Noach: Sifrei Toladot - The Backbone of Sefer Breishit

 This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

The Mabul (the Flood) and Migdal Bavel (the Tower of Babel) are undoubtedly the two primary stories in this week's Parsha.  However, each of these two stories is preceded by a list of genealogies that appear to be rather irrelevant.

Furthermore, at the conclusion of Parshat Noach (see 11:10-25) we find yet another set of genealogies (that introduces the story of Avraham Avinu).

In this week's shiur, we explain how these 'sifrei toladot' (lists of genealogies) create a 'framework' for Sefer Breishit and can help us better understand how these stories (i.e the Flood and Migdal Bavel) contribute to its overall theme.


In the introductory shiur on Sefer Breishit, we discussed the methodology that we employ to uncover the primary theme of each sefer.  We begin our shiur with a quick review of those basic steps:

  1. To identify the primary topic of each 'parshia'
  2. To group the titles of these 'parshiot' into units that share a more common topic.  [Each of these units could be considered as 'chapters' of the book .]
  3. To group these 'chapter' divisions into larger units that share a common topic or theme [similar to 'sections' of a book].
  4. To suggest an overall theme of the book, by analyzing the progression of theme from one section to the next.

In our shiur, we will show how the various sets of "toladot" in Sefer Breishit can help us apply this methodology, and can point us in a direction that may help us uncover its underlying theme.

From a List To an Outline:

In the following table, we list all of the 'parshiot' in the first seventeen chapters of Sefer Breishit, joining together only the most obvious groups of parshiot by noting their specific and then more general topics.

Study this list carefully, noting how the specific topics can easily group into more general topics:

1:1-2:3 7 days of Creation Creation of nature
2:4-3:15 the Gan Eden story Gan Eden
3:16 Chava's punishment Gan Eden
3:17-21 Man's punishment Gan Eden
3:22-24 Expulsion from Gan Eden Gan Eden
4:1-26 Cain's sin and punishment Outside Gan Eden
5:1-31 [Toladot:]  Adam->Noach Dor Ha-mabul
5:32-6:4 Man's downfall  [pre-Mabul]
6:5-8 reason for Mabul / Hashem  [pre- Mabul]
6:9-12 reason for Mabul / Elokim  [pre-Mabul]
6:13-8:14 Punishment - the Flood The Mabul
8:15-9:7 Leaving the Ark  [post-Mabul]
9:8-17 'Brit ha-keshet'  [post-Mabul]
9:18-29 Cham cursed/Shem blessed  [post-Mabul]
10:1-32 [Toladot:] sons of Noach The 70 Nations
11:1-9 Builders of the Tower Migdal Bavel
11:10-32 [Toladot:] Shem->Terach Avraham Avinu
12:1-9 Avraham's aliya Avraham Avinu
12:10-13:18 Lot leaves Avraham Avraham Avinu
14:1-24 War of 4 & 5 kings Avraham Avinu
15:1-21 Covenant/brit bein habetarim Avraham Avinu
Chapter 16 Yishmael's birth Avraham Avinu
Chapter 17 Brit milah - another covenant Avraham Avinu


[To verify this, I recommend that you review this table (and its conclusions) using a Tanach Koren.]

As you review this chart, note how the first set of major topics all relate in one form or other to God's 'Hashgacha' [providence], i.e. His intervention in the history of mankind as He punishes man (or mankind) for wayward behavior.

In fact, just about all of the stories in Chumash (prior to the arrival of Avraham Avinu) relate in some manner to the general topic of 'sin & punishment' ['sachar ve-onesh'].  For example, after Creation we find the following stories:

  • Adam & Eve sin & hence are expelled from Gan Eden
  • Cain is punished for the murder of Hevel
  • Dor ha-mabul is punished for its corruption
  • Dor ha-plaga' is 'punished' for building the Tower

Afterward, the focus of Sefer Breishit shifts from stories of 'sin & punishment' to God's choice of Avraham Avinu - and the story of his offspring.

Enter - "Toladot"

However, within this progression of topics, we find a very interesting phenomenon.  Return to the table (above) and note how each of these general topics are first introduced by a set of toladot [genealogies].  For example:

  • The toladot from Adam to Noach (chapter 5) introduce the story of the Mabul (chapters 6->9).
  • The toladot or Noach's children (chapter 10) introduces the story of Migdal Bavel (11:1-9 / the Tower of Babel).
  • The toladot from Shem to Terach (chapter 11) introduce the story of Avraham Avinu (chapters 12-...)

In fact, as surprising as it may sound, even the story of Gan Eden (chapters 2-3) is first introduced by toladot!

"These are the "toladot" of the heavens & earth..." [See 2:4! / note the various English translations.]

