Imagine a Latin text—e.g. the first verse of the Latin Vulgate Bible:
In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram Terra autem erat inanis et vacua et tenebrae super faciem abyssi et spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas.
Most of us don’t know Latin, but at least we can read it, and guess at the meaning of some words—or look them up.
Several Jewish biblical commentators weighed in on this same question.
Rashi’s explanation—‘Because the HOBBH [Holy One Blessed Be He] was alone in the world, because the angels were not created until these second day’—seems to leave us none the wiser.
The Ramban (Nachmanides)’s interpretation is more helpful: ‘One can’t say “first day”, since the second had not yet occurred, because “the first” [implies a series that already exists], whereas “one [day]” doesn’t.’
Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto): ‘One day, [in the sense that] the evening and the morning [together] constituted one day […] i.e. a whole day.’ To put it another way: ‘God did all this within one day—more specifically, in one evening and morning, with time left over.’
Of those three, the latter sounds most plausible. But my personal take is that the real reason is poetical: Vaihi erev, vaihi boqer, yom eḥad sounds so much more lyrical than Vaihi erev, vaihi boqer, yom rishon.
(Originally written in reply to a question at Quora.com).
(Full question:) In the first minutes of this talk, Chomsky mentions that the first line of the Old Testament is mistranslated grammatically because of the Masoretic editors putting in the wrong vowels and that it should be obvious to people who know Hebrew. What other vowel form is available for /berešít bará/?
He’s probably referring to the fact that the word בראשית is vocalised בְּראשית be-reshit (with a shva), which technically means “In a beginning”, instead of בַּראשית ba-reshit (with a pataḥ—the contraction of the prefixes be– and ha–), which you might expect based on the translation “In the beginning” to make it “In the…”
It would nice, of course, to reconcile the biblical account of Creation with the modern scientific one—and the idea that the biblical “day” there was not really a day as we know it, but something much longer, like, say, an eon, is the most common method for doing so.
Ruaḥ means “wind” or “spirit”—not “breath”.
Your friend may be confusing neshamah— “soul”—with neshimah, which is “breath”.