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  • Writer's pictureJames Kennard

Bereishit: Creation in six or seven days?

And so the work of creation was completed. As we read from the parasha of Bereishit, in the words that are familiar from Friday night kiddush,

וַיַּרְא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת כׇּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד  וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בֹקֶר יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי. וַיְכֻלּוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ וְכׇל צְבָאָם. וַיְכַל אֱ-לֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִכׇּל מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה. (בראשית א:לא - ב:ב)

God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good.  There was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. The heavens and the earth were completed, and all of their components. God completed on the seventh day His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. (Bereishit 1:31-2:2)

One of the most widely known underpinnings of the concept of Shabbat is that we refrain from creative activity in emulation of Hashem, who created nothing on the seventh day. Yet the above verse clearly states וַיְכַל אֱ-לֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ - “God completed on the seventh day His work”. How can this be interpreted other than by learning that Hashem did create something on Shabbat, and with that He finished the work?

This question is so strong that the Gemara (Megillah 9a) records that when Ptolemy II insisted that seventy scholars translate the Torah into Greek (the “Septuagint”), among the changes that they made to avoid heretical conclusions from superficial readings of their work was to replace “God completed on the seventh day” with “God completed on the sixth day”.

Some commentators obviate the question by translating the key phrase in a less conventional manner.

The Lekach Tov (11th century Europe) explains that בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי can mean “before the seventh day”. He quotes other examples of where the letter ב means “before”, such as  ביום הזה באו מדבר סיני  - “before this day you came to the desert of Sinai” (Shemot 19:1) - and אך ביום הראשון תשביתו שאור מבתיכם -  “before the first day (of Pesach) you must remove leaven from your houses” (Shemot 12:15). 

The Torah Temima (19th century Belarus) suggests that the authors of the Septuagint also understood the text as meaning “God finished the work before the seventh day” which they represented as “God finished the work on the sixth day”.

The Ibn Ezra (11th century Spain) also removes the question with a linguistic device by saying that וַיְכַל - He finished - does not imply any action, but can mean that nothing was done on the seventh day. Indeed the Ibn Ezra concludes that ויכל has the same meaning as וישבת - He rested. 

Another common approach is to say that וַיְכַל בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי - “He completed on the seventh day” means that it appeared that work was done on Shabbat, but this was not the reality.

The B’chor Shor (12th century France) suggests that undoubtedly the work finished on the sixth day, but this only became known on the seventh day. It was only the absence of creation on the seventh day that confirmed that the work of the previous day was the conclusion. Thus וַיְכַל אֱ-לֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ should be translated as “on the seventh day, it was known that Hashem had finished His work”.

Rashi (11th century France), based on the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 10:9) states:

ר' שמעון אומר בשר ודם שאינו יודע עתיו ורגעיו צריך להוסיף מחול על הקודש אבל הקב"ה שיודע עתיו ורגעיו נכנס בו כחוט השערה ונראה כאלו כלה בו ביום  ד"א מה היה העולם חסר מנוחה באת שבת באת מנוחה כלתה ונגמרה המלאכה:

R. Simeon says: A human being who cannot know exactly his times and moments needs to add from the week-day and (make it into the) holy day, but the Holy One, blessed be He, who knows His times and moments, began it (the seventh day) to a very hair's breadth and it therefore appeared as though He had completed His work on that very day Another explanation: What did the world lack? Rest! Shabbat came — Rest came; and the work was finished and completed


The Maskil LeDavid (18th century Italy) is an excellent resource for analysing the cases when Rashi brings more than one interpretation. Traditionally we assume in cases like this that neither solution is wholly satisfactory, which is why both are needed. Here, the Maskil LeDavid explains that, according to the first explanation, Hashem actually finished the work of creation at the last moment of the sixth day, which would have appeared to a human eye as the first moment of the seventh day. Hence the Torah records what appeared, and not what actually happened. Since it is problematic to suggest that the Torah is effectively inaccurate, Rashi offers his second explanation, that there was indeed creative activity on the seventh day, in that rest itself was created. This explanation also has a flaw in that וַיְכַל - He finished - appears before וַיִּשְׁבֹּת - He rested - suggesting that the creation of “rest” was not implied by וַיְכַל. For this reason Rashi needs both interpretations. 

Rashi’s second explanation takes us into a third category of responses. This approach is that something was indeed created on Shabbat, but not in a way that we would consider prohibited. For Rashi, it was rest that was created.

For Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (19th century Germany), it was something else:

"The visible world was completed on the sixth day; but only on the seventh day, with the establishment of the Sabbath for the sake of man’s education, did God truly complete His work. Only with the establishment of the Sabbath, ensuring the education of mankind, did God cease from all the work that He had made. With the establishment of the Sabbath, all the work of the visible creation — not only man — attained final completion and perfection. The Sabbath was the final touch that the Creator put on all His work. For the very existence and destiny of all the work of Creation depend on the realization of the Sabbath among mankind."

Finally, Rav Saadiah Gaon (10th century Iraq) resolves the question in a similar but especially beautiful way. Yes, the work finished on the seventh day and indeed there was creation then, yet no creative activity (that would be forbidden to us) was performed on Shabbat. What was created? Rav Saadiah points us to the final verse of this section:

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכׇּל מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים לַעֲשׂוֹת. (בראשית ב:ג)

God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it, because on it He rested from all His work which He had created and made.. (Bereishit 2:3)

The “finishing” of creation was the establishment of blessing and sanctity. We are not forbidden from creating these two qualities on Shabbat. On the contrary, we are enjoined to do precisely that.

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