Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Toledot 5767/ November 25, 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,



Criticism of the Patriarchs

In Tannaitic and Amoraic Texts


Dr. Gilead Sasson


Department of Talmud, Center for Basic Jewish Studies, Safed College


One of the more difficult questions that arises from this week’s reading is how two honest and upright parents like Isaac and Rebekah produced a wicked son like Esau.  Below we present two legends offering different answers to this question.  The first comes from the tannaitic midrash Sifre Numbers 133 (Horowitz edition, p. 176):

Rabbi Nathan says:  Scripture wishes to teach us how great is the righteousness of a person who, having grown up in the bosom of a wicked family, nevertheless is righteous, for he grew up in midst of a wicked person and did not do as he did.  Likewise, to teach us how great is the wickedness of a person who, having grown up in the bosom of a righteous family, nevertheless is wicked, for he grew up in midst of a righteous person and did not do as he did.   Esau grew up in the midst of two righteous people, Isaac and Rebekah, but did not do as they did.   Obadiah grew up in the midst of two wicked people, Ahab and Jezebel, but did not do as they did; and he was given prophecy concerning the wicked Esau, who grew up amidst two righteous people, Isaac and Rebekah, and did not do as they did, as it is written, “The prophecy of Obadiah, … thus said my Lord G-d concerning Edom” (Obadiah 1:1).

The explanation given by Rabbi Nathan, by way of contrast to the prophet Obadiah, puts the blame on Esau.  If such righteous parents produced such a wicked son, the blame lies not on the parents but on the son.  For no doubt these parents made every effort to bring up their son properly, and if they did not succeed that indicates that Esau’s character was so bad that he was incorrigible.   Thus Rabbi Nathan exonerates Isaac and Rebekah and puts the blame on Esau.

In contrast to Sifre, an amoraic source cited in a later midrashic work, Tanhuma, does not hesitate to criticize Isaac for the poor upbringing he gave Esau, leading him to his bad ways (Exodus 1, and a parallel passage in Exodus Rabbah 1:1, Shinan edition, pp. 35-36):

What is meant by the saying, “He who spares the rod hates his son” (Prov. 13:24)?   It means that whoever refrains from punishing his son will ultimately cause him to go to the bad and will hate him… Likewise, “Isaac favored Esau” (Gen. 25:28), hence he went to the bad because he did not chastise him.

The above passage is part of a longer homily that speaks of three parents who failed in their sons’ education because they did not follow the recommendation in Proverbs.   Listed along with Isaac are Abraham, who failed in the education of Ishmael, and David, who did not bring up Absalom and Adoniah properly.  According to this homily, Isaac did not treat Esau with proper severity, and therefore he went to the bad.  In contrast to the tannaitic Sifre, Tanhuma from the amoraic period blames Isaac for educational shortcomings and places on him the full responsibility for his son’s behavior. [1]

The difference between the tannaitic and amoraic homilies is illustrative of a broader trend:   tannaitic literature tends to be favorable towards the patriarchs, whereas amoraic literature, alongside its favorable comments, tends to launch a fair amount of criticism at the patriarchs. [2]   It should be noted that the tannaim as well were critical of the patriarchs, but their criticisms are only presented in amoraic works.

Several factors lie behind these opposing interpretive trends.  We suggest that one of the factors has to do with differences in the principal polemics in which the Sages were involved during the two periods.   Throughout their times the Sages in the land of Israel, tannaim and amoraim, were fighting pagan Hellenization on the one hand, and Christianity, on the other.   In the days of the tannaim, Christianity was just emerging, and the religious/cultural battle was waged primarily against the pagan Hellenistic world.   The tannaim were forced time and again to stand up to attacks by the Hellenists against their Torah and faith. [3]   In such a setting the Sages of the times did not want to provide their opponents with weapons that could be used against the Jewish religion.  Therefore, even though now and then they were critical of the patriarchs’ actions, there is no trace of any such criticism in works of their times, and the overall trend is one of defense.  This finds expression in the words of the tanna, Rabbi Eliezer, cited in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael: [4]   “Just as a desert is devoid of anything, so the patriarchs were devoid of sin and transgression.”

