Jewish Thought

What’s the Truth about … Adam’s Spare Rib?

Misconception: According to the traditional viewpoint, Chava was created from one of Adam’s ribs.

Fact: According to the opinion of Rashi and many other medieval commentators, “woman” was created from one side of Adam, not from his rib.

Background: The creation of woman is described in Bereishit 2:21-22: “And the Lord God caused man (haAdam) to fall into a deep state of unconsciousness, and he slept; And He took one of his [sides or ribs, ‘tzela’] and closed up the place where it had been with flesh. And the Lord God built the tzela that he had taken from the man into a woman, and He brought her to the man.” There are three basic ways to understand which part of man was used to create woman: rib, side or tail. The explanation that is least known is found in the Talmud (Berachot 61a), where it is suggested that Chava was created from Adam’s tail.1

The other two explanations are based on the translation of the word “tzela.” Shmuel in Bereishit Rabbah (17:6), who is cited by Chizkuni, asserts that tzela means “rib.”2 If indeed a rib was used, the logical follow-up question is, which rib did God take? The typical person has twelve ribs on each side;3 Shmuel states that he does not know which rib was taken, but that it was neither the uppermost nor the lowestermost. According to Targum (Pseudo-)Yonatan, God used the thirteenth rib from the right side to create Chava.4 Radal (12:33) on Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezar cites Likutei Torah that it was the sixth rib. Meam Loez on Bereishit 2:21-22 suggests that there are fifteen ribs on each side, and the thirteenth from the right side was used to create Chava.

Targum Onkelos translates tzela as il’ah, the Aramaic word for rib, found, for example, in Daniel 7:5. Another ancient targum, Targum Neofiti, also favors the rib translation.5 Abarbanel and Rabbi Sa’adiah Gaon (Tzuker ed., 5744, p. 280) suggest that Adam was initially created with an extra rib expressly for the purpose of using it to create Chava. The Sdei Chemed cites the Siftei Kohen6 as claiming that animals have twelve ribs on one side and eleven on the other7 so that they should not be more complete than man, who had one rib taken from him! The Talmud states (top of Sanhedrin 39a) God was not a “thief” as a consequence of this tzela-snatching because he took only one tzela from Adam and returned a complete maidservant to serve him.8 This statement indicates that the rabbis understood tzela to mean a “mere” rib and not a complete side. Seforno does not explicitly state what tzela means, but by stating that God used a small amount of material, he indicates an acceptance of the translation of the word as rib.

But there is another way of understanding the word tzela, based on Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 8:1; Vayikra Rabbah 14:1); the Gemara (Berachot 61a) and the Zohar (Bereishit 34b-35a; Shemot 55a; 231a).9 As is known, there are two narratives detailing the creation of mankind—the first in chapter one of Bereishit, the second in chapter two. In the first account, according to some commentators, it appears that the Adam was not solely a male, but was rather a being consisting of both male and female halves.10 In chapter two, according to this explanation, this two-sided human was separated into the two genders, and it is this surgical procedure that is described in the verse.

According to the Zohar, the two top “yuds” that make up the Hebrew letter tzaddi represent this “double-faced” creature originally created by God. Sources debate whether the two beings faced the same direction or opposite directions; this argument forms the basis of the debate between Rabbi Yosef Karo and the Arizal regarding how to properly write a tzaddi.11

In Bereishit Rabbah (17:6), Rabbi Shmuel bar Rabbi Nachman understands tzela as “side,” and Rashi and Ibn Ezra (Bereishit 2:21) adopt this approach as well.12 Rashi, following in the footsteps of the Midrash, supports his claim by pointing out that tzela is used in other places in Tanach to mean “side” as well (Terumah 26:20, 26-27).13 Rambam also accepts “side” as the correct translation (Guide to the Perplexed 2:30). Ralbag (Bereishit 2:21) accepts it and suggests that while Adam “slept,” God miraculously created a type of “placenta” attached to Adam’s side through which He created Chava.

The text seems to support the translation as “side” because in the description of the creation of woman, there is no mention of a soul being infused into Chava’s body. In the initial creation, (the double-sided) Adam was fashioned from dirt and God infused him with a “living soul” (2:7). This omission in the second creation story suggests that woman was created from something that already contained the breath of life and that a new infusion was unnecessary.14 Moreover, in the first creation story, the text constantly shifts, using both the singular and plural forms in reference to the “man” God created. Furthermore, the story includes a blessing to “them” to be fruitful and multiply (1:28). Both the use of plural and the blessing itself would indicate that there was a female (half) in existence at the time. Also, in the first creation story, the text uses the term “created” when detailing the making of man (“va’yivrah”) (1:27), while in the second story, Chava is not created ex nihilo and thus the text refers to her as being “built” “va’yiven”) (2:22). All of these arguments support the view that Chava was taken from Adam’s side, as opposed to his rib. A final proof for this point of view is that nowhere else in Tanach is tzela used to mean “rib;” it is instead used exclusively as a side, usually in relation to a building.

