Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Hayyei Sarah 5765/ November 6, 2004

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


On Three Things

Dr. Devorah Ushpizai


The mission of Abraham’s servant was completed when Isaac married Rebekah:  “And he [Isaac] took Rebekah as his wife.  Isaac loved her” (Gen. 24:66).  Rebekah was so well-suited to Abraham’s household that she filled the void that the passing of Sarah, Isaac’s mother and our matriarch, had left in his life: “and thus [he] found comfort after his mother’s death” (ibid., 67).   Until now the silence on this subject screamed for attention; we read nothing about Isaac’s grief for his deceased mother, his participation in her funeral, eulogies, or mourning. It seemed as if Isaac were silent and invisible.  Only now do we learn that he was in deep mourning, refusing to be comforted; only after his marriage to Rebekah are we told, “thus [he] found comfort after his mother’s death” (ibid.).


How did Rebekah fill his mother’s place?   The answer, it appears, lies in the words, “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah” (ibid.). Midrash Genesis Rabbah (60) explains this verse as follows:

All the days of Sarah’s life, a cloud hung over the entrance of her tent [like the cloud over the entrance to the Tent of Meeting –ed.]; when she died the cloud ceased to be; and when Rebekah came, the cloud returned.   All the days of Sarah’s life, the dough was blessed; when Sarah died, that blessing ceased; and when Rebekah came, the blessing returned.  All the days of Sarah’s life a lamp burned from the eve of the Sabbath to the eve of the Sabbath; when she died, the lamp ceased; and when Rebekah came, the lamp returned.

The legend refers to three symbols:

1)        A cloud symbolizing the Divine Presence dwelling over the home, a sign of purity in marital relations. [1]

2)        Dough symbolizes mundane material existence.

3)        A burning lamp stands for the light of the Torah and its commandments, “For the commandment is a lamp, the teaching is a light” (Prov. 6:23).  In the broadest sense this refers to the spiritual and cultural aspects of life.

These are the three foundations of a Jewish home.   The regulations concerning the sanctity of marriage (taharat hamishpaha), the orderly running of the home, and its spiritual content and the atmosphere prevailing in it – in large measure all these depend on the woman.

These three elements find expression in the homilies of the Sages and even in halakhic statements. The following instances provide a few examples which hint to these three topics in different ways :

A. “Cain said to his brother Abel … Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him” (Gen. 4:8).   The verse does not provide any information regarding the substance of the brothers’ conversation, but the Midrash fills in the gap (Genesis Rabbah 22.16):

What were they discussing?  They were saying, “Let us divide the world.”  One of them took the land, and the other the moveable wealth.   One of them said, “The land that you are on belongs to me,” and the other said, “The clothing that you are wearing belongs to me.”   One of them said, “Take it off,” and the other said, “Vanish off the face of the earth.”   This led to Cain setting upon his brother Abel and killing him.  Rabbi Joshua of Sakhnin said, quoting Rabbi Levi: … One of them said the Temple will be built in my territory, and the other said, the Temple will be built in my territory…   Rabbi Judah b. Rabbi Ami said:   They were arguing over Eve, the first woman…  Rabbi Huna said:   A twin sister was born with Abel.   The one said:   “I shall take her, since I am the first-born,” and the other said, “I shall take her, since she was born with me.”   This led to Cain setting upon Abel.

Clearly what the Sages were saying here relates to something far more general than the specific argument between Cain and Abel and the resultant murder.  The Sages were discussing what motivates human beings to fight one another, to kill and murder.  They cite three motives. The first is economic-- materialism, lust for amassing wealth, conquering lands, etc.  The second represents the religious-nationalistic reasons why nations go to war (in whose territory the Temple will be built).  The third motive for quarreling is sex (fighting over Eve or over the twin sister).

B.  Tractate Berakhot 31b says:

The Rabbis taught:  One does not rise to pray when in the midst of a legal discussion, or discussion of the halakhah, rather he should pray after studying a clear halakhah.  What is an example of a clear halakhah? The daughters of Israel were extra strict with themselves, for even if they saw a drop of blood as large as a mustard seed, they would wait out seven clean days.   Rabba said … a person may “fool” his grain, putting it together with its chaff to feed his animal so that he be exempt from tithing it…  Rabbi Huna said, quoting Rabbi Zeira, one who lets blood from an animal that has been sanctified, the animal is forbidden for use or enjoyment.

