Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Toledot 5770/ November 21, 2009

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,


Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah

Dr. Zvi Shimon

Helena and Paul Schulmann Center for Basic Jewish Studies


In modern prose, descriptions of characters give the reader a portrait of the figure and are often significant in characterizing the person.  Sometimes there is even a metonymic connection between the outward appearance of the character and his or her characteristics. Such writing was shaped and influenced, among other things, by the physiognomy studies of Johann Kaspar Lavater (18th century, Switzerland), who believed there was a relationship between features and personality.

Physical depiction of figures in the Bible is limited, and is of a different nature from what we find in other literary genres.   The purpose of depictions in Scripture is not to enable the reader to envision the character, for the physical portrayal of figures in the Bible is extremely limited in its level of detail.   Descriptions in the Bible are used primarily to advance the plot.  Moreover, biblical narrative does not see a direct connection between appearances and character.  However, even if generally speaking there is no connection between appearances and character in biblical narrative, it would be wrong to say that Scripture never uses a description of outward appearances in order to shape the character of its figures.

An example of physical description is to be found in this week's parasha, the description of Jacob and Esau.  The latter’s hairiness is described to us in conjunction with his birth:  “The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over” (Gen. 25:25).   The contrast with Jacob’s smooth skin is noted by Jacob himself, in response to Rebekah’s plan to obtain the blessing from Isaac:  “But my brother Esau is a hairy man and I am smooth-skinned” (Gen. 27:11).   The style of  this verse places the two brothers in opposing positions.   The hairiness and smoothness described here is surely necessary for development of the plot – when Jacob has misgivings about implementing his mother’s plan, her scheme called for placing goat skins on Jacob’s hands and neck, making him appear to be his brother.   In my opinion, however, the description of the brothers’ looks also contributes to the way their characters are drawn and contrasted.  The outward appearance of the brothers reflects different and contrasting qualities in their personalities.   Esau’s hairiness connotes l'enfant sauvage, a brute at home in the wilderness as a hunter and man of great strength.

Parallels to this description of Esau can be found in the literature of the Ancient Near East.  Esau, as a man of the field, calls to mind Enkidu of the Gilgamesh epic.  Enkidu is described as being covered with hair and also as wild and uncivilized:

Shaggy with hair is his whole body, he is endowed with head hair like a woman.   The locks of his hair sprout like Nisaba [Goddess of grain].  He knows neither people nor land; garbed is he like Sumuqan [God of cattle].

With the gazelles he feeds on grass, with the wild beasts he jostles at the watering-place, with the teeming creatures his heart delights in water. [1]

Enkidu symbolizes pre-civilized man.  The wild Enkidu was created as a counterweight to Gilgamesh, “the shepherd of ramparted Uruk,” [2] “in Uruk [there lives] Gilgamesh.” [3]   The contrast between civilized Gilgamesh and wild Enkidu in certain respects parallels the contrast between hairy and wild Esau, the hunter and man of the field, and smooth-skinned Jacob, who dwelled in tents and shepherded flocks.   Jacob’s smooth appearance also alludes to his character, perhaps even his wiliness.  Indeed, the adjective “smooth” halak, is primarily used in Scripture figuratively to describe sly, misleading words. [4]

The contrast between Esau and Jacob encompasses the entire description of these two brothers:  external appearance, character, occupation, deeds, words, and thoughts.   The primary purpose of this contrast is to explain why Esau, the elder, is not worthy of receiving the blessing, whereas Jacob, the younger, receives it.  Esau is impulsive, living for the moment, ready to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, willing to give up his future for the enjoyment of the moment.  Hairy Esau lives by the sword, leading a wild life in the field, without developing deep cultural life.   Smooth-skinned tent-dwelling Jacob, however, is characterized as being wily, complex, and thinking of the long term, a person capable of developing deep culture and continuing the heritage of Abraham.  In this juxtaposition of biblical figures, the descriptions of the sons’ looks contribute to the contrast and provide, contrary to what we usually find in biblical narrative, not only information essential to the development of the plot but also an important component in the characterization of the two figures.

