Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Noah 5767/ October 28, 2006

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, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

Clothes Make the Man

 

Dr. Yair Barkai

 

Jerusalem

 

Professor Isaac Heinemann termed the Sages’ way of thinking in midrash as “organic,” since it is interested in tangible signs in the Bible, as opposed to systematic research which draws connections between abstract ideas. [1]   Among the many characteristics of organic thought which he examines at length, he notes the attempt of the authors of midrash to “connect these physical descriptions in Scripture one to another and to find some unifying theme that encompasses all the separate details.” [2] We will focus on one such physical detail, clothing, and trace it through the figure of Nimrod (Gen. 10:8-9):

Cush also begot Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earth.  He was a mighty hunter by the grace of the Lord; hence the saying, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter by the grace of the Lord.”

The word ‘might’/ ‘mighty’ (gibbor) recurs three times in these two verses, indicating that this is a fundamental trait of his character.  The second verse focuses on Nimrod’s might as a “mighty hunter,” e.g., he was not given the title of “mighty” on account of lofty moral traits, rather due to his physical strength and great cunning, necessary to anyone who would hunt.   But what does it mean, that he was a mighty hunter “by the grace of the Lord (lit. before the Lord)?” We have the following midrash to explain it (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, Higger ed., ch. 24):

Rabbi Hakhinai says Nimrod was mighty in strength, as it is said, “Cush also begot Nimrod.”   Rabbi Judah says the garment that the Holy One, blessed be He, made for Adam and his wife were taken by Noah and his sons into the ark.   When they came out of the ark, Noah’s son Ham took it with him and passed it on to Nimrod; when he wore them, any beast or animal that saw the writing would prostrate themselves before him. [3]   Human beings believed it was due to his might and therefore they made him king over them, as it is said:   “hence the saying, ‘Like Nimrod a mighty hunter by the grace of the Lord.’”

The legends of the Sages tend to fill in gaps of time and space by making connections between people and objects that appear in different places in Scripture.   The Torah does not mention what happened to the garments of skin that the Lord made for Adam and Eve after they had eaten from the tree of knowledge (Gen. 3:21), so the midrash tries to fill in the missing information.   In this instance the midrash uses a tangible object – a garment of skin – to account for Nimrod’s success at hunting, but it also hints at Nimrod’s wile in availing himself of his power of influence over the animals, who submitted to him unnaturally, in order to impress everyone and thus become king.  These traits of Nimrod became a saying:  “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter by the grace of the Lord.”

This still does not explain the expression “mighty hunter (gibbor tzayid),” for if the beasts submitted to Nimrod of their own accord, how did his talent at hunting find expression?  This is explained by another midrash (Genesis Rabbah, Theodore-Albeck ed., ch. 37):

Cush also begot Nimrod” (Gen.10:8), as it says, “Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord, concerning Cush, a Benjaminite” (Ps. 7:1).  Rabbi Joshua bar Nehemiah, quoting Rabbi Hanina bar Isaac, said this was said against the seat of justice of the wicked; [4] for was Esau a Cushite?  However, he acted following the example of Nimrod, for it is written, “Hence the saying, ‘Like Nimrod a mighty hunter by the grace of the Lord’”(Gen.10:9). It says “like Nimrod,” not ‘Nimrod was.” [that means the popular saying was not speaking of Nimrod but of one who was just like him, i.e. Esau, see Gen.25:27, where Esau is called “one who knows hunting”]  Just as the one ensnared people by their own mouths, so the other ensnared people by their own mouths:  You may not have stolen, but who was with you who did steal?   You may not have committed murder, but who was with you who did commit murder? [5]

Rashi, who relies heavily on legends of the Sages, commented on Nimrod in light of this midrash:   “A mighty hunter – he ensnared the minds of people, misleading them to rebel against the Omnipresent” (Gen.10:9). Why is Nimrod identified with Esau in this legend?   The legend equates Nimrod with Esau on the basis of the verse:  “Isaac favored Esau because game (tzayid) was in his mouth” (Gen. 25:28).   Here, too, Rashi’s commentary follows Midrash Rabbah (63.10):  “In Esau’s mouth, for he would ensnare him [Isaac] and deceive him with his words.” [6]

This is one of the methods of comparison used in midrash – relying on a similar expression which occurs in the depiction of two characters.   Nimrod and Esau, however, have more in common than their shared traits of cunning and deceit.

