Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 12 November 2011 / 14 Heshvan 5772


by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Emily

Dear Rabbi,

I am having trouble with the concept that G-d created Mankind in His image and likeness. Does G-d have an image such that man’s could be compared to it? Can we truly understand G-d in any way such that man could be considered like Him? What’s more, the Hebrew used in the verse for image is “tzelem” which implies form, and that for likeness is “demut” which implies appearance. Please help me out of my confusion.

Dear Emily,

By asking these questions you are in good company. Many of the great classical commentators have asked or addressed them as well.

Rashi seems to understand “tzelem” more like you do, namely that it implies more shape or form than image. He therefore translates “tzelem” as mould. However, he addresses your question by explaining that G-d created mankind not literally in His form, but rather in His mould – meaning in the mould He formed for the purpose of fashioning mankind. Regarding likeness, you differ from Rashi in that he explains likeness to mean similar not in appearance but rather in quality — the point of comparison being in intellect and understanding.

Thus Rashi explains the verse to mean that G-d fashioned mankind’s physical form in His “mould” created specially for that purpose, and imparted within people wisdom which made them similar to G-d who has Wisdom.

Rambam, in his “Guide to the Perplexed”, also addresses your “confusion”. He explains that, as you note, and based on verses, G-d cannot be described or quantified in any way, and saying that man was created in G-d’s image, likeness or form in unthinkable. Rather, just as King David in Psalms compared himself to a drifting lone bird of the desert in order to emphasize a specific detail and context of comparison, namely his being alone, deserted and adrift, but not that he could be compared to a bird in any other way, so too the Torah intends to compare man to G-d in specific, limited ways.

Man alone is endowed – like his Creator – with morality, reason and free-will. He can know and love G-d and shares spiritual affinity with Him through his actions and reason. It is in this sense, then, that the Torah describes mankind as having been created in His image and likeness.

Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, in Nefesh Hachaim, refines this approach even further. He argues that the point of comparison is specifically related to the word used there for G-d, namely “Elokim”. As opposed to the four-letter name for G-d (yud, hey, vav, hey) which denotes G-d’s power of Creation, “Elokim” denotes G-d’s power of rule over that Creation. Therefore, when the Torah writes that mankind was created in the likeness of “Elokim”, it means that man alone was endowed with the power to rule over G-d’s creation. This is supported by the fact that the very same verse (Gen. 1:26) states, “They shall rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over the animals, the whole earth, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth”.

If in this way the Nefesh HaChaim explains the specific way in which man was created in G-d’s likeness, it seems from the continuation of the book that the specific way in which he was created in G-d’s form refers not to his physical form, but rather to the form of his soul. The human soul, being part of G-d in this world, actually parallels, and in fact serves as a venue through which G-d’s influence pervades, regulates and rules the world. Mankind is thus G-d-like, according to Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, in his ability to be a mini-“Elokim”: First in his physical dominion over the world through the venue of his body, but even more importantly in his spiritual dominion over all worlds through the venue of his Divine soul.


  • Rashi’s commentary is based on teachings in the Talmud (Chagiga 16a, B.B. 58a,Ketubot 8a, Sanhedrin 38a) and Midrash (B.R. 8:11).
  • The ArtScroll Chumash
  • Sefer Nefesh HaChaim, Part 1, Ch.1

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