The description of Rachel and Leah in next week’s parasha provides another example of a description of outward appearances that contributes to drawing a contrast between the figures:  “Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful” (Gen. 29:17).  The description of Laban’s daughter provides us with information necessary to understand the continuation of the plot and explains Jacob’s preference for Rachel over Leah.  On one hand, Rachel’s exceptional beauty causes Jacob to fall in love with her at first glance, when he meets her by the well, and makes him feel that the seven years he labored for her were but a few days.  On the other hand, Jacob does not want Leah and is disappointed when he is given her instead of Rachel.  Jacob does not show any love towards Leah even after she bears him sons. [5]   The development of the plot and the relationship of Jacob towards his two wives follow, among other things, from the outward appearances of Rachel and Leah.

The objective of providing the informative groundwork for the development of the plot is not achieved in the description of each woman by herself, rather by the contrast in their descriptions.   The descriptions of Rachel and Leah are presented in one verse after the next, and many believe the letter vav before the description of Rachel ("and Rachel was," Gen. 29:17) to be disjunctive rather than conjunctive. [6]   It is not clear what is meant by saying that Leah’s eyes were “rakkot” (rendered as “weak”); various and opposing views on this relate to the different meanings that the word rakh has in other scriptural contexts.  Some interpret rakkot as meaning weak, [7] so that Leah is described negatively, attesting to her poor vision. [8]   Others interpret rakkot as tender or gentle, [9] so that this description is read as praise of Leah’s eyes for their beauty. [10] We suggest that the word rakkot refers to the pale color of Leah’s eyes (perhaps blue?), which contrasted with the dark color of Rachel’s eyes and an exception to eye color in the area.   According to such an interpretation, the meaning of rakkot might attest to the exceptional beauty of Leah’s eyes. [11]   Nevertheless, even according to this interpretation, the descriptions of Rachel and Leah still lean towards contrast, emphasizing that Rachel’s looks were superior to Leah’s, who, save for her eyes, was not particularly beautiful. [12]

The two examples discussed above – the contrast between Jacob’s looks and Esau’s and between Rachel’s and Leah’s – both deal with the depiction of siblings.  Another common factor is the tension and rivalry between siblings:   Jacob and Esau vie over the birthright/blessing, and Rachel and Leah vie over Jacob’s affections.   Thus, presenting contrasting physical descriptions contributes to an increased sense of tension and sharpens the differences between these sibling rivals.

[1] James B. Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East, Princeton University Press, 1958, p. 42.

[2] Ibid., p. 41, lines 14 and 25.

[3] Ibid., p. 43, line 14.

[4] For example, Prov. 26:28; Ps. 12:3-4; and as a verb, Prov. 29:5.   See Kadari, Milon Mikrai, p. 310, under Halak 1, definition 2; p. 311, under Halak (adj.), definitions 1 and 2; Brown, Driver, Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, p. 325, under Halak (adj.), definitions 1 and 2.

[5] This is expressed in the names that Leah gives the children born to her (Gen. 30:32-34).

[6] Most modern translations render the vav in a disjunctive sense, using the word “but.”  Anderson cites the verse describing Rachel and Leah as an example of a contrasting sentence; cf. Anderson, F. L., The Sentence in Biblical Hebrew, The Hague 1974, pp. 151-152.

[7] For other examples of the word rakh used in the sense of weak, see Gen. 33:13, Deut. 20:8.

[8] Genesis Rabbah 70.16.  The Septuagint also renders it in the sense of weak.   Cf. M. Tzipor’s interesting observation in Targum ha- Shiv‘im le-Sefer Bereshit, Ramat Gan 2006, p. 350.

[9] For other examples of the word rakh used in the sense of tender, see Deut. 28:56; Isaiah 47:1.

[10] For example, Targum Onkelos.

[11] Rashbam may have had this in mind when he said, “Dark eyes are not tender like light-colored ones” (in his commentary on Gen. 19:16).

[12] Perhaps one should view the inclination to contrast the external appearance of Rachel and Leah as being compounded by the contrast in their names.   The name Leah, which means “cow” (see Gordon Wenham, Genesis II, p. 235) stands in apposition to the name Rachel (meaning “ewe”).  These two animals evoke quite different images.  The poet of Song of Songs, when he wishes to praise the beauty of his beloved’s teeth, compares her to a ewe:  “Your teeth are like a flock of ewes, climbing up from the washing pool; all of them bear twins, and not one loses her young” (Song 6:6), while Amos speaks deprecatingly of the women of Samaria, calling them “cows (parot) of Bashan” (Amos 4:1).