Peshat and Law: One Flesh

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Jewish law often operates on the derash level of the Bible rather than a simple reading. However, sometimes peshat intersects law in surprising places. I came across such an occurrence in last week’s Torah portion and after some investigation found proper sources affirming my reading.

After God created Chavah, the Torah declares:

על כן יעזב איש את אביו ואת אמו ודבק באשתו והיו לבשר אחד.

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be one flesh.

The meaning of the term “one flesh” (basar echad) is unclear. Rashi explains it as a resulting child from the couple. Others read it as either physical or spiritual bonding. R. Michael Samuel, in his fascinating psychological-theological-peshat commentary Birth and Rebirth through Genesis, quotes the Christian exegete Gordon Wenham as taking a different approach. Comparing the phrase “one flesh” to the laws of forbidden relationships (Lev. 18, 20) where “flesh” (she’er basar) is used to denote a relative, Wenham explains that a husband and wife become physically related:

[I]t affirms that just as blood relations are one’s flesh and bone, so marriage creates a similar kinship relation between man and wife.” (Word Biblical Commentary, Genesis vol. 1 p. 71).

In other words, this is a legal rather than social or psychological text; it teaches a halakhah about family connections. I found that the Vilna Gaon (Aderes Eliyahu, ad loc.) explains similarly:

והיו לבשר אחד לענין קרבות משפחה כמו כי אחינו בשרנו הוא אל כל שאר בשר. שקרובי אשתו פסולים עליו כקרובי עצמו.

“And they shall be one flesh” regarding family relations. Like “He is our brother, our flesh” (Gen. 37:27) and “to any that is near of kin to him” (Lev. 18:6). [Teaching] that the relatives of his wife are invalid [as witnesses] to him like his own relatives.

However, I think we can take this one step further. Becoming “one flesh” is becoming more than just close relatives; it is becoming the same relative. While this passage teaches that husband and wife become blood relatives, it also teaches that they are equivalent to each other. In other words, this is the source to the rule that “ishto ke-gufo” — his wife is like himself, that husband and wife can fill in for each other in some legal roles, that they grant each other rights such as that of eating the priestly foods, that they treat each other halakhically as themselves. They are legally considered “one flesh.”

Shadal (ad loc.) comes close to saying this: “They cleave to each other so much that they are as if made of one body.” I was delighted to eventually find that the Revid Ha-Zahav (Bereishis, sv. ve-hayu) says precisely this:

פשוט הא דאמרי׳ אשתו כגופו מכאן הוא…

It is clear that that which we say “his wife is like himself” is from here…

The Revid Ha-Zahav continues to explore how literally this rule is taken and whether it applies in reverse (see this post: link). It seems to me that this rule has solid basis in the simple reading of the verse, similar to the explanations of Shadal, the Vilna Gaon and (le-havdil) Wenham.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. Interesting concept and gra source. Thank you.

  2. לאנין

    typo should be an ayin (not alef)

  3. In halacha ishto kigufo In MUssar lechvodah yoter migufo. An interesting question is in how far IKG goes. A case in point- can a husband do hattarat nedarim for his wife. Machloket acharonim(I forgot the identity of the cholkim) one side says he can because of IKG, the other side says omnam ishto kigufo aval nafsha aina kinafsho. This goes according to the pshat of parashat Breishit. Chava is “etzem me’atzamai” but the breath of life giving the nefesh was given only to Adam. Treated extensively in Kabbalah leyodei chen idach zil gmor.

  4. The next concluding pasuk’s choice of words, and the story in the following perek, seem to dispute this reading more than supporting it. To wit: ha’Adam v’Ishto are not judged as basar echad.

