Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Toledot 5762/ November 17, 2001

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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Parashat Toledot 5762/ November 17, 2001

Cantillation Signs: Sounds and Significance

Dr. Zvi Betzer
Department of Hebrew Language

The Torah tells us of the deeds of our forefathers with the intention of guiding us, the descendants, with signposts for life. Since these signs convey a paramount didactic principle and as such should be seen as belonging to the command to "impress them upon your children," the Torah goes into the very finest detail of these deeds. From the biographical details given in Parashat Toledot and in the reading preceding it we learn that Rebekah was the sister of Laban and daughter of Bethuel, and that she had two sons: Jacob and Esau. Then, at the end of this week's portion, after our patriarch Jacob has received both birthright and blessing and must flee, we come upon the following verse:

Then Isaac sent Jacob off, and he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban the son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau. (28:5)

We shall address two interrelated questions that arise from a close analysis of this text. First, why were the biographical details, "son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah," which are already known, specified again here? Rashi is left wondering on this verse, "I do not know what this teaches us."

Second, the cantillation signs on the words em Ya'akov ve-Esav, "mother of Jacob and Esau," require explanation. The syntactical system of the cantillation signs of the Bible is based on dichotomic parsing and the linguistic principle of immediate constituents. According to these principles one would have expected the components of this phrase to have been grouped as follows: [mother] of [Jacob and Esau]. However, according to the cantillation signs, the grouping is different: [mother of Jacob] and [Esau]. (Quite a few exceptions to this pattern of grouping can be found in the Bible, especially when the first component of the pair is a short word - in this case, em, mother - nevertheless, the general rule stands.) Why was the cantillation sign tipha (which separates the word it is on from the following one) placed on "Jacob" and not on "mother of"?

We shall begin with the first question. Rashi's wonderment, "I do not know what this teaches us," evoked a response from Siftei Hakhamim: "Why does he bother saying he does not know? If he does not know, let him keep quiet!" Reading further in Siftei Hakhamim we learn that Rashi actually had several explanations of "what this teaches us," but did not know "which truly resolves the question according to the plain sense of Scripture." After this suggestion, Siftei Hakhamim does not offer a single explanation, but he does send us elsewhere: "see TzDL," e.g., Tzedah La-Derekh, the supercommentary on Rashi by the 16th century Rabbi Issachar Ber Eilenburg.

Tzedah La-Derekh cites the explanations given by Hizkuni (13th century) and Alshekh (16th century), and even though they post-date Rashi, Siftei Hakhamim apparently supposes that these explanations were current in the 11th century and were not unknown to Rashi.

According to Hizkuni, the additional remark, "son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau," was specified here in order to explain our puzzlement, "how such a wicked person as Esau could have come from two such righteous people as Isaac and Rebekah?" Scripture informs us that Rebekah, mother of Esau, was the sister of Laban son of Bethuel the Aramean; and it is well-known that a son generally resembles his mother's brother. Thus Esau resembled his wicked uncle, son of a wicked man.

Tzedah La-Derekh notes that Rashi did not accept this explanation on the grounds that it does not belong here, but at the beginning of the portion, where Esau's wickedness is noted. Eilenburg prefers Alshekh's explanation that this text is included here to address another puzzling question: "How could Isaac have sent Jacob to marry into the family of Laban son of Bethuel, a wicked man and son of a wicked man?" According to Alshekh, a daughter generally resembles her father's sister; thus the daughter of Laban, destined for Jacob, resembled her aunt Rebekah. Therefore one should not be surprised at Isaac sending his son to take a daughter of Laban son of Bethuel to wife, for his daughters were righteous like their aunt, even though their father was a wicked man, son of a wicked man.

This interpretation was known three hundred years before the time of Alshekh. The 13th century Rabbenu Bahya cites and elaborates on it. According to him, Scripture also depicts the righteousness of Rebekah. He explains that a mother generally gives equal affection to her children, and when she favors one of them, it is generally the first-born, "for such is the practice of mothers regarding their first-born son." Rebekah, however, being a righteous woman, did not do so; she did not love them equally, nor did she favor her first-born Esau; "Rebekah gave most of her love to none other than her son Jacob, since she perceived his fineness of his character."

Thus, the message of Scripture is as follows: Isaac sent Jacob off to the home of a wicked man, son of a wicked man, since the sister of this wicked man was a righteous woman, and her righteousness is deduced from her being not the mother of Esau and Jacob, but the mother of "Jacob and Esau", in the order of her love. Therefore, she is not [mother] of [Jacob and Esau], rather, [mother of Jacob] and [Esau]. Rebekah is first and foremost mother of Jacob, whose righteousness is apparent, and only subsequently is she also the mother of Esau.

This also resolves our second question, regarding the grouping of the words as indicated by the cantillation signs. There was good reason for placing the tipha on Jacob. The immediate constituents, or words that belong together, as we have indicated, are [mother of Jacob] and [Esau].

A great truth is conveyed by the tipha on Jacob, showing us the significance behind the signs.