Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Toledoth

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 5760/1999

"The Older Shall Serve the Younger"

Yonah Bar-Maoz

Department of Bible

Parashat Toledot depicts the efforts of Isaac and Rebekah each to grant the blessing to their favorite son, Isaac favoring Esau and Rebekah choosing Jacob, without explaining to us why they held opposing views as to which son should receive the blessing. Two chapters earlier we are told that Isaac favored Esau "because he had a taste for game" (Gen. 25:28), but there is no indication why Rebekah favored Isaac, and so the riddle remains. So far as this reason goes, if we look closely at Isaac's behavior, we see that he was totally lacking in the ability to discern between the taste of game and of goat: even when he realized he had been deceived and that it had not been Esau who brought him the food, he asked, "Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me? Moreover, I ate of it before you came, and I blessed him" (Gen. 27:33), when we know full well that Jacob brought not venison but food which Rebekah had prepared. Further, the fact that the Torah needs to explain why Isaac favored Esau raises doubts as to whether this reason really provides sufficient grounds for granting him a blessing -- itself a most unusual and unprecedented act.[1]

In addition, the spot where we are told about the different parental preferences seems inappropriate: the statement about who loved whom (25:28) is placed as a preface to the story of selling the birthright. There, however, Esau and Jacob and the parents have no part in the story. On the other hand, the absence of such an explanation in the story of the blessing precludes it from being part of the story's exposition, as if the Torah was asking us to ignore v. 25:28 when we try to understand what Rebekah and Isaac felt and did. Little wonder that so many commentators have wrestled with understanding Isaac's and Rebekah's motives.

Nahmanides suggested a comprehensive interpretation which accounts for Rebekah's feelings towards Jacob, the differences of opinion between her and Isaac, and the circuitous tactics she employed to win Jacob the blessing:

Apparently Rebekah never told him [Isaac] about G-d's prophecy to her, "and the older shall serve the younger" (Gen. 25:23), for how could Isaac go against the word of G-d!? At first, she did not tell him because of her sense of morality and modesty, for "she went to inquire of the Lord" (Gen. 25:22), and she had gone without Isaac's permission; or perhaps she thought, "I need not report a prophecy to a prophet, for he is greater than he who told me," [Shem, according to the Midrash] and now she did not want to say to him," I was told such and such by the Lord before I gave birth," for she reasoned, out of his love for him [Esau] he would not bless Jacob, but would leave everything in G-d's hands; but she knew that for this reason [giving Jacob cooked food that tasted like game] Jacob would receive the blessing from his mouth with a full heart and a willing soul. (Nahmanides' commentary on Gen. 27:4)

From the outset we can see that Nahmanides associated the rights to the blessing with the special privileges of the first-born, as he comments on Gen. 25:34: "Therefore he said to Isaac, 'I am your son, your first-born' (Gen. 27:32), meaning he was the possessor of the birthright who deserved the blessing"; likewise, Ramban comments, "[Jacob said] 'the other is the first-born; place your right hand on his head' (Gen. 48:18), to give him precedence in the blessing." In order that Isaac's desire to bless Esau not be interpreted as motivated solely by his love for him, Nahmanides could not ascribe the differences of opinion between Isaac and Rebekah to their personal inclinations. Rather, he ascribed it to the prophecy given Rebekah before the two sons were born. Isaac was acting out of ignorance, because he had no knowledge of the prophecy in which G-d promised supremacy to Jacob, the younger, over Esau, the first-born; and Rebekah tries to correct this error of his by virtue of the same prophecy. A similar interpretation was given by Rabbi Meir Leibush b. Yehiel Michael (Malbim).

Indeed, Scripture does not say that Rebekah told Isaac what she had been informed when she went to inquire of the Lord. As we have seen, Nahmanides suggested several reasons why Rebekah might not have done this immediately after receiving the prophecy, or even later, after the fact, when it became clear to her that Isaac was inclined to favor Esau.

What we can learn from Nahmanides' comments is that he assumed that the prophecy, "the older shall serve the younger," was unequivocal: Esau would be subservient to Jacob. This assumption is shared by many commentators, but a different picture emerges from Rabbi David Kimhi's (Radak) analysis of the prophecy.

According to Radak, the prophecy cannot be understood unequivocally. The absence of the particle et, denoting the object, makes two readings possible for the words rav ya'avod tza'ir ("the older shall serve the younger"). According to the more common structure of sentences in Hebrew prose (subject- predicate- object), one is led to assume that the older will be subservient to the younger. But one could read the sentence in the less usual order, where the object precedes the subject, which means that the younger would have to serve the older. Radak gave several examples of this type of sentence structure in Scriptures. These and other sentences of like type[2] all appear in poetic passages, as does our verse in the prophecy given to Rebekah. The prophecy is comprised of two main statements, formulated in two pairs of hemistichs, parallel in content and rhythm:

Two nations are in your womb,

Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;

One people shall be mightier than the other,

And the older shall serve the younger (ve-rav ya'avod tza'ir).

The poetic nature of the prophecy is expressed also in the syntax: the first hemistich is a nominal sentence with no predicate, and the next two hemistichs place the predicate after the object. This gives further force to Radak's observation that in the last hemistich, too, the usual laws of syntactic order are not necessarily binding and possibly the order is object-predicate-subject.

