Sale of the Birthright – A Fair Deal/2/en

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Sale of the Birthright – A Fair Deal?

Exegetical Approaches


Commentators attempt to justify Yaakov's actions in a variety of ways, presenting a spectrum of opinions regarding both the essence of the birthright and how to evaluate Yaakov and Esav's actions. Rashbam and Ibn Ezra view the birthright as a material inheritance and defend Yaakov's purchase by suggesting that he paid its full worth. According to them, both Yaakov and Esav are neutral figures. On the other hand, various midrashim and later commentators understand the birthright to be a spiritual commodity, either the religious responsibility of serving God or the status of the chosen nation, and explain that Esav was simply unworthy of these tasks. Finally, R"Y Bekhor Shor assumes that the birthright granted the eldest son the rights to the father's entire estate, claiming that under such circumstances Yaakov had the right to put his own interests ahead of his brothers. He equates Yaakov and Esav in their desire to look out for themselves, seeing in this a necessary quality in their struggle for survival.

Gave Fair Value

Yaakov did not cheat Esav since he paid for the full worth of the birthright.  This position subdivides regarding whether Yaakov paid more for the birthright than is generally assumed, or whether the birthright was worth less than often thought.

The birthright constituted a double portion of inheritance, and Yaakov paid its full price in money.

Yaakov paid in cash – According to these commentators, Yaakov paid for the birthright not with a bowl of stew, but with money which reflected its full market value.1 The bread and lentils served a secondary function, acting as tangible testimony to seal the deal.2
Biblical parallels – Rashbam sees the role played by the stew here as akin to the covenantal meal shared by Yaakov and Lavan when they concluded their pact.3 However, Rashbam does not account for the fact that in our case the lentil stew is presented as coming (at least primarily) to satiate Esav's hunger and not as a shared meal.4
"הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת" – Rashbam cites his father, R. Meir, as explaining that Esav's declaration should not be understood as the words of a starving man on the brink of death, but rather as a statement reflecting the precarious life of a hunter who constantly faces the dangers of dying in the wild. Esav realized that there was a great likelihood that he would predecease his father, and thus the birthright was of little value to him.
"וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת הַבְּכֹרָה" and Esav's character – Rashbam notes the fickleness of Esav who saw no value in the birthright when indulging in his meal, but later came to regret his decision to sell it.5 However, he does not point to any moral failings of Esav, but rather presents him as a neutral figure.6
Evaluation of Yaakov's actions – According to this position, Yaakov offered fair value for the birthright and did not cheat his brother. Furthermore, Esav was not about to die, so Yaakov was not exploiting his brother in his time of dire need.
Does Yaakov ever receive the birthright? There is no explicit evidence in the Torah that Yaakov ever received any extra portion of Yitzchak's estate, or that he was even enriched by him in any way.7

Worthless to Esav

The birthright was either a double estate portion or merely honored status,8 but either way, was not worth much to Esav.

Paid in full with lentils – Both Ibn Ezra and Ramban assert that the birthright was sold for the lentil stew, and not for money.9 They also agree that this was all the birthright was worth to Esav, since he assumed that he would die before his father and never collect the inheritance. Ibn Ezra adds that since Yitzchak was poor10 the birthright was relatively worthless.
"הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת" – Ibn Ezra and Ramban maintain11 that Esav is speaking not of imminent death due to hunger, but of his low life expectancy and the likelihood of his dying before his father due to the dangers of his hunting profession.
"וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת הַבְּכֹרָה" and Esav's character
  • Ibn Ezra explains that Esav belittled the birthright because it really was almost worthless due to Yitzchak's poverty.12 He thus does not view the verse as passing moral judgment on Esav.13
  • Ramban maintains that Esav's attitude stemmed from his impetuousness and need for immediate gratification. According to Ramban, Esav, like all fools, lived in the moment and never thought about the future.14 Ramban clearly portrays Esav in a negative light.15
Evaluation of Yaakov's actions – This position maintains that Yaakov did not take advantage of his brother's hunger, as Esav was not in danger of imminent death. Neither did Yaakov swindle Esav, as the price reflected Esav's valuation of the birthright.
Does Yaakov ever receive the birthright? The Torah does not specify that Yaakov ever received a double portion of Yitzchak's inheritance.16

Esav Unworthy

The birthright was a spiritual (rather than financial) commodity which Esav was both unworthy of and uninterested in receiving.  This position divides regarding what rights  and obligations this religious position granted:

Priestly Status

The birthright was a priestly status, and Yaakov secured the patriarch's responsibilities to serve God.