Furthermore, later on in Sefer Breishit, we continue to find toladot.  Note how we later find: toladot of Yishmael (see 25:12); toladot of Yitzchak (see 25:19); toladot of Esav (see 36:1); & toladot of Yaakov (see 37:2).

The following table summarizes this pattern, and illustrates how [some sort of] "toladot" introduces each of the main topics in Sefer Breishit.  As you review this table note how the first several topics all relate to 'chet ve-onesh', i.e. God's punishment of man (or mankind) for his sins, while the remaining topics relate to the story of our forefathers - the Avot!

Chapters  Topic
2 Toldot shamayim va-aretz
2-4 -> Man in (and out of) Gan Eden
5 Toldot Adam to Noach
6-9 -> ha-mabul - The story of the Flood
10 Toldot Bnei Noach -  Shem, Cham & Yefet
11:1-9 -> Migdal Bavel - The Tower of Babel
11 Toldot Shem  until Terach
12-25 -> God's choice of Avraham Avinu
25 -35 Toldot Yitzchak - story of Yaakov & Esav
36 Toldot Esav - story Esav's children
37-50 Toldot Yaakov - story of Yosef & his brothers

Although this pattern is rarely noticed, these sifrei toladot actually create a framework for the entire book of Breishit!

In this manner, the toladot introduce each and every story in Sefer Breishit.  To explain why, we must first take a minute to explain what the word toladot means:

What is a Tolada?

The word toladot stems from the Hebrew word 'vlad', a child or offspring.  Therefore, 'eileh toldot' should be translated 'these are the children of...'.

For example: 'eileh toldot Adam' (5:1) means - 'these are the children of Adam' - and thus introduces the story of Adam's children, i.e. Shet, Enosh, Keinan, etc.  Similarly, 'eileh toldot Noach' introduces the story of Noach's children - Shem, Cham, and Yefet.  [See Rashbam on Breishit 37:2 for a more complete explanation.]

Some of these toldot in Sefer Breishit are very short; as they simply state that the person lived, married, had children and died (e.g. the generations from Adam to Noach).  Other toldot are very detailed, e.g. those of Noach, Terach, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.  Nonetheless, every story in Sefer Breishit could be understood as a detail in the progression of these "toladot".

This explanation raises a question concerning the first instance where we find toldot - i.e. toldot shamayim va-aretz (see 2:4).  How do the heavens and earth have 'children'?!

[Note how various English translations attempt to solve this problem when they translate this pasuk!]

The answer to this question may be quite meaningful.  Recall that the first chapter of Breishit explains how God created shamayim va-aretz (heavens and earth) from 'nothing' (ex nihilo).  Then, immediately afterward in the next chapter, we encounter the first use of toldot:

"Eileh toldot ha-shamayim ve-ha'aretz be-hibar'am..." (2:4).

So what does Chumash refer to as the toladot of shamayim va-aretz, i.e what are the children of heaven and earth?

If we follow the progressive pattern of Sefer Breishit (as illustrated by the above table) then 'toldot shamayim va-aretz' must refer to man himself [i.e. Adam ha-rishon], for it is the story of his creation that immediately follows this introductory pasuk!

In other words, Adam ha'Rishon is considered the 'offspring' of shamayim va-aretz.  This interpretation could help explain the significance of the pasuk that describes how God created man in perek bet (the first topic of this unit):

"And Hashem Elokim formed man from the dust of the earth and blew into his nostrils nishmat chayim - the breath of life" (see 2:7).  This second ingredient may reflect the aspect of man which comes from (or at least returns to) heaven.

In contrast to the story of Creation in perek aleph, which features a clear division between shamayim [note the purpose of the 'rakiya' in 1:6], the special manner of God's creation of man in perek bet may reflect his unique ability to connect between heaven and earth.

[See Rashi on 2:5, where he explains that God created man so that he could pray for rain - in order for vegetation to grow.  See also the shiur on Parshat Bereshit.]

Similarly, the next set of toladot - from Adam to Noach (see chapter 5) lead immediately into the story of the Flood.  Note how 9:28-29 - the psukim that conclude the Noach story, are clearly part of the same literary unit that began with the toladot in chapter 5 (i.e. they follow the same 'template').

This pattern of "toladot" that introduce stories continues all the way until the very end of Sefer Breishit.  Therefore, we conclude that these sifrei toladot do more than 'keep the sefer together'; they also help develop the theme of Sefer Breishit.

We will now show how these toladot create not only a framework for Sefer Breishit; they can also help us identify its two distinct sections that create its primary theme.  Let's explain:

The Two Sections of Sefer Bereshit

Despite this successive nature of the toladot in Sefer Breishit, they clearly divide into two distinct sections.

  1. God's creation of mankind (chapters 1-11) w/ stories relating to 'sachar ve-onesh'
  2. The story of the avot (chapters 12-50) God's choice of Avraham's offspring to become His nation.

