In God’s Image

In this unit we will consider what it means that humans are created ‘in the image of God’,  and what that tells us about the Torah’s approach to the nature and purpose of humankind.

Resource Ages: 15-18


Bereishit 1:26-28

26. And God said,Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.”

27. And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

28. God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

26. וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱ-לֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכׇל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכׇל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

27. וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱ-לֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃

28. ויְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱ-לֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱ-לֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכׇל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • What factors shape our values and beliefs?
  • What is the relationship between freedom and responsibility?
  • How can I experience moments of connection to God?
  • What is morality and what are the factors that have an impact on the development of our morality?
  • How is the Torah story my story?
  • How do Jewish texts help me grapple with questions of life, the universe and everything?
  • How is Jewish text a vehicle to help us access connections to God?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What is unique about humanity compared to the rest of creation?
  • What does it mean that humankind has been created ‘in the image of God’?
  • How are humans similar to God? How are they dissimilar?
  • What is the source of human dignity?
  • Is being like God a choice?
  • Does humanity have a ‘purpose’?
  • If humanity has a purpose, what is it?

Background for Teacher

Bereishit 1:26-28 What feature distinguishes humankind from the rest of Creation?: Human beings were uniquely created “in God’s image” ( בצְּלֶםֶ אלֱהִֹים , beTzelem Elohim). What does this mean? Countless suggestions have been offered and some of them will be discussed in this unit....

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Bereishit 1:26-28

What feature distinguishes humankind from the rest of Creation?: Human beings were uniquely created “in God’s image” ( בצְּלֶםֶ אלֱהִֹים , beTzelem Elohim). What does this mean? Countless suggestions have been offered and some of them will be discussed in this unit.

Based on the flow of the biblical text, biblical scholar Professor Nahum Sarna (1923–2005) notes that “verse 26 establishes an evident connection between resemblance to God and sovereignty over the earth’s resources, though it is not made clear whether man has the power over nature as a result of his being like God or whether that power constitutes the very essence of the similarity.” 

What powers enable humankind to reign supreme? 

  • Intellect
  • the ability to communicate
  • free will
  • self-awareness
  • consciousness of the existence of others
  • conscience
  • responsibility
  • self-control
  • potential for spirituality/holiness

All of these are normally included in an understanding of the concept of tzelem Elohim.

The infinite value of human life: But perhaps the Torah wishes to convey something further as well. In Bereshit 9:6 it is written, “Whoever sheds the blood of a human being will have their blood shed by [other] human beings, for humankind was fashioned in the image of God.” Here, tzelem Elohim is the basis for declaring murder as the consummate crime. Thus, this term also reflects the infinite value of human life.

The purpose of humanity’s existence: What connection is there between humankind’s being fashioned beTzelem Elohim, and the purpose of its existence? Understanding humankind’s unique task on earth, as per this biblical text, may offer an explanation. The Torah states that the first human beings were told to master and rule the earth and all its inhabitants. This requirement can best be understood against the backdrop of humankind’s position in relation to the rest of Creation. If other forces in the Creation were more powerful than humans, or if the first human did not have the capacity to dominate the world (as Elohim is seen to dominate the world), then God could hardly assign them the task of mastering and ruling the earth as it would be beyond their capacity. Thus, according to Bereshit 1, humankind is blessed with the ability and the capacity (and the responsibility) to dominate and control its surroundings, and this would be the explanation of what it means to be created “in God’s image.”

Other possible understandings of what it means to be created in the image of God are raised by the authors of the next three texts.


Maimonides (Rambam), Moreh Nevukhim (Guide for the Perplexed) 1:1

Being in the ‘image of God’ is a unique intellectual quality: Elsewhere (Mishneh Torah, Foundations of Torah 1:8–9), Rambam proposes that the Tanakh uses expressions referring to physical traits to describe God because humans need such language. Humans cannot conceptualize that which their minds have never seen, in the same way that a blind person from birth cannot understand what color means. However, the expressions are to be understood metaphorically. Here, too, Rambam contends that God does not have a figure and therefore the concept of being created in God’s image cannot be taken to mean God’s shape or form. Rambam argues further that the Hebrew word tzelem must mean “that which constitutes the essence of a thing.” Well, what is the essence of God? For Rambam, likely being guided by Aristotle, the essence of God is God’s intellect. If humans are to be modeled on God in any way, for Rambam it must be that humans are modeled after the quality of the intellect, and so saying that humans are made “in God’s image” must be understood to reflect humans’ intellectual perception – their ability to think and process information in a way superior to that of any other creation. This is what makes humans unique and bearers of a divine quality.