Essentially, neither “rib” nor “side” is the sole “correct” translation of tzela in Bereishit 2:21-22. Rather, there are early sources for both translations. On the one hand, Targums Yonatan and Onkelos and an opinion in the Midrash favor “rib.” On the other hand, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rambam, Ralbag and a different opinion in the Midrash all prefer “side.” Some commentators, such as the Radak (Bereishit 2:21-22) present both opinions without a preference. The modern trend has been to follow the “spare rib” tradition; the vast majority of contemporary English versions of the Chumash translate tzela as rib.15

It would be interesting to know which tradition was more accepted in the pre-Tannaitic period. But unfortunately, several ancient sources, including the Septuagint (Bereishit 2:21-22), Josephus (Antiquities I:1:35) and Jubilees (3:5), do not seem to favor one translation over the other.16

Irrespective of whether woman was created from a side or a rib, she was created from “bone of my [Adam’s] bones and flesh of my flesh” (Bereishit 2:23),17 and in that manner differed from the rest of the creatures, over whom Adam was to have dominion. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 17:8) notes that unlike all other species in which male and female were created simultaneously from the same raw material, Adam was created from raw material and Chava from Adam,18 in order to maximize their affinity for each other. The question of whether a rib or a side was used is a technicality; what emerges from the creation story is the equality of the two genders.19

Rabbi Sa’adiah Gaon20 explains that the creation of Chava from Adam’s tzela was done with wisdom: Because she was created from his rib, Adam will have mercy on Chava as one of his limbs, and she will regard him as the source of her life; he will look after her like one guards a piece of himself, and she will follow him the way a limb follows the body.

Indeed, it is a mistake to read the second creation story solely as a literal “surgery.” On a deeper level, it depicts the relationship between man and woman. In describing the account, Abarbanel states that Chava was not created from Adam’s foot so that he would not consider her a lowly maidservant, nor from his head so that she would lord over him. Rather, she was created from his side so that she would be equal to him.

The Ohr HaChaim sees a message in the creation of mankind—that each human male and female has a specific, unique partner that he or she is associated with, unlike animals (2:18, end). Ramban elaborates on this theme (Bereishit 2:24). Following the creation of woman from man’s tzela, from his flesh and bone, the verse in Bereishit states that man shall therefore “leave his father and his mother and … cleave to his wife and be one flesh.” Rashi explains that this cleaving occurs via offspring. Ramban, however, rejects Rashi’s understanding because cleaving would then apply to animals, yet the verse treats it as a uniquely human experience. Ramban explains that the verse means that man should remain with woman, in contrast to animals who mate and then leave. Finally, it may very well be that because Chava was created from Adam’s body, the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) derives that a man should love his wife as his own body.

Rabbi Dr. Zivotofsky is on the faculty of the Brain Science Program at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

1. The motivation behind this explanation might be that because every other animal has a tail, man most likely also had one originally, which was then taken to create woman.

2. Interestingly, the popular “rib” interpretation is not mentioned anywhere in the Talmud, which discusses the other two opinions.

3. The Mishnah states that man has eleven ribs on each side (Oholot 1:8). Melechet Shlomo (on the mishnah) suggests that it is possible that the mishnah did not count the uppermost one. Kehati, citing Tiferet Yisrael, says that the twelfth rib is not counted because it is considered a vertebra. Surprisingly, Rambam—the physician—does not comment on this statement. Y.L. Katzenelsohn, in his classic Ramach Aivarim (chap. 5 in his Talmud und Medizin, 1928, pp. 277-279), says that the first rib is not included because it is considered part of the chazeh (sternum). He draws from the rabbinic discussion of the structure of these bones to prove that the rabbis did not rely on Greek anatomy derived from monkey dissections, but acquired their knowledge from their own human dissections.

4. Implying that modern man has twelve ribs on each side.

5. As does the Christian King James Bible, published much later.

6. On page 10b, not 9b, as stated in Sdei Chemed. This work is not by the same author as the more famous Siftei Kohen (Shach) on Shulchan Aruch.

7. The Shulchan Aruch (YD 54:1) states that animals have eleven “real” ribs containing marrow, followed by several others (three, according to Shach, 54:2) with no marrow. If an animal has extra ribs, it is still considered kosher (Rema, YD 54:3).

8. A similar account is found in Bereishit Rabbah 17:7. Cf., Bereishit Rabbah 17:8, where all of the exegeses relate to woman as if she were created from bone, i.e., “rib” of Adam, and not from his side.
9. See related sources cited by Rabbi Reuven Margolis in Nitzutzei HaZohar, p. 231a, n. 8 and in Torah Sheleimah, Sha’arei Tzion to Bereishit 2, 257.
10. This is based on Bereishit 1:27: “And God created haAdam in his image, in the image of God He created him, male and female he created them,” i.e., one entity that was actually two. The creation of man is summarized in a third place, Bereishit 5:1-2, and there, too, it appears that man and woman were created together: “This is the book of the chronicles of man: on the day that God created Adam, He created him in the image of God. Male and female He created them and He blessed them and called their name Adam on the day they were created.”