  5. שהיתה אהבת אדם ואשתו כל כך, שהיו שניהם בעיניהם לבשר אחד, עד שהיו שניהם ערומים ולא יתבוששו. כי כמו שהאיש בהיותו יחידי לא יבוש מעצמו אף על פי שיהיה ערום, ככה להיות שניהם כאיש אחד ובשר אחד, לא היו מתבוששים זה מזה לגודל אחדותם ודבקותם

  6. This week’s parsha – the invention of the excuse: “She made me do it!” “The snake made me do it!”

  7. Has anyone written extensively on the Kaf hadimyon issue -how much “is like” an identity principle?

  8. I’m not familiar with any article on the subject but I expect inconsistency.

  9. Actually Hashem accepts at least partially Adam’s excuse. He says “Because you listened to the voice of your wife and ate…” So his first mistake was listening to his wife. His punishment is also proportionally less severe. He must eat bread from “the sweat of his brow” but this is nothing compared to the suffering of the woman in pregnancy and childbirth,and man has the mandate to rule over his wife and not the other way around.(Admittedly it doesn’t always work out that way)

  10. The previous post in hebrew cannot correct. So why after they ate the forbidden fruit were they ‘ashamed’ of each other. They were still man and wife.

  11. A case in point- can a husband do hattarat nedarim for his wife.

    If so, it may be related to the husband’s authority over the wife’s vows in other contexts, rather than being a consequence of IKG.

    He must eat bread from “the sweat of his brow” but this is nothing compared to the suffering of the woman in pregnancy and childbirth,

    The husband suffers every day of his life, while the wife suffers on a few rare occasions (granted, more intensely).

    To get an idea of how hard the husband’s job is, excluding only a few people (the rich) and a few time places (very recent times), see the following article:

  12. R’Gil,
    The data I am aware of fully supports your expectation. I just wonder if it’s era related (i.e. folks back then were not into granularity/precison) – much the the word chazakah has 7 different iirc halachic definitions; or is there something else going on.

  13. The quote is from Abravanel.

    How do you know that after sin they were ashamed *of each other*?

  14. The Torah says thats how hashem proved to him that he ate from it and had to make him fig leaves

  15. Worth mentioning the pesukim in Emor (Vyikra 21:1-3) which forbid a kohen from being metamei le meis, with the exception of 7 relatives:

    כִּי אִם לִשְׁאֵרוֹ הַקָּרֹב אֵלָיו לְאִמּוֹוּלְאָבִיו וְלִבְנוֹ וּלְבִתּוֹ וּלְאָחִיו

    Rashi there states: כי אם לשארו: אין שארו אלא אשתו:

    (A wife in the Torah’s view is something more than an ordinary relative. In fact, the halakha of ishto ke gufo in the matter of edus, at least as understood by the Raavad and Rosh, reflects this. A man is more than a relative with respect to giving testimony on his wife’s issues, he is like a litigant himself. Thus, like the litigant himself, a husband is not treated as an invalid witness the way a brother or father would be.)

  16. In a shiur on Shalom Bayis and Halachic obligations of husbands and wives, RHS recounted that a young couple had Shalom Bayis issues that were caused by one of the couple’s mother in laws. RYBS met with the couple and the mother in law, and it became apparent that the mother in law was offering “eitzes” or what she called advice. RYBS told her that she should not offer such advice, and that the couple had to work out issues on their own because of the verse that is the subject of this post-meaning acting independently of their parents in terms of their decision making as a married couple.

  17. Lawrence Kaplan

    Actually, IIRC,the Karaites interpreted the verse literally and halakhically and insisted that all the relatives of the husband are forbidden to the wife in exactly the same way they are forbidden to the husband, and vice versa.

  18. Prof. Kaplan, how does this work for the Karaites since obviously the husband is a man and the wife is a woman (I am wondering what it means to the karaites to say that the husband’s, e.g., mother is forbidden to the wife)?

  19. Lawrence Kaplan

    Obviously we ara speaking about a man marrying a woman. But it would mean, for example, that two brothers could not marry two sisters. But again, I was relying on my memory, and would have to check further.

  20. Lawrence Kaplan

    Also, it originally meant (before a process of liberalization took place) that if one’s divorced wife marries another man, her original husband cannot marry any of that man’s female relatives.

  21. “In other words, this is a legal rather than social or psychological text; it teaches a halakhah about family connections.”

    Why must Wenham’s statement be understood to refer to mutually exclusive categories? Might not Wenham have meant — in your vocabulary — that the Pasuk in question is a legal text, in addition to being a social or psychological text?

  22. MiMedinat HaYam

    sfardim seem to reject all this

    by them, a man might leave his parents, but a woman never leaves her parents.

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