Even though the majority of Sefer Breishit focuses on the family of Avraham Avinu (Section Two), in the first eleven chapters (Section One), the Torah's focus is on mankind as a whole.

For example. even when Section One includes special details about Noach, it is not because he is designated to become a special nation - rather, it is because through Noach that mankind will be preserved.  After the flood, the Torah tells us how Noach's offspring evolve into nations, and their dispersing (see chapter 10).  Even though we find that Noach blesses Shem and Yefet (see 9:25-27), the concept of a special nation with a special covenant does not begin until the story of Avraham Avinu.

In contrast, Section Two (chapters 11‑50) focuses on the story of Am Yisrael - God's special nation.  In this section, Sefer Breishit is no longer universalistic, rather it becomes particularistic.

Therefore, this section begins with toldot Shem till Terach (see 11:10-24) that introduce the story of Avraham Avinu, whom God chooses in chapter 12 to become the forefather of His special nation.  The remainder of Sefer Breishit explains which of Avraham's offspring are chosen [= 'bechira'], e.g Yitzchak and Yaakov], and which are rejected [= 'dechiya'], e.g Yishmael and Esav].

This explains why Sefer Breishit concludes precisely when this complicated bechira process reaches its completion - i.e. when all twelve sons of Yaakov have been chosen, and none of his offspring will ever again be rejected.

[This may also explain the significance of Yaakov's name change to Yisrael [see the shiur on Parshat Vayishlach.]

Our final table summarizes how the toladot help define these two sections of Sefer Breishit:

1. UNIVERSALISTIC (chapters 1‑11) - Creation of mankind

Perek Toldot the Story of...
1-4 'shamayim va-aretz' Man in (and out of) Gan Eden
5-9 from Adam to Noach dor ha-mabul' - the Flood
10-11 bnei Noach to 70 nations 'dor ha-plaga' - Migdal Bavel

2. PARTICULARISTIC (11‑>50) - God's choice of Am Yisrael

Perek Toldot the STORY OF...
11 Shem to Terach leads up to Avraham Avinu
11-25 Terach God's choice of Avraham & Yitzchak
25 Yishmael * his 'rejection' (dechiya)
25‑35 Yitzchak Yaakov and Esav (their rivalry)
36 Esav * his 'rejection'
37‑50 Yaakov the 12 tribes/ Yosef and his brothers 70 'nefesh' go down to Egypt

However, if our original assumption that each sefer in Chumash carries a unique prophetic theme is correct, then there should be a thematic reason for the progression of events from Section One to Section Two.  Therefore, to identify the overall theme of Sefer Breishit, one must take into consideration how these two sections relate to one another.

To help uncover that theme, we must take a closer look at the structure created by these toladot.

Shem and Shem Hashem

Note once again from the above table how each general topic in the first section of Sefer Breishit was first introduced by a set of toladot.  In a similar manner, each of these units concludes with an event which in some way relates to the concept of 'shem Hashem'.  Let's explain how.

Our first unit, the story of Adam ha-rishon, concludes at the end of chapter four with a very intriguing pasuk:

"And also Shet gave birth to a son and called him Enosh, then he 'began' to call out in the Name of God ['az huchal likro be-shem Hashem'] (see 4:26). [Most commentators explain that 'huchal' implies that man began to 'defile' God's Name (shoresh 'chillul'), i.e. they didn't call in His Name properly - see also Rambam Hilchot Avoda Zara I:1]

No matter how we explain the word huchal in this pasuk, all the commentators agree that God's intention was for man to 'call out in His Name'.  Note, however, how this pasuk concludes the section that began in 2:4 with the story of Gan Eden.  Even though man was banished from Gan Eden and Cain was punished for murder, God still has expectations from mankind - man is expected to search for God, to 'call out in His Name'.

Despite this high expectation, the next unit of toladot, which leads into the story of the Mabul, shows that man's behavior fell far short of God's hopes.  God became so enraged that He decides to destroy His creation and start over again with Noach.  This unit which begins in 5:1 concludes in chapter 9 with a special set of mitzvot for Bnei Noach (9:1-7), a covenant ('brit ha-keshet' (9:8-17), and ends with the story of Noach becoming drunk (9:18-29).  However, even in this final story (of this unit) we find once again a reference to "shem Hashem":

After cursing Canaan for his actions, Noach then blesses his son Shem:

"Blessed be God, the Lord of Shem..." (see 9:26-27).

Now it is not by chance that Noach named his son - Shem.  Most likely, Noach's decision to name his son Shem was rooted in his hope that his son would fulfill God's expectation that man would learn to call out "be-shem Hashem", as explained in 4:26!

[It is not by chance that Chazal consider Shem the founder of the first Yeshiva, the house of learning where Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov studied, i.e. 'Yeshivat Shem ve-Ever'.]