Radak had doubts as to the syntactic status of the words rav (rendered as older) and tza'ir (younger), but not regarding their signification: "Rav -- that is to say, the older judging by when he came into the world, and even though the difference in time was slight, the one who came out first is called rav, and the one who followed, tza'ir." Likewise, 'It is not the aged (rabbim) who are wise' (Job 32:9), meaning greater in years" (Radak's Commentary, Mikraot Gedolot HaKeter, [in preparation]).[3] This view, shared by most commentators, ignores the fact that the subjects of the other three hemistichs in the prophecy are the "nations" and "peoples" who would arise in the distant future, and not the sons soon to be born.

Rabbi Joseph ibn Kaspi (1279-1340, Provence and Spain), who agreed that the prophecy is ambiguous, hinted that rav and tza'ir may also be ambiguous:

But the Giver of the Torah chose to leave this unresolved, so that sometimes Esau would be stronger, sometimes Jacob; just as Isaac concluded his blessings... Therefore it is explained that rav, as well as its opposite (tza'ir), have double meanings. (Mishneh Kesef, Last ed., vol 2.)

Ibn Kaspi noted that rav and tza'ir are nouns of ambiguous meaning, since these words are not specifically used to denote age. Quite the opposite, linguistic analysis of the occurrences of rav indicates that this is practically the sole instance where it is thought to denote rav be-shanim, i.e., "greater in years" or older.[4] In contrast, it often used as an adjective to denote the numerical size of a people and sometimes occurs as a noun denoting a large population: "take more from the larger groups"--me'et harav (Num. 35:8); "lest many of them perish"-- venafal mimmenu rav (Ex. 19:21); "nothing prevent the Lord from winning a victory by many or by few"--berav o bime'at (I Sam. 14:6). As for the word tza'ir, though in Genesis it is usto denote the contrast to the first-born, in other books it occurs as an expression of population size.[5] rav in our verse could also be read as an adverb ("and the tza'ir will toil greatly"), a very common use of the word rav in Scriptures.

Malbim related the verse at hand to a distant prophecy: "'For liberators shall march up on Mount Zion to wreak judgment on Mount Esau; and dominion shall be the Lord's' (Obad. 1:21). This too [our verse] was a cause for bad blood, for it is against the nature of the world for the older to serve the younger and this cannot occur without conflict and war."

According to Malbim (and Abarbanel before him), the future struggle between the nations was symbolically expressed by the children tossing about in Rebekah's womb, and stems not only from the essential difference between the "nations" and the "peoples" of Jacob and Esau but also because the older son was subservient to the younger. But this, in our opinion, is a questionable interpretation, for many years later when the individual identity of each of the nations took shape, could significance be attached to the fact that the forefather of one of the nations was born two minutes earlier than the forefather of the rival nation?

Adding this difficulty to the other questions raised above points to several conclusions:

1) In the light of the context of the prophecy as a whole and the semantic field of the word rav, it is reasonable to assume that the phrase rav ya'avod tzai'r refers to the numerical size of the "nations" and "peoples" of which the prophecy speaks, and not necessarily to the relative ages of the forefathers of these nations: "the larger shall serve the smaller."

2) Due to the poetic language of the prophecy and the syntactical difficulty it presents, we cannot say definitively what is meant by the verse: will the "larger" serve the "smaller," or the other way around? Or perhaps this sentence has no object at all, and rav is an adverb: "the smaller shall indeed serve"?

3) If the size of the nations is at issue, one cannot know from the beginning of history which nations will be larger and which smaller. Even looking back from the present there is no one who can establish the size of Esau's people as opposed to Jacob's people (unless they are identified with Christianity and Judaism). Thus the prophecy is indeed ambiguous.

4) Whether Rebekah told Isaac about the prophecy is immaterial, because its veiled content does not give a clear indication which of the sons should be favored.


[1] Isaac is the first to bless his children before his death. Noah indeed blessed Shem and Japheth, but only in the context of adding greater force to the curse which he gave his wayward son Ham, and not as a spiritual testament before his death. Cf. the midrash by the Sages about Jacob being the first person to be ill before his death, at his own request, so that he could give his testament to his sons and set his affairs in order (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 52).

[2] Radak: Avanim shahaku mayim ("Water wears away stone," Job 14:19); Mayim tiv'eh esh ("fire makes water boil," Is. 64:1). Other examples: Yado paras tzar ("The foe has laid hands," Lament. 1:10); Ki Ya'akov bahar lo Ya ("For the Lord has chosen Jacob for Himself," Ps. 135:4) -- only from the parallel second half of the verse, Yisrael lisegulato ("Israel, as His treasured possession") do we understand who chose whom.

[3] This is a new Rabbinic Bible containing the traditional commentaries and new ones taken directly from manuscript evidence. Five volumes have appeared to date.

[4] Otzar Leshon ha-Mikra (see under rav; in preparation by the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages, Bar Ilan University) cites only the verse at issue under the definition of rav as "older." In a similar definition, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by Brown, Driver, and Briggs (known as BDB) adds the verse from Job which Radak cited. In Genesis rav is used to denote abundance of property: "for their possessions were so great/too many" (Gen. 13:6; 36:7), "I have plenty (rav)" (33:9), "There is plenty of straw and feed" (24:25); and once to quantify people: "the survival of many people (am rav)" (50:20). It also occurs in the sense of enough: "Enough! My son Joseph is still alive!" (Gen. 45:28).

[5] Gen. 19:31-38, 43:33, 48:14. On the other hand, see Isaiah 60:22: "The smallest (katon) shall become a clan; the least (tza'ir), a mighty nation." Also I Sam. 9:21: "But I am only a Benjaminite, from the smallest of the tribes of Israel, and my clan is the least (ha-tze'ira) of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin!" And apparently also Micah 5:1: "And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, least (tza'ir) among the clans of Judah."