Parshas BeReishis 5773 S. Rabinowitz, MD
Kayin and Hevel
Parshas BeReishis is the first of twelve parshios in Sefer BeReishis. The parsha contains 146 verses, including one positive mitzvoh (to be fruitful and multiply) and no prohibition. When the first child born on Earth, Kayin, offered some of his produce to HaShem, and his younger brother Hevel offered some of his flock, HaShem accepted Hevel’s offering and not Kayin’s. Kayin became angry and depressed. HaShem then spoke directly to Kayin, as follows, 4:1-7 (translation adapted from R. Chaim Miller who bases it on Rashi):
What sort of men were Kayin and Hevel? The Zohar (1st cent. C.E.) tells us that the snake in Gan Eden was the embodiment of evil and death in the world. Chava’s encounter with the snake tainted her with some of that evil, which she passed in large measure to Kayin and to a much lesser degree to Hevel. Rabbeinu Bachya (1255-1340) explains that possibilities for both good and evil are authorized by HaShem, so that no one should think that dual, separate deities exist, one for good and one for evil. Both good and evil people are descended from the same parents, who were originally wholly good. Kayin chose to farm the land, which G-d had cursed, because, as it says in Mishlei 21:10, “the soul of the wicked desires evil….” Primitive farming was a back-breaking occupation, but it yielded not only wheat for bread, but also barley for beer and grapes for wine. Working the land fostered a sense of personal ownership. Hevel chose to raise flocks, even though man was forbidden to consume meat until after the Flood, because caring for animals that produced milk and wool suited his caring personality. Kayin and Hevel understood the mysticism underlying ritual offerings to HaShem, but Kayin lived up to his name in being acquisitive and mean-spirited, and he suspected that HaShem didn’t care what quality of goods was offered. Rabbi Sorotzkin (1881-1966) adds that man was forbidden to slaughter animals for his own consumption, so why, thought Kayin, should HaShem be any more privileged than man? The Maharal of Prague (1520-1609) adds that Kayin wanted HaShem to accept an offering that would ratify Kayin’s wickedness. But if Hevel’s offering was completely appropriate, why didn’t HaShem save him from being murdered? The Maharal says that Hevel could have brought an ox, as the Gemara Avodoh Zora 8a says his father Odom brought. But the verse above tells us that Hevel, whose name means vanity or temporary (as in a breath that passes) also brought an offering, meaning that he chose subsequent to Kayin’s, perhaps to upstage him.
What offering did Kayin bring and why was it rejected? The Midrash Tanchuma on Parsha BeReishis 9 says that Kayin brought flax seed. Rashi (1040-1105) agrees, perhaps because our text says “fruit of the land” rather than just produce of the land. The Gemara Brochos 40 says that a plant such as flax whose stalk survives the winter is called a tree/eitz. Some varieties of flax are perennial. Yehoshua 2:6 describes flax as the fruit of a tree/eitz. So, flaxseed is unusual in that it is called a fruit and yet is from a plant that does not appear tree-like. The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902-1994) points out that flax, the source of linen, is a highly-regarded species. Rashi explained earlier in our parsha that the river flowing out of Gan Eden divided into four rivers, of which one (the Nile, according to Sa’adiah Gaon (882-942), although ibn Ezra (1092-1167) disagrees) was called Pishon, because it nourished the production of flax/pishton. Flax must be important if they named the river for it. By the way, the finest flax, used in later times for garments worn by the Kohen Godol, came from the Egyptian Delta town of Pelusium, the source of our English word “blouse.” Mizrachi (1455-1526) notes that the final letters of “kuf,” “reish,” “beis,” and “nun,” which spell the word korban/offering, form the word pishton/flax. If Kayin gave an offering to HaShem, clearly in the expectation that it would be accepted, or else why bother, and if Kayin chose a well-regarded species, then why did HaShem reject it? Apparently this flax seed was either the worst of what was available, or just the first that came to hand. It may have been what remained of his crops after he ate his fill. Kayin did not exert himself to choose the best. He gave the worst part of the best species. In contrast, Hevel gave his best sheep, before he took anything for himself. Sheep are not the most distinguished animals. An ox or bull would have been better. But Hevel gave the best sheep he had, “firstborn” and “fattest.” We learn from this that the best of the worst trumps the worst of the best. The effort exerted by the giver is what counts.
Maimonides (1135-1204), in Moreh Nevuchim III:46 suggests that sacrificial offerings have no intrinsic worth, but were ordained in the Torah to wean Yisroel from idolatrous practices to which they had been exposed. We slaughter animals that were revered by various pagans. Nachmanides (1194-1270) is outraged by this suggestion. He believes that the offerings brought by Odom, Kayin, Hevel, and Noach, prove that sacrifices of animals and of meal have great spiritual significance. This understanding preceded any idolatrous influences. In his commentary to VaYikra 1:9 he explains that the detailed ritual of sacrifice compels a person to contemplate that he has sinned with his body and soul, and that, by the grace of G-d, he is able to bring a substitute as a ransom for his own life, and is then spurred to repent and reform himself.
