Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yera 5767/ November 11, 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,



Akedat Yitzhak—New Perspectives


Dr. Abraham Shafir




One of the fundamental tenets of Jewish faith is the notion that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac (his favored one, born in his old age) is the loftiest expression or true faith in G-d.   Taking a closer look, however, we see that things are far from simple.  In Genesis Rabbah (55.17) we sense Abraham’s inner vacillations regarding the Lord’s command.  Abraham’s feigned innocence, as if he did not know which son the Lord was asking him to sacrifice to Him, [1] is a clear indication of the dichotomy he faced.   He was not at ease with this command, yet he dared not defy the Lord’s words.

Even though Abraham is called “My friend,” [2] the Sages do not ignore the flaws in his faith.   The midrash says:

Rabbi Meir said:  when the Israelites assembled at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them “… Bring Me worthy guarantees that you will keep it, and I shall give it to you.”   They said to Him, “Lord of the Universe, our patriarchs are our guarantees”…  The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them, “As for your patriarchs, I have contentions against them.  Abraham – I have a contention against him, for he said, ‘How shall I know?’ (Gen. 15:8).” [3]

The Sages’ criticism is on the level of faith.   We also find that the early liturgical poet (paytan) from the land of Israel, Rabbi Eleazar ha-Kalir, criticized Abraham for lacking in faith. [4]   But the liturgical poet Yohanan ha-Cohen, who lived in the land of Israel during the transition between the Byzantine conquest and the Arab conquest (the 7th century), takes a unique approach in his Kedushta (a poem recited in the synagogue prior to the kedushah) which he composed for the Shavuot, “Az Terem Nosdu Eretz ve-Shamayim [Then, Before the Creation of Heavens and Earth].” [5]  

This piyyut (liturgical poem) presents a dialogue between a father (the Holy One, blessed be He), and his daughter (the Torah).   The father offers a slew of candidates as grooms for his daughter, but the daughter will have none of them.   On what grounds does she reject them?  She will not have Adam, for transgressing the commandment not to covet and not to steal;   Nor Noah, for drinking to excess and advocating that his race be cursed;  Isaac, because he did not see clearly in his old age, accepting bribery and siding with the wicked in an argument; Jacob, for deceiving his father by taking both his goats.  Finally the daughter chooses the humble and devoted groom:   Moses.   Among those whom the daughter rejected, particularly notable is Abraham, against whom the daughter’s criticism is most outspoken:

Amon (the Torah, Prov.8:30= the daughter) responded to Him who dwells on high / “I too knew that he (Abraham) is good and wholehearted;

But for his favored one (Isaac) he did not seek mercy / rather sent forth his cruel hand to shed blood.

So much did he wish to do Your will wholeheartedly / trusting that You are good and merciful.

But he ought to have entreated and begged You for mercy / to save his favored one from the burning coals.

He would have shown no mercy, had You, O Merciful One, not had mercy.

The new element of interpretation introduced by Yohanan ha-Cohen is that instead of criticizing Abraham for sins committed between Man and G-d (such as showing lack of faith), he finds sins classified as “between one person and another” (bein adam la-havero).   The poet sees Abraham as a figure albeit of much greater stature than others, yet not exceeding human proportions.   A person who does not beg for mercy for his most favored son is flawed and therefore is not fit to receive the Torah.  The absence of any request for mercy in the story of the binding of Isaac is sorely felt, in comparison with Abraham’s extensive entreaty to save the people of Sodom and Gomorra (Gen. 18).

Several commentators and philosophers have taken a similar approach to that of Yohanan ha-Cohen, although it is hard to know whether they were familiar with his kedushta.  Among those who took a critical stand we can mention the liturgical poet Benjamin ben Samuel (a generation before Rashi), [6] the 11th-century exegete and liturgical poet Yosef Tov Elem (Bonfils), [7] the 13-14th-century philosopher and exegete Yosef ibn Kaspi, [8] and Rabbi Meir Simhah ha-Cohen of Dvinsk, from the 19-20th century, author of the biblical commentary Meshekh Hokhmah. [9]

Why did the liturgical poet Yohanan ha-Cohen choose to take an approach different from the traditional view that the story of the Akedah (binding of Isaac) reflects the utmost and loftiest devotion of the faithful?

Here we are groping in the dark, yet we can suggest two possibilities:  1) Perhaps the need to give prominence to the figure of Moses in contrast to the patriarchs stemmed from a tacit polemic against certain sects that viewed the patriarchs as pure and moral people, and being of greater stature than Moses, who gave us the dry letter of the law. [10]   2) In the twilight period between the rule of the two kingdoms that dominated the land of Israel – the Christian Byzantines and the Moslem Arabs – the Jews of Jerusalem were the victims of severe rioting, [11] and it may well be that as a result of the attacks by the Christians some Jews preferred to kill their own children rather than convert to Christianity. [12]   Presumably the liturgical poet Yohanan came out strongly against this trend, which he viewed as infanticide.   In this light, he criticized Abraham’s treatment of Isaac in order to support his own views about the need to protect children—at least, this is what we think. [13]


[1] Genesis Rabbah 55.7.

[2] Isaiah 41:8:  “Seed of Abraham My friend,” and II Chron. 20:7:  “the descendants of Your friend Abraham.”

[3] Song of Songs Rabbah 1.3, as well as Tanhuma Va-Yeshev 2.

[4] See the liturgical poem, “Ometz Adirei kol Hefetz,” and the kedushta for the Feast of Weeks, “Eretz Matah ve-Ra’ashah,” in:   Shulamit Elitzur (1988), Rabbi Eliezer be-Rabbi Kalir.

[5] See the dissertation of Nahum Wissenstern (1994), Piyyutei Yohanan ha-Cohen be-Rabbi Yehoshua, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, pp. 32-40.

[6] Ezra Fleischer (1985), “Azharot le-R. Benyamin (ben Shemuel) Paytan,” in Kovetz al Yad 11(21), Part I, p. 20.

[7] J. Frankel (2000), Mahzor le-Shavuot le-fi Minhag Ashkenaz le-khol Anfeihem, pp. 294-295.

[8] Sefer Gavia ha-Kesef (1982), pp. 13, 31.

[9] On the verse in Genesis 22:12:  “For now I know that you fear G-d, since you have not withheld you son, your favored one, from Me.”

[10] So Prof. Yosef Yahalom, an expert on liturgical poems from the land of Israel, surmises (in private conversation).

[11] Moshe Gil (1987), “Historiah Politit shel Yerushalayim,” in Sefer Yerushalayim – ha-Tekufah ha-Muslemit ha-Kedumah (638-1099), p. 2.

[12] See Shalom Spiegel (1950), “Me-Aggadot ha-Akedah,” in Sefer ha-Yovel likhvod Alexander Marx, Hebrew Part, pp. 471-547.

[13] See A. I. Shafir, “Az Terem – A Piyyut by Yochanan HaCohen:   A Kedushtha for Shavu’ot Festival Morning,” Hebrew Studies 45 (2004), pp. 223-252.