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Breishit 5764

By: Rav Yonatan Horovitz

Parashat Bereishit – Rav Yonatan Horovitz


What was it that bothered Kayin to the extent that he decided to kill Hevel?

What gave Kayin the idea that Hevel could be killed?

What is the significance of this episode, the first fight in the world, which ended so tragically?


In this shiur we will attempt to answer the above questions as we grapple with one of the many mysterious events in Parashat Bereishit.


The first sense that we, as readers of chumash, get that not all is equal between these two brothers, is at their birth.


Adam “knew” his wife, Chava, and she conceived and gave birth to Kayin as she said “ I have acquired a man, G-d”.  She continued to give birth to his brother Hevel….(Breishit 4: 1-2)


We see here that while Kayin was given a name for a reason, even if the reason is somewhat obscure, this is in contradistinction to Hevel whose naming remains unexplained.  Furthermore, there is no reference to a second conception, rather the Torah writes that “she continued to give birth” as if the birth of Hevel was a mere continuation of that of Kayin.


There are two possible reasons for the differences noted above:

  1. Kayin and Hevel were twins. As this birth was well before the age of ultrasound, Adam and Chava were not aware that they were having two children. They were overcome with emotion at the birth of their first child and named him accordingly. The second son came as somewhat of a surprise, obviously without a further pregnancy, and so he merely became known as Hevel.
  2. The first son was seen as the continuation of mankind, as the name suggests. Ramban explains that the phrase “kaniti ish et Hashem” means I have an acquisition for Hashem, someone to serve Him after I (Chava) have departed from the world. This bears even greater significance as the son was born directly after Adam and Chava had been told that they were to be mortals and that their days in this world were numbered.

This theory would suggest that Hevel was seen as an almost unnecessary addition and therefore we are told few details about his birth or name.

[It is interesting to note that the name Hevel means “nothing” or “insignificant”. It is unclear as to whether this was the nature of the name given to the second son or whether the word “hevel” came to mean nothing after the man bearing that name who had little or no chance to effect the world. This question we will leave to students of etymology.] 


The Torah continues to write about the occupations of the two boys. Hevel was a shepherd, whilst Kayin worked the land or, in other words, was a farmer. It is beyond the scope of this shiur to examine the significance of their chosen professions, the episode of the sacrifices brought by the two brothers and the resulting response from Hashem. It is recommended on the one hand to compare the opposing approaches to life of Kayin and Hevel to those of Ya’akov and Esav, and on the other to read the commentary of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch to this perek.


“Kayin said to Hevel his brother, and it came to pass as they were in the field, Kayin overcame Hevel his brother and killed him. (Breishit 4:8)


This sentence leaves us wondering as to the nature of the conversation that took place between the two brothers. Rashi explains that Kayin began arguing and fighting with Hevel. Ibn Ezra suggests that Kayin revealed to Hevel the harsh words with which Hashem had rebuked him. Consequently, Kayin blamed Hevel for Hashem’s reaction and therefore eventually killed him. According to Ramban, this phrase is connected to the next part of the pasuk and in fact Kayin merely invited Hevel out to the field only to murder him in a secluded area where his father would not find him.


Midrash Rabbah, which is also quoted by Rashi, is more specific as to the disagreement between the two brothers:

“About what were they talking? They said let us divide the world, one took the land, the other took the moveable objects.  This one said: you are on my land! The other one said: what you are wearing is mine! This one said: remove the garment! The other retorted: Fly (off my land)! As a result (of this argument) Kayin overcame Hevel his brother and killed him.”

The midrash offers two other suggestions for their disagreement but all the midrashic interpretations have one thing in common. The argument is two sided. Both Kayin and Hevel claim that they are right and use some logic to prove their point. This is unlike the theme found in the classic commentaries who all point to Kayin as the instigator of the fight and as the one who believed he had been done an injustice.


We thus see two very distinct ways of interpreting this episode.

This is the first fight in humanity, one which was “resolved” through violence setting a pessimistic precedent for the future of humanity as the midrash suggests.

On the other hand we could see this event as an act of unprovoked anger on the part of Kayin as is found in the mefarshim quoted above.

According to either interpretation the message of Hashem in response to Kayin’s actions is resoundingly clear. Kayin committed a horrible act of murder for which he is held totally responsible.



But why did kill Hevel? What did he hope to achieve by this violent act?

We now return to our earlier discussion of the brothers’ birth. We can suggest that Kayin believed that he was the soul heir to the kingdom of his parents and that if Hevel could not accept that then he would have to be removed. The fact that Hashem appeared to prefer Hevel over him, only compounded this fact and made him even more wary of his younger brother.

Can we blame Kayin for feeling this way or Adam and Chava for creating this situation? No. This is the first family in Tanach, the first human family cell and a lot of things were still to be understood and learned. It is not for us to judge, rather to comprehend and apply.


In this case Adam and Chava themselves seem to have learned from the experience for later in the parasha we read (4:25):

“Adam knew his wife again and she gave birth to a son and called him Shet,

  for Hashem has given me another child instead of Hevel who was killed by Kayin.”


  It is clear from this source that Adam and Chava felt the loss of Hevel to the extent that they named their third son in honor of the fact that he was a replacement for Hevel. Each son, each child has a role to play in the world and no person has the right to remove that opportunity or obligation from another human being. Let us hope that we all have the sense and ability to find our role in this world.








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