Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Chaye Sarah

Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center 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 sponsorshiip of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity, with assistance of the Shoresh Charitable Fund and the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.

Parashat Caye Sarah, 5759/1998

Eliezer's Prayer by the Well, as Viewed by the Sages

Amos Hakham


The actions of Abraham's servant, known as Eliezer according to Gen. 15:3, are described in great detail, taking up a considerable part of the narrative about the servant's mission to Aram-Naharaim to bring Isaac a wife. The importance of the story can be seen from the fact that it is retold several times in this week's reading. Indeed, the Sages said, "The ordinary conversation of the patriarchs' servants is more pleasing to the Almighty than the religious teaching of their children; for the story of Eliezer is recounted twice in the Torah, whereas many important principles of the Law are only given obliquely."[1]

Nevertheless, this section reflects one of the typical characteristics of biblical narrative, namely that the narrator does not describe every detail of the setting in which the event transpired and especially does not dwell explicitly on the inner thoughts of the people whose actions are being recounted, even when we are told that the person was thinking to himself.

Thus, the narrative at hand tells us of Eliezer's prayer as he stood by the well, Eliezer himself saying that this prayer was uttered in his heart: "I had scarcely finished praying in my heart" (24:45). Yet these words, uttered in his heart, do not make clear Eliezer's primary intent, but need to be rounded out according to the understanding or imagination of the person interpreting the biblical text. The main difficulty here is whether Eliezer meant to use a rational approach to find an appropriate wife for Isaac; did he intend to give the maidens who came to the well to draw water a character test and then select the maiden who scored highest? Many commentators take such a view, as Nehama Leibowitz sums up definitively (Studies in Bereshit[Genesis], p. 225): "To sum up: the servant applied a character test and for this purpose sampled her kindness and generosity. It was only fitting therefore that his [Abraham's] future daughter-in-law was singled out for display of his very quality which has distinguished the behavior of the Jewish household throughout the ages."

Quite the opposite approach can be seen in the homilies of the Sages. They viewed Eliezer's behavior as a wager based on supernatural forces, what the Sages called nihush or divination. Eliezer prayed to G-d to grant him success in this wager by having the woman destined for Isaac appear by divine Providence. Such an approach accords with the general spirit of biblical times, as reflected in the proverb, "Lots are cast into the lap; the decision depends on the Lord" (Prov. 16:32). Hence the positive attitude towards relying on fate, as seen further in the saying, "The lot puts an end to strife and separates those locked in dispute" (Prov. 18:18). Nevertheless, the Sage's homily expresses reservations about using lots, even though it perceives Eliezer's deed as relying on lots. This homily appears in several sources, one of which is Leviticus Rabbah, cited here:[2]

Four biblical figures set out with an oath, three of them making requests that were unreasonable, to which G-d responded reasonably, and one making a request that was unreasonable, to which G-d responded unreasonably. They were: Abraham's servant Eliezer, Caleb, Saul and Jephthah. Eliezer made an unreasonable request, as it is said, "Let the maiden to whom I say, ..." (Gen. 24:14). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, "If it had been a maid-servant, or a gentile, or a harlot who had come out, would you have said, 'Let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac'?" What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He caused Rebecca to appear... Jephthah made an unreasonable request, and the Holy One, blessed be He, responded unreasonably, as it is said: "And Jephthah made the following vow ... whatever comes out of the door of my house..." (Judges 11:30-31). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, "If a camel, or a donkey, or a dog had come out, would you have offered one of them to Me?!" So the Holy One, blessed be He, paid him back unreasonably, causing his daughter to appear, as it is said, "When Jephthah arrived at his home in Mizpah, there was his daughter coming out to meet him..." (Judges 11:34-38).

This homily points to the similarities between Eliezer and Jephthah: both decided to choose whoever came towards them first. Indeed, even the words used by Scripture are similar. With regard to Eliezer it is written, "behold, Rebecca came out" (Gen. 24:15), and with regard to Jephthah, "behold, his daughter came out" (Jud. 11:34). According to this approach, presumably the maidens did not all come out to draw water together, rather one by one, each in her turn, and Eliezer decided to bet on the one who would come out first. Divine Providence guided events in such a way that his wager succeeded, and Rebecca appeared first.

The homily criticizes Eliezer for taking this chance by placing him on a par with Jephthah. The lesson the homily wishes to teach is that even a righteous person like Abraham's servant Eliezer must not "force" the Holy One, blessed be He, to do his will. This is the trend in the writings of the Sages who likewise believed in Divine Providence but flatly rejected relying on signs and omens that go beyond nature or common sense. Hence they said, "Dreams neither add nor detract (Gittin 52a), and "One should not heed divine voices" (Berakhot 52a). Likewise, there is the famous case of Honi the circle-drawer, who as it were "compelled" the Holy One, blessed be He, to bring rain, so that Simeon ben Shetah sent him a message, "Were you not Honi, I would have you ostracized" (Ta'anit 23a).

Eliezer's actions are explicitly defined as divination in a passage of the Talmud combining halakhic deliberations and homily (Hullin 95b). There we read in the name of Rav: "Any divination [Hebrew nahash, prohibited by Torah law] which is not like that of Abraham's servant Eliezer or that of Saul's son Jonathan, is not divination." The plain sense of this statement is that Eliezer's behavior constituted the type of divination forbidden by the Torah. Moreover, it exemplifies the type of divination which is proscribed: when a person sets himself an omen and vows to guide his actions according to that omen.

However, as opposed to this type of divination, a person may make an omen of a particular event of his choosing in order to arouse his hopes of success in an undertaking, or to serve as a sign boding well for the future, provided this hope not be translated into concrete action that he takes according to the omen. I.e., it is all right to say, "if such and such occurs, I take it to mean that I will be successful." This notion is presented by Maimonides in a halakhic ruling in his Mishneh Torah (Avodah Zarah 11.4). Rabad takes issue with Maimonides in this regard, arguing that according to the latter's view it follows that Abraham's servant Eliezer and Saul's son Jonathan transgressed a severe proscription of the Torah. Clearly this exchange led to various interpretations and debates among Maimonides' commentators and later posekim. Even the Tosafists, who surely did not know Maimonides' stand and Rabad's reservations on it, discuss this question (cf. Hullin). The issue is of utmost importance in understanding the positions taken by the Sages regarding various sorts of divination. This, however, is a subject in its own right, exceeding the limits of the present discussion. Suffice it to say that, according Talmudic commentators, when Rav referred to divination by Saul's son Jonathan he had in mind the story in First Samuel 14:9-10, although in our humble opinion it would be more appropriate to refer to the omen of the arrows, in First Samuel 20:20-22, but this is not the place for further discussion of the matter.

[1] Genesis Rabbah, 50.8, cited in Rashi's commentary on Gen. 24:42.

[2] Margaliyot ed., p. 854. Other references and versions are given in the editor's notes there.