When did the brothers bring their offerings? In BeReishis Rabbah 22:4, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer disagreed as to the date when the world was created, but did agree that the brothers brought their offerings, and Hevel died, on the fiftieth day of the world. Rabbi Eliezer says he lived from Sukkos to Chanukah, and Rabbi Yehoshua says from Pesach to Shavuos. This is a reason that the Jewish people offer a “mincha chadasha/ new offering” when the giving of the Law is commemorated on the fiftieth day after Pesach — the law and system of reward and punishment was laid out to Kayin after he murdered his brother on the fiftieth day. Another way that we recall these events is the prohibition of wearing mixtures of linen from flax and wool from sheep. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha in the Yalkut Shimoni on our parsha said the offering of the sinner Kayin and the offering of the righteous Hevel should never be combined.
What was the “lifting” that would occur if Kayin improved himself? The answer depends on the reason that Kayin’s face fell. Was it that HaShem rejected his offering, or was it that his brother outdid him? In line with the first reason, Onkelos (35-120), Rashi, and Radak (R. Dovid Kimchi 1160-1235) say that improvement will lift or forgive the sin of bringing an inferior offering. Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) says Kayin’s face will be lifted in relief from his shame. But Ramban says that Kayin’s face fell due to embarrassment and jealousy toward his brother, because Kayin was the firstborn and he was the first of the two to bring a sacrifice. So lifting means that Kayin has the potential to be exalted above his brother if he improves himself.
What is the meaning of sin crouching at the door? The Gemara Sanhedrin 91b records a discussion between Antoninus (thought to be the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius) and Rebbi Yehudoh haNasi about man’s evil impulse. Is it congenital, or is it acquired? Rebbi thought at first that this was part of a person’s make-up from conception, or, we might say, genetic. Antoninus convinced him that the tendency to sin is acquired at the door to this world, at birth. This is one meaning of sin crouching at the door. Rashi says that sin crouches at the door to the next world, at the grave. Punishment for sin may not be immediate in this world, but if one does not repent and is not punished in this world, the consequences occur in the next, just as reward waits in the next world for the righteous. The Gemara Kiddushin 30b teaches that the evil impulse grows stronger every day, so HaShem urges Kayin to repent as soon as possible. In Gemara Yoma 19b-20a, Eliyahu haNavi says that Moshiach’s coming is delayed because, just as the door to redemption is about to be opened, sin intrudes.
What became of Kayin and Hevel? They went on to quarrel about which of them would rule the world and which would marry the extra twin sister of Hevel. Kayin killed his brother. He became a wanderer and a vagabond. Radak tells us that he became an alcoholic, with trembling limbs. But he also repented, and his death was deferred for seven generations, until he was slain by his descendant Lamech in a hunting accident. Hevel, who suffered a brutal death, achieved atonement through that suffering. His soul/neshoma was reincarnated as his parents’ third son, Sheis, and then as Noach, and still again as Moshe Rabbeinu. Chasam Sofer points out that the rearranged initial letters of Hevel, Sheis, Noach, and Moshe spell the word neshoma.
Kayin and Hevel in literature: When the Torah was first translated into English in the 1500s, using Latin commentaries derived from Rashi, Midrash, and Radak, the English names given for the brothers were Kain and Habel. William Shakespeare seems to have used these when he wrote perhaps his greatest work, Hamlet. This is the story of Claudius, who killed his brother, King Hamlet, to gain the throne and his wife, and then became a drunkard: “The King doth wake tonight and takes his rouse, Keeps wassail, and the swagg’ring upspring reels, And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down…” (I, iv, 10-12). Just as Kayin complained about a burden heavier than he could bear, Claudius says, “O heavy burden!” (III, i, 62). Later he says,” O my offense is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, A brother’s murder!” (III, iii, 39-41). In the graveyard scene, Shakespeare reminds us of the Midrash that says Kayin killed Habel in Damascus with the jawbone of an ass: the young Prince Hamlet sees a bone, and says, “Cain’s jaw-bone, that did the first murder” (V, i, 77). In Henry VI Part I, The Bishop of Winchester says to the Duke of Gloucester, “This be Damascus, be thou cursed Cain, To slay thy brother Abel, if thou wilt” (I, iii, 40).
It is embarrassing to know less about our parsha than did an Elizabethan theater audience. In their day, instead of television or movies, they had travelling groups of performers who put on skits, including Bible scenes. One skit showed the blind Lamech shooting an arrow over a house, killing old Kayin. Compare this with Hamlet, after stabbing Polonius through a curtain: “…I have shot my arrow o’er the house And hurt my brother.” (V, ii, 244-5). Perhaps an updated format will one day refresh our knowledge of our rich literature.