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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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Toledot 5762/ November 17, 2001

The Magic of Blessings

Dr. David Henshke
Dept. of Talmud

Aside from the questionable morality of the way Jacob and his mother attained Isaac's blessings, another equally serious question arises concerning their actual significance, as Ibn Ezra commented on this week's reading:

Several difficult questions arise regarding these blessings: if the blessing was a prophecy, how could he not have known whom he was blessing?


What force did Isaac's blessing have [for Jacob], if he was thinking of Esau?

It seems on the face of it that Rebekah and her sons indeed thought that the power to convey blessing lay with Isaac, according to the rabbinic maxim, "the righteous decree and the Holy One, blessed be He, brings it to pass." All he had to do was to lay his hands upon the recipient of the blessing, and that son would become blessed almost automatically, even if Isaac had meant to bless the other, and even if he had not intended the actual outcome. This explains Isaac's fearful trembling after discovering that he had been deceived:

"Now he must remain blessed" - for I cannot take back the blessing.
(R. Joseph Bekhor-Shor)

Rabbi Joseph ibn Kaspi was even stronger in his words (Tirat Kesef, Sefer ha-Sod ch. 28):

Just as Jacob and Esau related to the blessing of their father Isaac as cardinal, so too Balak and his followers related to the blessings and curses delivered by Balaam.

However the question principally is not how Isaac's sons perceived the power of his blessing, but how the Torah itself relates to this notion. Does the Torah actually confirm this almost magical view of the power of a righteous man's blessing? Is the ritual of conferring a blessing sufficient for the recipient to be automatically blessed, neutralizing such considerations as the appropriateness of the blessing or the intent of he who bestows it? The main message of the story of the blessings comes to light when we realize that the blessings were not realized in the least!

As R. Jose b. R. Simeon asked R. Eleazar (Zohar I, 143b): "Did you learn from your father why the blessings Isaac conferred on his son Jacob were never fulfilled?" Indeed, the facts are clear: Jacob was essentially blessed with two things, as Isaac summarized it to Esau:

But I have made him master over you: I have given him all his brothers for servants, and sustained him with grain and wine. (Gen. 27:37)

Jacob never knew the secure life of a farmer blessed with grain and wine, but spent all his days as a shepherd. As for being master over his brother, the Torah emphasizes through various innuendoes what we all know - that the opposite was what actually happened. Instead of becoming "master over your brothers, and let your mother's sons bow to you" (Gen. 27:29) what actually happened was that "he [Jacob]... bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother" (Gen. 33:3), and seven times, as well, Jacob called Esau "my lord."

Nevertheless, nothing in the Torah is said idly, and surely the blessings will come to pass in their entirety "heralding the coming of the King Messiah (Zohar, loc. sit.). But was it this distant future that Isaac had in mind, and not the tangible well-being of his son that he loved in his [Esau's] lifetime?

In the story of the blessings the Torah seems to convey the message that blessing in the name of the Lord is not an automatic mechanism which can be controlled by a person who knows its secret operation. Rather, "the blessing of the Lord is what brings wealth (Prov. 10:22)." If you wish to be blessed, do not seek shortcuts, for "I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life" (Deut. 30:19). Choosing the good, choosing life, is the key to blessing.