Chazal were concerned that there be no misunderstanding that the original creation was really two separate beings. They thus noted that one of the changes miraculously made by all seventy-two sages who translated the Torah into Greek (Megillah 9a; Mesechet Sefer Torah 1:9; Tanchuma, Shemot 22; Yalkut Shemoni, Bereishit 3) was to write the above verse (Bereishit 5:2) as: “male and female he created him [instead of them],” (zachar u’nekeivah baro instead of barum). See, however, Yerushalmi Megillah 1:9, that the change was to “zachar u’nekavav—He created the male and his openings.” (This version is found in several other older sources, such as Bereishit Rabbah 8:11, Mesechet Sofrim 1:7 [Higger ed.; the standard printed edition in 1:8 has the other version] and Avot D’Rebbe Natan, version B, chap. 37.)

The notion of a two-sided creation is also found in the legends of other cultures. Plato (428-347 BCE), describes the creation of three different back-to-back creatures, which Zeus split in half and then later permitted to re-join by copulation (Symposium 189-193). For halachic applications of the two-faced Adam, see Ketubot 8a; Shu”t Chatam Sofer 7:34 and Rabbi Jacob Reisher, Shevut Yaakov 1:4.

11. See Rabbi Hershel Schachter, MiPninei HaRav (2001), 267.

12. Philo says that a side was specifically used so that the two would be created as equals (Questions and Answers on Genesis, no. 25).

13. In the verses in Terumah, Onkelos translates tzela differently than he does in Bereshit. In the former, he translates it as “s’tar,” side, and in Bereishit 2:21 as “il’ah,” rib. Tzela is used many other times with regard to the Tabernacle and its utensils, always meaning side (e.g., Vayakhel 36:25, 31, 33 [mishkan]; Terumah 25:12, 14; Vayakhel 37:3, 5 [aron] and 36:27 [incense altar]), and Onkeles almost always translates it as s’tar (side).

In the other books of the Tanach, tzela is also used to mean the side of a building (i.e., a room; Ezekiel 41:5-8) and the side of a hill (2 Samuel 16:13).

14. Cited in Da’at Mikra, in the name of the Italian exegete Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Reggio (1784-1855). This also implies that Adam “gave” Chava life the way God gave Adam life. Similarly, the use of the word tzela may be intended to invoke the similar sounding word “tzelem” (image), used several times in the creation of Adam. This is as if to say that just as Adam was created in the tzelem of God (Bereishit 1:26-27), so too was Chava created from the tzela(m) of Adam.

15. One notable exception is the ArtScroll Stone Edition Chumash, whose editor states in the introduction that whenever there’s a debate on how to translate a word, he relied on Rashi. In this case, too, the translation follows Rashi and tzela is therefore translated as side.

16. The Septuagint and Josephus’ works, all of which were written in Greek, translate it as “pleura,” a word that can mean either “rib” or “side.” The term in the Ge’ez version of Jubilees is “gabo,” a word that also can have both meanings. Thanks to Dr. Michael Segal for help with these sources. Strangely, translations of both the Septuagint and Antiquities that I checked render the word as “rib” in English. Dr. Louis Feldman, professor of classics and literature at Yeshiva University, recently told me that in the vast majority of instances, pleura clearly means side. Thus, unlike what originally thought when he wrote his English translation of Antiquities, he now leans towards “side” as being the correct translation. Similarly, Professor Emeritus Moshe Tzippor, of the Department of Bible at Bar-Ilan University, originally translated pleura as “rib” in his recent rendition of the Septuagint into Hebrew, but has since told me that he erred and the word should be translated as “side.”

Philo (Questions on Genesis, 1:25, Marcus ed., 1961, p. 14-15, and Legum Allegoriae 2:19-2:70) uses the same word pleura, but it is clear from the context that he means “side.”

17. This could be understood merely as a metaphoric expression very similar to that used by Lavan in Bereishit 29:4. However, in this context I think it indicates both a closeness, as in the metaphor, as well as a factual statement that would seem to support the “side” translation.

18. The Midrash highlights this anomaly by suggesting that, indeed, Adam’s original “partner,” Lilith, was also created from the ground, but she was not a successful shidduch (Aleph Bet d’ben Sira and Zohar, cited in Torah Sheleimah, Bereishit 2, 256).

19. But not the sameness!

20. Moshe Tzucker, ed., Perushay Rav Sa’adiah Gaon to Bereishit (New York, 5744), 280.

This article was featured in the Winter 2007 issue of Jewish Action.
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