The etymology of the word tzelem:Rambam’s assessment of the meaning of the Hebrew tzelem derives from his linguistic analysis of the term along with another term used by the Tanakh, to’ar ( תּאֹרַ ; for example, see Bereshit 39:6). For Rambam, this latter word is used by the Tanakh to describe the physical qualities of an object. For this reason, he assumes that tzelem must refer to some other characteristic of the object being described, and he concludes that tzelem refers to “that which constitutes the essence of a thing.” Rambam’s definition of tzelem can be contrasted with that of Rashi who sees tzelem as more of a physical aspect of the thing (Rashi to Bereshit 1:27).


Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, Bereshit 1:27, In the Image of God

Approach 1 – intellectual: Plaut contemplates three ways of defining how it is that humans can be formed in God’s image. The first approach is that of Rambam as Plaut takes note of the “unique intellectual capacity” of the individual human being, as Rambam saw the tzelem Elohim of the person in light of the humans’ “intellectual perception.” Plaut differs from Rambam, though, in that Plaut takes the idea of being created in the image of God as a poetic utterance, a literary figure of speech used to convey how the biblical author stands in awe of humankind, while for Rambam, the phrase tzelem Elohim speaks of a philosophical truth.

Approach 2 – moral potential: Plaut’s second way to understand what it means to be created in the image of God is reminiscent of how the Rabbis in the Talmud (Sotah 14a) explain what it means to “walk after God” (Devarim 13:5). For them, people “follow God” by behaving as God does – by clothing the naked, consoling mourners, burying the dead, etc. In this second approach, Plaut takes the idea of being created in the tzelem Elohim in similar fashion – being created in the tzelem Elohim means that people have the ability to act in a morally responsible manner and to show love, mercy, justice, etc. 

Approach 3 – potential for holiness: Plaut, however, adds yet a third way to understand the biblical comparison of humanity to the divine, this being that humans carry within them the potential for holiness. In several different verses in the Torah, God is said to be holy (Vayikra 11:44; 19:2; 21:8, and more). When God created humankind, according to the narrative in Bereshit 2, “the LORD God formed the human from the dust of the earth. [God] blew into [the human] nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being.” No other element of Creation had God’s breath injected in it. God’s breath, in Plaut’s view, imbued adam, the human being, not only with life, but also with holiness.

In the Torah’s call for the Israelites to be holy, the language used is always “you shall be holy” קְדוֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ) , kedoshim tihyu), never “you are holy” ( אַתֶּם קְדוֹשִׁים , atem kedoshim). In this sense, one may argue that just as humanity has a potential for morality, so too does it have a potential for holiness. In receiving the breath of God, humans figuratively carry a part of God in them. But they do not become like God. Humanity is left with the potential to be holy, partly replicating God’s holiness, which is absolute. Perhaps the knowledge that humans have the potential to be holy encourages them to behave in such a way as to bring them closer to their goal.

The holiness of humankind is the source of human dignity: But Plaut adds, however, another definition for holiness and that is to say that holiness is a mark of human dignity. Understood in this way, each individual human being bears a certain dignity that all others should see as the mark of God in that person and thus accord him respect. This dignity, this type of holiness, unlike the other type, is always the possession of the person and is not something that a person needs to acquire. (But it is something a person can lose!) 


Rabbi Lawrence Troster, In the Image: Peshat

Humanity as a reminder to creation of the existence of God: Analyzing the word צֶלםֶ (tzelem) through the lens of linguistics, Troster expands on the concepts raised in the previous text (Rabbi Plaut). Not only are humans to be God’s co-workers, doing God’s work on earth, they are the ones to spread God’s presence to all corners of the world, being a constant reminder to all of Creation that there is a God and that God is present, even if not in physical form, just as photos, statues, and other images of the rulers of the land are meant to remind people of their dominion.

Linguistic analysis of the word tzelem:Troster derives his understanding of the Hebrew tzelem by using a linguistic technique that analyzes cognate words. Cognate words are words, often in different but related languages, that seem to have derived from the same root. The method of studying cognate words assumes that if a word has a known definition in one language, that definition could be applied to its cognate in the other language, allowing for the word to be understood in the second language. This method can be used to raise possible understandings of Hebrew words in the Tanakh whose meanings are uncertain. In applying this method, one should be wary of its primary pitfall, however, as pointed out by biblical scholar and linguist Dr. Joel Manuel Hoffman – words may be cognates, but they can still have different usages in different languages. As an example, take the Hebrew word לחֶֶם (lechem) that means bread, while the Arabic لحم (lachm) means meat. Thus, relating the definition of tzelem to that of tzalmu should be done with caution.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities

Show your students the music video for the Katy Perry song Firework. In this video the beauty and dignity of humankind is expressed through fireworks emanating from people, including a series of characters who are having struggles in their life. They seem to be at risk of forgetting they also have a special unique value and beauty  (represented in the video by the firework) and the video portrays them as realising this at certain points and then celebrating it. This may help your students conceptualize being created ‘in the image of God’, and the dignity this affords all human beings. The video can be used as a trigger to  discuss what tzelem Elohim may mean. The following questions may prove useful for this discussion:

    • What do all the characters in the video have in common?
    • What do you think the firework that comes out of them represents?
    • The Torah tells us all humans are created ‘in the image of God’. What do you think that could mean?
    • Does the video help you connect to this concept? How?
    • What does ‘human dignity’ mean to you? Where can you see this in the video? How can the concept of being created ‘in the image of God’ lead to an understanding of human dignity?

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

The first text presents the biblical source for the concept that humankind is created ‘in the image of God’. This text is the starting point for any exploration of Judaism’s approach to what it means to be human. You may find the following questions helpful in encouraging your students to begin to explore what this text tells us and what Judaism’s approach is:

  • What is the obvious theological problem with the concept of humans being created ‘in the image’ of God?
  • How do you think Jewish scholars have traditionally approached this difficulty?
  • If being created in the image of God does not mean physical, what could it mean? What is it that humans have that is similar to God?
  • What is it that makes humans unique from all other creations?
  • When the text says “Adam” was created in the image of God, what possible interpretations of who might the text be talking about are there?
  • Which one do you prefer? Which one do you think became the accepted one?
  • If it is all humankind that is created in the image of God, what impact can this have on Jewish ethical behaviour? What might this say about how we treat all people?

Rambam is sure that God has no corporeal/physical existence (not all Jewish philosophers agreed with this but in time this became the mainstream position of all Jewish philosophers) and therefore ‘image’ here cannot mean a physical image. In which case, it must be something non-physical, and for Rambam that is intellect. God is 100% intellect and it is our intellect that makes us like God (and distinguishes us from the rest of creation). The following questions may help your students consider this:

  • If God is not physical, how can we be created in God’s ‘image’?
  • Does the word ‘image’ have to mean physical? 
  • How does Rambam think we are like God?
  • Is this something that is uniquely human? Are there any other creations that have this also?
  • How can we use this(our intellect) to connect to God?

The third source presents three possible approaches to what it may mean that we are ‘like God’ because we are created in God’s image. These are human intellect (which makes us more like God and distinguishes us from animals); human potential for moral behaviour (this stems from having the free will to choose our behaviour which is something we believe animals do not have, but rather they have biological instincts that cannot be overcome); and finally our potential for holiness (he does not define what this means but it is certainly a metaphysical trait that is the essence of God). This third possibility is what Rabbi Plaut says gives humanity its dignified existence. The following questions may help consider his approach:

  • How does our intellect distinguish us from the rest of creation (who are not described as being created ‘in the image of God’)?
  • Can animals be moral/immoral? Why or why not?
  • Behaving morally means one must have freewill. Does God have free will? Do animals? Do you?
  • What do you think holiness is? What do you think Judaism thinks it is?
  • Why does Rabbi Plaut say holiness is what gives humans dignity?

The final text interprets the word tzelem Elohim as being ‘like God’ in the same way a representative (such as an ambassador) is like the person who they represent. In this way, humans spread the presence of God throughout the world. These questions could be used to explore this idea further:

  • Why do government offices often have photographs of the head of state? 
  • According to Rabbi Troster, how are are humans like these photographs?
  • How do humans ‘represent’ God?
  • Do you think this is just in our existence, or does this only happen if we behave in a certain way?

An interesting activity to complement this class could be creating and conducting a poll to research how people feel humans are distinguished from animals, and if this is how they think about what it means to be created in the image of God.

    • Create a poll, either online or in person, asking what are the elements of being human that distinguish us from the rest of creation. These will now doubt include some of the following (which could be used as suggestions on an online poll):
      • Intellect
      • the ability to communicate
      • free will
      • self-awareness
      • consciousness of the existence of others
      • conscience
      • responsibility
      • self-control
      • potential for spirituality/holiness
    • Be sure to offer the opportunity for ‘other’ also.
    • You may wish to also include open questions on their perception of what it means to be created in the image of God, such as:
      • How do you understand the verse in the Torah that describes the creation of humankind as being ‘in the image of God’?
      • In your mind, does this connect to any of the elements you mentioned in the question above?
      • Do animals also have any of these elements? Is there still a distinction between humans and animals in this area? 
    • Presenting your data: create graphs to present the data you collected