Noach blesses Shem in the hope that he and his descendants will indeed fulfill this goal.  However, once again, we find that the next generation fails.  In chapter 10, again we find a unit that begins with toladot - this time the development of the seventy nations from the children of Shem, Cham, and Yefet - and again, just like the two units that preceded it, this unit also concludes with a story where the word "shem" emerges as thematically significant, i.e. the story of Migdal Bavel.   As we will now explain, in this story, once again mankind is not looking for God; rather they are interested solely in making a 'name ['shem'] for themselves!

Migdal Bavel

When reading the first four psukim of the story of Migdal Bavel, it is hard to pinpoint one specific sin: [Note, however, the significant usage of the first person plural.]

"Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.  And as they traveled from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shin'ar and settled there.  They said to one another: Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard... And they said, Come let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and we will make a name for ourselves - v'naaseh lanu shem - lest we shall be scattered all over the world. Then God came down to see...."  (see 11:1‑7).

From a cursory reading, it is not clear exactly what was so terrible about this generation.  After all, is not achieving 'achdut' [unity] a positive goal?  Likewise, the use of human ingenuity to initiate an industrial revolution, developing man-made building materials, i.e bricks from clay etc., seems to be a positive advancement of society.  Furthermore, there appears to be nothing wrong with simply building a city and a tower.  Why was God so angered that He decided to stop this construction and disperse mankind?

Chazal focus their criticism of this generation on their antagonistic attitude towards God (see Rashi 11:1).  One key phrase in the Torah's explanation of the purpose for the tower reflects the egocentric nature of this generation:

"ve-na'aseh lanu shem" [we shall make a name for ourselves] (11:4) [see Sanhedrin 109a].

Instead of devoting themselves to the name of God, this generation devotes all of their efforts for the sake of an unholy end.  Their society and culture focused solely on man's dominion and strength, while totally neglecting any divine purpose for their existence. [See Ramban on 11:4!]

Although this generation's moral behavior was probably much better than that of the generation of the Flood, God remained disappointed, for they established an anthropocentric society (i.e. man in the center) instead of a theocentric one (i.e. God in the center).  Their primary aim was to make a 'name for themselves', but not for God.

As God's hope that this new generation would 'koreh be-shem Hashem' - to call out in His Name - never materialized -  He instigates their dispersion.  God must take action to assure that this misdirected unity will not achieve its stated goal (see 11:5-7).  Therefore, God causes the 'mixing of languages' - so that each nation will follow its own direction, unable to unify - until they will find a common goal worthy of that unity.

Avraham is Chosen For a Purpose

Our analysis thus far can help us identify the thematic significance this Migdal Bavel incident within the progression of events in Sefer Breishit - for the very next story is God's choice of Avraham Avinu to become His special nation!

In a manner similar to the earlier stories in Chumash, the story of God choosing Avraham Avinu is first introduced, and not by chance, by tracing his genealogy back ten generations - so that it will begin with Shem - the son of Noach!  The thematic connection to "shem" becomes obvious.

From this perspective, the story of Migdal Bavel should not be viewed as just another event that took place - so that we know how and when the development of language began.  Rather, this story 'sets the stage' for God's choice of Avraham Avinu, for it will become the destiny of Avraham, the primary descendent of toldot Shem, to bring God's Name back into the history of civilization; to 'fix' the error of civilization at Migdal Bavel!

Therefore, it should come as no surprise to us that upon his arrival in Eretz Canaan, the Torah informs us of how Avraham Avinu ascends to Bet-El and builds a mizbeiach where he 'calls out in God's Name':

"And Avraham came to the Land, to Shechem... and God spoke to him saying: 'To your offspring I have given this Land'... and Avraham traveled from there towards the mountain range to the east of Bet-el... and he built there an altar - and CALLED OUT IN THE NAME OF GOD" [See 12:8 (and Ramban), compare 4:26).

Similarly, it should not surprise us that when the prophet Isaiah describes the 'messianic age' (see Isaiah 2:1-5)  - he speaks of unity of mankind:

  • when all nations will gather together once again, but this time to climb the mountain of God (not a valley)
  • arriving at the city of Jerusalem - to its special tower - i.e. the Bet ha-Mikdash - 'the place that God has chosen for His Name to dwell there' [see Devarim 12:5-12]
  • thus rectifying the events that took place at Migdal Bavel.

And when the prophet Tzefania describes ultimate redemption, we find once again an allusion to Migdal Bavel:

"ki az ehpoch el amim safa brura, likro chulam be-shem Hashem le-ovdo shchem echad". (see 3:9)

In the shiur on Parshat Lech Lecha we will continue this discussion, as we will discuss in greater detail the purpose for God's choice of Avraham Avinu.