In the time of the amoraim, the cultural/religious circumstances in the land of Israel began to change.  Christianity gradually gained strength, until by the fourth century, C.E., it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.   Although there were still pagan Hellenistic communities in the land of Israel, against whom the Sages continued their the polemics as well as their trend of defending the patriarchs, the polemics against Christianity were quite different and had different implications.  The Christians claimed that G-d had abandoned the Jewish people, “Israel in body,” and replaced them with Christianity, “Israel in spirit,” because of the Jews’ sins and their failure to accept the Christian messiah.  This argument the Sages rebutted by saying that sinning is not a reason for God to abandon His children and take others in their stead.  This idea is presented in the well-known homily in Song of Songs Rabbah (1:41) on the verse, “Don’t stare at me because I am swarthy” (Song 1:6):

Rabbi Isaac said: Once there was a woman from the provinces who had a black maidservant who went down to the spring along with her friend to draw water.   She said to her friend, “My friend, tomorrow my master is going to divorce his wife and marry me.”   “Why?” she asked.   “Because he saw her hands coal black.”  She said, “Fool, listen to what you yourself are saying!  If you say that he wishes to divorce his wife, of whom he is exceedingly fond, because her hands were coal black for an hour, all the more so for you, who are black through and through, from the day you were born!” [5]

The master is the Lord, the mistress is Israel, and the maidservant, Christianity.  Although the hands of the mistress may be sooty, the master does not exchange her for a maidservant who is black all over.   According to this homily, Israel are not devoid of sin, but despite their sins the Lord does not divorce them or exchange them for another nation.

We would suggest that to substantiate this argument, the Sages looked to the patriarchs for help.   Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Lord’s faithful sons, sinned but nevertheless continued to be His chosen ones, and He did not exchange them for others.  According to this line of thought, one need not be afraid of presenting the patriarchs’ sins, and therefore there is no need for far-reaching apologetic interpretation which often deviates from the plain sense of the text.  Thus the tanna Rabbi Eliezer, who is cited in the Babylonian Talmud, stated:   “Had the Holy One, blessed be He, not taken Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to task in judgment, one could not stand in the face of rebuke” (Arakhin 17a).

Two points support this explanation of the differences in trend between the favorable attitude taken in tannaitic literature and the critical attitude taken in amoraic literature:  1)   This trend is characteristic primarily of the Sages in the land of Israel, tannaim and amoraim, and has almost no parallels in the sayings of amoraim from Babylonia.   This supports the hypothesis that the trend in interpretation was related to the Jewish-Christian polemics of the Sages in the land of Israel.   2)  The incidence of homilies that are critical of the patriarchs rises, beginning with the tannaitic period and increasing through the last generation of Amoraim.  This trend can be explained by the rise of Christianity from a persecuted sect in the time of the tannaim, to the ruling religion of the Roman Empire in the time of the amoraim.

[1]  Editor’s note: tannaitic midrashim are: Mekhilta, Sifra, Sifre Numbers, Sifre Deuteronomy. Amoraic midrashim are: Midrash Rabbah, Tanhuma, Pesikta.

[2] For a broader discussion of this trend and the reasons for it, see Gilead Sasson, “Remembering the Sins of the Fathers—the Attitude of the Rabbis to the Sins of the Fathers,” Master’s Thesis (Hebrew), Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan 2001.

[3] For example, the theological arguments between Rabban Gamaliel and Caesar (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a); Rabbi Yehoshua and Caesar (ibid., Berakhot 56a, and elsewhere); Rabbi Akiva and Tinneius Rufus, (Bava Batra 10a, and elsewhere); Rabbi Jose and Matronah (Genesis Rabbah 28:1, Theodore-Albeck ed., p. 239, and many more), and Rabbi with Anthony (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Be-Shalah, p. 125, and elsewhere).

[4] Tractate Va-Yasa, Be-shalah 2, Horowitz-Rabin edition,p. 163.   This explanation also applies to the apologetics regarding the patriarchs that are found in works of Hellenistic Jews and, in contradistinction, also in works of the Church Fathers.

[5] For a discussion of this homily from the polemical point of view, cf. Ephraim Elimelech Urbach, “The Homiletical Interpretations of the Sages and the Expositions of Origin on Canticles and the Jewish-Christian Disputation,” Scripta Hierosolymitana 22 (1971), 263-265.