Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Hayye Sarah 5764/ November 22, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Hayye Sarah 5764/ November 22, 2003

Who was Ketura?


Rabbi Yehuda Shaviv
Machon Tsomet, Alon Shevut


The Bible tells us (Gen. 25, 1-2): "Abraham took another wife, whose name was Ketura. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shua".

What a wonderful example of rejuvenation! After all, Abraham has long been "old, advanced in years" (24:1), and now he marries a new wife and even produces six offspring with her, thus fulfilling his destiny to be "the father of a multitude of nations" (17:4). And moreover: the way of the world is that when the wife of a man's youth dies, to a large extent he too dies; even if he is still physically alive, his vitality is sapped. Not so Abraham; not only does he not withdraw into himself, sunk in depressive longings, but he goes out to find a proper match for his son Isaac, and even pulls himself together and remarries.

Who arranged Abraham's match? This is barely touched on in the text (unlike the detailed description in the case of Isaac). But the agadah tells us that it was his son Isaac who brought Abraham and Ketura together, as Rashi says in his comment on "Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi" (24:61) - "to where he went to bring Hagar to Abraham his father that he might wed her" [the well of Lahai-roi is the spot to which Hagar wandered after being cast out by Abram, see Gen. 16:14. The Midrash identifies Keturah as Hagar].

Imagine the scene: While Abraham is wracking his brain to find a suitable young woman for his son Isaac, Isaac the son is busy finding a suitable woman for his father.

It seems that both were deeply affected by the death of Sarah, wife and mother, and each was looking for ways to ease the anguish of the other and comfort him. Indeed, in the case of Isaac, the text says clearly that he was comforted for the death of his mother with the arrival of Rebecca in the tent (24:67), and it seems Abraham had a similar experience.

Who is Ketura?

We know something about Abraham's two previous wives. Sarah was his cousin while Hagar was of Egyptian origin. About Ketura, however, the text is silent and gives no explanation[1], leaving it to the commentators to express their opinion.

Rabbi Judah says in the Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 61, 4): "She is Hagar". This is the opinion of the Zohar as well (133b) and of Targum Jonathan. As we saw above, Rashi agrees with them.[2] However, the commentators who explained the text in its literal sense (peshat) did not accept this. Rashbam states in short: "According to the peshat, this is not Hagar", without providing any explanation of his opposition. The difficulty might be as formulated by Rabbi Nehemia in the Midrash (ibid.): "Behold, the text reads va-yosef, literally 'he added'. [Gen. 25:1 reads: Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. The Hebrew actually says "He added on another wife".] If Hagar were identical with Ketura and Hagar was already his wife, there would have been no need to say about her that 'he added' her to his wives.

Ibn Ezra raises another difficulty: "Ketura is not Hagar, because it is written: "But to Abraham's sons by concubines" (25:6). In other words, the text is not talking about one concubine but about two, at the least. So we must understand that Ketura was added to Hagar. For Rashi this does not constitute a problem, because in verse 6 he wrote: " 'and for the sons of the concubine' [pilagshim is written defectively, without the second yod]- defective spelling, as there was only one concubine, who is Hagar who is Ketura".[3] But in the Massoretic Text of the Bible as we have it today the word is actually written pilagshim, with plene spelling which indicates the plural.[4]

If Ketura is not Hagar, as many of the commentators maintain, we would like to offer a possible identification. G-d's last promise to Abraham in His first revelation was: "And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you" (12:3), and apparently this was the most important promise. What is its significance? Does venivrekhu really mean 'bless', as understood by some commentators (Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak)? According to Rashbam (on the parallel verse, 28:14) the meaning that comes to mind is 'to graft' a branch, and the connotation is 'to bless by combining', in other words the families of the earth will intermingle with your family.[5]

If we accept this second meaning, we find it to be the exact opposite of he commandment of G-d to Abraham to "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house" (12:1). That commandment pointed Abraham in the direction of separation and withdrawal from other men, while this blessing points to renewed connection. Hence the entire experience of severance from his society and from his father's house had only one purpose - to make it possible for Abraham to crystallize and shape his personality.[6]
If indeed Abraham was destined to once again maintain contact with all the peoples of the world, we can now consider the possibility that Abraham's three wives - Sarah, Hagar and Ketura - represent his connection with the three families of the earth, for it was through the three sons of Noah-- Shem, Ham, and Japheth-- that humanity was again established after the flood.
And we indeed found the following words in the midrash anthology Yalkut Shimoni for Job (903): "Abraham married three women: Sarah, the daughter of Shem; Ketura, the daughter of Japheth; Hagar, the daughter of Ham". And in fact he married them in the order in which the "fathers" appear in the Bible (6:9) - first the daughter of Shem, then the daughter of Ham, and finally the daughter of Japheth.
By marrying these three women, the blessing that G-d bestowed upon Abraham, that "all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you", was fulfilled, and similarly when he produced offspring from these three women, the blessing that he would be "the father of a multitude of nations" was also fulfilled.


[1] Radak says this is to teach us that "with this one, he did not examine from which people and which family she came". However he adds: "But he certainly sought a suitable woman, who would not upset him in his old age. And also he was careful that she not be a Canaanite".
[2] If indeed Ketura and Hagar are one, then Yitzhak's act is especially noble, because Hagar had been sent away under pressure from his mother Sarah, out of concern for him and his education (see in this connection also the comment of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch).
[3] We already found a dispute of this sort in the Midrash. See Bereshit Rabba (61, 4).
[4] Rabbi Akiva Eiger gives this case in his Gilyon Hashas, in the long list he included about the differences between the Bible as cited in the Talmud and in our Bibles (Tractate Shabbat 55b).
[5] Ibn Ezra (in his Shitta Aheret to Genesis), has reservations about this interpretation: "A great scholar wrote in his book that "they shall bless themselves by you" means 'to graft' other nations onto your stock. I don't know where he got this from".
[6] And it is thus that the statement to Abraham in the Zohar (77b in the Hebrew translation): "go forth - for yourself, for your self- improvement, to improve your level".