Let us take a look at Midrash Rabbah (65.15), also cited by Rashi in his commentary on Gen. 27:15:

“Rebekah then took the best [Heb. ha-hamudot] clothes of her older son Esau” – which he had coveted [hamad] from Nimrod, as it is written, “The wicked covet the catch of evil men” (Prov. 12:12).

According to other collections of midrash in which the same legend appears, [7] Esau coveted the original garments of Adam, which had come into Nimrod’s possession, killed him and took the garments from him. [8]   Louis Ginzberg added further details to the history of these garments: [9]

These were the garments that Esau coveted from Nimrod, and killed him and took them.  And rightly so she dressed him in them, for those garments were the garb of the priesthood, and the Holy One, blessed be He, had clothed Adam in them, for he was the glory of the world; and prior to the construction of the Tabernacle, sacrificial worship was performed by first-borns.   Primordial Man bequeathed them to his first-born, and so they passed from first-born to first-born until they reached Noah.  Noah gave them to his son Shem, and Shem passed them on to Abraham; Abraham to Isaac, and Isaac to Esau, who was his first-born.  Since Esau had sold his birthright to Jacob, Rebekah considered that henceforth it was proper for Jacob to wear these garments, because he now had the status of first-born.

We may interpret this legend as saying that the garment of skin which the Lord made for Adam – a garment born of the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge – was passed down and used to cover up the true traits and deeds of other persons, including utterly wicked people, such as Nimrod, of whom the Talmud says: [10]   “Nimrod – who made the entire world rise up against him in rebellion [Heb. himrid] by the way he ruled; Amraphel [=Nimrod] – who had Abraham thrown [Heb. hippil] into the burning furnace.” This very same garment also clothed the patriarch Jacob when he dressed up as Esau.

Examining what the midrash [11] has to say about the significance of the original garment, we find, among other things, the following:  “In the Torah of Rabbi Meir it was written:  “garments of light [Heb. or, spelled with an aleph, as opposed to ‘or with an ayin = skin].” Light, in this instance, symbolizes the grace which the Lord bestowed on Adam and Eve; even though they sinned, He saw to all their needs before banishing them from the Garden of Eden.  Hence it says, “And the Lord G-d made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21).   “The Lord G-d” means that the quality of judgment, denoted by the name of G-d, is joined by the quality of mercy, represented by the tetragrammaton (rendered in JPS as “Lord”), in order to soften the harshness of judgment. [12] Even as they were being banished, God provided clothes for them.  

The correct way of reading midrash is to go beyond a comparison of the tangible elements (the garments), attempting to reveal the deeper levels of meaning which shed light on the heroes associated with the item or event being described.   In this way we have linked Nimrod and Esau as hunters, with the negative connotations of that word. We have also linked Adam, Nimrod, and Esau through an item of clothing that signifies concealment. We note that even Jacob, who disguised himself in the garments of sheepskin, was involved in concealment, ignoring the “light” which R. Meir saw in those special robes

 



[1] Isaac  Heinemann, Darkhei ha-Aggadah, p. 8.

[2] Ibid., p. 60

[3] It is not clear what was meant by the words, “that saw the writing.”   Perhaps the homilist believed there was a mark inscribed on the garment by which the animals identified the creation of G-d.

[4]  Hebrew bima, from the Greek βήα, ‘seat of justice’.

[5] Mirkin, Midrash Rabbah, Genesis, ch. 37, p. 73, says that this midrash speaks of Roman law practices (Esau=Rome) as prejudicial against the Jews. The judge would ask, If you didn’t steal, who stole with you? The Jewish defendant, not hearing the word ‘with you’, would then incriminate himself.

[6] The simple meaning of the verse is that Esau would bring home game to place in Isaac’s mouth; the midrash understands that Esau ‘had a snare in his mouth’ with which to capture Isaac –he was deceitful in his language.

[7] See note 10, loc. sit., which provides citations of additional sources.

[8] According to Targum Jonathan on Genesis 25:27, Esau killed Nimrod and his son Enoch.

[9] Legends of the Jews, vol. 2, pp. 96-97, and the sources cited there.

[10] Babyl. Talmud, Eruvin 53a.

[11] Genesis Rabbah, ch. 20, 12.

[12] Cf. what Yehudah Kiel has to say on this verse, in his commentary in the Da’at Mikra series.