This means that a person should not turn to prayer when involved in other things that distract his attention, even if it is halakhic discussion which has not been completed. Therefore a person should go to pray only after studying a clear halakhic ruling. The gemara presents three rules of halakhah, each representing one of the three spheres that might distract a person from prayer, if the ruling were not crystal clear:   menstrual blood has to do with women and intimate relations; grain represents property and materialism; and sanctified animals, used for sacrifice, represent religion, faith, spirituality.  Why would these three areas distract a person?  Because the thoughts of a person revolve around these three axes.

C.  Tractate Avodah Zarah 54b describes the following interesting conversation:

The Rabbis taught:  Philosophers asked the elders in Rome, “If your God looks with disfavor on idol worship, why does He not do away with it?”   They answered them:  “If they were worshipping something of which the world had no need, He would abolish it.  But they worship the sun, and the moon and stars, and the zodiac; should the world perish on account of fools?  Rather, the world goes its way, and the fools who spoiled things will be called to account in time to come.”  Another interpretation:  If a person steals a se’ah of wheat and goes and sows it in the ground, justice would demand that it not grow; but the world goes its way, and the fools who spoiled things will be called to account in time to come.   Another interpretation:   If a man has intercourse with his friend’s wife, justice would demand that she not conceive; but the world goes its way, and the fools who spoiled things will be called to account in time to come.

In the debate between the philosophers and the elders, three questions were asked:   1.   Why does the Holy One, blessed be He, not do away with the heavenly bodies that are worshiped in paganism?   2.  Why do seeds of wheat grow, even though they were stolen?   3.  Why does the Holy One, blessed be He, allow a child to be born of incestuous or forbidden relations?  These questions, as well, pertain to the three areas we have mentioned:   faith and belief, food and possessions, and sex.   The philosophers, too, attempted to understand how the Holy One, blessed be He, runs the world in these three major areas.

Little wonder, therefore, that when the Sages wished to praise Sarah, Rebekah, and women in general, they mentioned these three elements as a foundation for a stable and blessed home.

The same idea also appears in a baraitha (Shabbat 119b), in a well-known homily:

Rabbi Jose bar Judah says:   Two ministering angels accompany a person on the eve of the Sabbath from the synagogue to his home, one of them good and the other evil.   When he arrives at the home, if he finds candles lit, the table set, and the bed made, the good angel says:  May it be this way on the next Sabbath; and the evil angel reluctantly is forced to say Amen.   And if not, then the evil angel says:   May it be this way on the next Sabbath; and the good angel reluctantly is forced to say Amen.

Candles that are burning symbolize the Torah and commandments, the atmosphere in the home, the spirit that prevails there.  A table that is set symbolizes home economics, dough that is blessed, materialism.   A bed that is made alludes to the marital chamber.

Further, it should be noted that the three principle commandments binding on women which are cited in the Mishnah—taking hallah, menstrual purity, and candle-lighting (Shabbat 31b) – parallel the three symbols for which Sarah’s tent was noted. [2] When these three elements come together they bring peace, harmony, love and perfection to the home, and they can even bring peace to the entire world.

[1] On the connection between the Divine Presence and purity in marital relations, see Avot de-Rabbi Nathan , ch. 38, s.v. galut ba ;  Rashi’s commentary on Exodus 24:17, Numbers 12:4; Nahmanides’ introduction to Leviticus and his commentary on the subject of a wife suspected of infidelity, and elsewhere.

[2] One could add to this notion the saying in Tractate Yevamot 62b:   “Every man who does not have a wife has neither happiness, nor blessing, nor goodness…   In the west they say:  it is as if he is without Torah … Ulla said:   without peace.”  Here too the same motifs recur:  happiness could be symbolized the cloud, or the Divine Presence, since “the Divine Presence does not dwell anywhere except out of happiness”.   Blessing and goodness parallel being blessed in one’s dough, i.e., in material aspects, and Torah is paralleled by the burning candle, representing Torah and the commandments.