell is not immediately endowed with a soul, it would become putrid, and then could not fertilize the ovum.) Rather, one must say that life begins from the moment of conception.’ Rabbi Judah conceded this point and even cited a scriptural reference supporting Antoninus’ point of view  (T.B. Sanhedrin 91b). It is a pity that Rabbi Judah did not cite a more explicit verse from the book of Jeremiah 1:4-5:

The word of the Lord came to me [Jeremiah]:

Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you;
Before you were born, I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet concerning the

I would just like to add that unlike Christianity or even Islam, Judaism is much more comfortable with the ambiguity of a biblical text’s meaning. Interpretation is never something that is black and white. With respect to the abortion question, one can find a liberal view permitting abortion; one can find restrictive views that condemn it. Much depends upon the specific context of what a rabbi is dealing with–there are no clear cut answers. As is often the case, the interpretation is very subjective and in the eyes of the beholder.

Continue reading “Early Jewish and Christian Views on Abortion: A Comparison for Discussion”

A First Century Rabbinical Controversy: Preserving Human Life and Its Ethical Implications

 Another one of the most interesting questions found in the Talmud dealing with the matter of human survival in a hostile environment where the possibilities of survival remain limited. [1]

Two are walking on the road. In the hand of one of them is a canteen of water. If they both drink-both will die. If only one drinks—he will reach his destination alive. Ben Petura contends that it is better that both drink and they both die, rather than one see the death of his fellow. This was the accepted teaching until Rabbi Akiba came and interpreted the verse from “That thy brother may live with thee,” (Leviticus 25:36), i.e., “your life precedes the life of your fellow.” [2]

There is an interesting parallel to the Ben Petura and Rabbi Akiba debate that may be found in the Stoic writings of Cicero, who cites the Stoic Hecataeus, regarding two equally wise men who survived a shipwreck and were holding to the same wooden spar that was capable of supporting one of them. The question posed was this: Should one relinquish his hold and to save the other, and if so, which one? The Stoic thinkers reasoned that the decision had to be made based on the individual’s utility to society. The person whose objective value is less to the republic, has the duty to sacrifice himself for the more “valuable” citizen. Continue reading “A First Century Rabbinical Controversy: Preserving Human Life and Its Ethical Implications”

Rabbi Akiba and Ben Azzai’s Great Debate

The Sages of the first two centuries wondered: What is the most important principle of the Torah? Rabbi Akiba argued that it is the precept of “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  Akiba’s brilliant student, Ben Azzai, differed: “You must not say: ‘Since I have been put to shame, let my neighbor also be put to shame, for if you do so, know that you are shaming someone who is made in the likeness of God.’” Continue reading “Rabbi Akiba and Ben Azzai’s Great Debate”

The Bible’s Most Famous Ghost Story: The Witch of Endor

The Bible’s Most Famous Ghost Story

In honor of the Halloween holiday, I thought we would examine one of the great tales of the supernatural found in the Bible. I originally wrote this piece as I was preparing for my Confirmation class. The kids really enjoyed it. One of the most remarkable and famous ghost stories of all time is the episode found in 1 Samuel 28 about Saul’s encounter with the Witch of Endor.  Over a thousand years ago, Jewish thinkers debated this famous biblical story. Not everyone agreed as to what really took place.

Here is a partial citation from the scriptural  narrative as it is recorded in 1 Samuel 28:10-21:

10 But Saul swore to her by the LORD, “As the LORD lives, you shall incur no blame for this.”11 Then the woman asked him, “Whom do you want me to conjure up?” and he answered, Samuel.” 12  When the woman saw Samuel, she shrieked at the top of her voice and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!”13 But the king said to her, “Have no fear. What do you see?” The woman answered Saul, “I see a ghostly being rising from the earth.”

14 “What does he look like?” asked Saul. And she replied, “It is an old man who is rising, clothed in a mantle.” Saul knew that it was Samuel, and so he bowed face to the ground in homage. 15 Samuel then said to Saul, “Why do you disturb me by conjuring me up?” Saul replied: “I am in great straits, for the Philistines are waging war against me and God has abandoned me. Since he no longer answers me through prophets or in dreams, I have called you to tell me what I should do.”

16 To this Samuel said: “But why do you ask me, if the LORD has abandoned you and is with your neighbor? 17 The LORD has done to you what he foretold through me: he has torn the kingdom from your grasp and has given it to your neighbor David. 18 “Because you disobeyed the LORD’S directive and would not carry out his fierce anger against Amalek, the LORD has done this to you today. 19 Moreover, the LORD will deliver Israel, and you as well, into the clutches of the Philistines. By tomorrow you and your sons will be with me, and the LORD will have delivered the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.” 20 Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, for he was badly shaken by Samuel’s message. Moreover, he had no bodily strength left, since he had eaten nothing all that day and night.

21 Then the woman came to Saul, and seeing that he was quite terror-stricken, said to him: “Remember, your maidservant obeyed you: I took my life in my hands and fulfilled the request you made of me . . .

Many of the early interpreters offered creative insights that are no less stimulating even a thousand years later! One of the great rationalist theologians of the Gaonim, Samuel ben Hophni, Gaon of Sura (d.1013), father-in-law of Hai Gaon, was once asked whether the story about the biblical story should be taken literally or not. Simply put: Did the witch really raise the spirit of Samuel from the dead?  How could she prophesy that Saul and his son would soon die in battle?! Continue reading “The Bible’s Most Famous Ghost Story: The Witch of Endor”

Why does the first verse of Genesis have seven words?

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ — In   the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth —

Why does the first verse of Genesis have seven words?

According to the Baale Turim, the first verse of Genesis contains seven words that allude to the importance of the Sabbath—the crown of Creation.  From its inception, the Sabbath was set apart from all the other days of Creation to eventually be observed by all humanind (cf. Isa. 56:2-7) through witnessing Israel’s devotion to the Sabbath (Exod. 31:16-17). Patterns of seven, representing full circle or completion of a cycle, figure prominently in other scriptural passages, e.g.,  the seven years of the Sabbatical year cycle (Lev. 25:1-7), and the seven Sabbatical Years of a Jubilee cycle (Lev. 28:5-13). The common thread, in each of these numerological parallels, emphasizes God as Originator and Preserver of the created order.