Birthright as priestly status – The motivation to connect the birthright and priestly status stems from the consecration of firstborns to the service of Hashem17 in the aftermath of their salvation from the Plague of Firstborns in Shemot 12-13. This position suggests that such service was the privilege of the firstborns even before the Exodus.18
Yaakov's payment – The commentators who take this approach subdivide on this point. R. Saadia Gaon posits that Yaakov bought the birthright for a pot of lentil stew, while the Midrash Aggadah and Seforno suggest that he paid full price.19 All agree that Yaakov was motivated by a desire to ensure that the spiritual birthright did not fall into the hands of one who was unworthy.
Biblical parallels – R. Avraham b. HaRambam points to Reuven losing his firstborn status to Yosef and the firstborns of Israel losing their positions to the Levites, as parallel cases of the transfer of the birthright from an unworthy son/group to a more meritorious one.
"הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת" – While Seforno reads this as a declaration of Esav's exhaustion and desperate hunger which led him to agree to the sale, the other commentators connect the statement to the spiritual nature of the birthright. Midrash Aggadah (Buber) and Rashi suggest that Esav was willing to forego the birthright as he recognized the potentially fatal perils20 that the priestly position held for one who was not righteous.21
Esav's character and calculations
  • Esav vilified – Most of the commentators who take this position vilify Esav,22 portraying him as an evil person who cared nothing for the service of Hashem.23 Esav did not feel cheated, but happily sold the birthright both because it had no value to him and because he thought that it might lead to his premature death. Moreover, according to Midrash Aggadah (Buber), it was Esav who was the trickster, gloating among fellow villains that he outsmarted his brother who paid for a commodity that he could not legitimately acquire.
  • Esav unsuited – Seforno's portrait of Esav is much more neutral, portraying a figure who really was on the verge of death and who was simply not cut out for the demands of the priestly position.24 This combination of factors led to his willingness to sell the birthright.
Evaluation of Yaakov's actions – According to this position, Yaakov's desire for the birthright stemmed from ideological concerns, rather than materialistic desires.25 The sale is considered fair since the birthright had little value to Esav.26 In addition, as death was not imminent,27 Yaakov was not taking advantage of his brother's weakness.28
Does Yaakov receive the birthright? In the continuation of Sefer Bereshit, Yaakov does function as a priest, offering sacrifices and libations to Hashem.

Avraham's Legacy

Yaakov acquired the rights to the Blessing and Covenant of Avraham. This included the privileges of inheriting the land of Israel and becoming the father of the chosen nation.

Birthright as blessing and covenant – This position views the birthright as Yitzchak's unique bequeathing of Avraham's legacy, with its accompanying promise of land and progeny, to a chosen son. Whoever obtained the birthright would become the father of the chosen nation.29
Yaakov's payment – According to the Lekach Tov, the lentil stew served as payment.30
"הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת"
  • Chizkuni, Abarbanel, and Shadal suggest that Esav is declaring that he is likely to die before obtaining the inheritance. Abarbanel and Shadal31 think that Esav is referring to the perils inherent in his hunting profession. Chizkuni, in contrast, proposes that Esav was thinking that the inheritance of the land of Israel was still centuries away,32 by which point he would be long dead and incapable of benefiting.33
  • R. D"Z Hoffmann maintains that Esav feels as if he is literally on the verge of death due to his insatiable desire for the stew,34 and it is this craving that makes him agree to the deal.35
Esav's character
  • Agnostic – Lekach Tov and Abarbanel paint an Esav unworthy of fulfilling the legacy of Avraham. Esav was evil and lacking in faith. He did not even believe that Hashem was going to fulfill His promise and give the Land of Israel to Avraham.36
  • Slave to his desires – Chizkuni and R. D"Z Hoffmann portray not an evil Esav, but one who lives in the moment, a slave to his physical desires.37 Esav was willing to sell the birthright so as indulge in his immediate craving, neither thinking of the future nor appreciating the value of spiritual blessings.38
Evaluation of Yaakov's actions – This position maintains that Yaakov pursued the birthright, not for material gain, but for a lofty, spiritual, ideal. As Esav's character and/or beliefs proved him an unworthy successor to Avraham, Yaakov viewed himself as proactively ensuring that the blessing went to the proper individual.39 In addition, since Esav was not literally about to die and did not value the birthright, the sale was neither unfair nor exploitative.
Does Yaakov receive the birthright? All agree that Yaakov's descendants, rather than Esav's, became the chosen nation, and the inheritors of Avraham's legacy.40 R. D"Z Hoffmann, though, suggests that this inheritance had nothing to do with the sale,41 which was more like child's play with no legal standing. Lekach Tov and Shadal, in contrast, point out how Esav acted upon the oath taken during the sale, and, after his father's death, moved to Seir, staking no claim on the Land of Israel.

Yaakov's Self Interest

The birthright included Yitzchak's full inheritance, and only one son was to receive the entire estate. Yaakov's purchase was justified since, under such circumstances, he had the right to look out for his own self interest.

Primogeniture – The Melekhet Machshevet posits that in Biblical times, like feudal France in his own era, the father's entire estate and patriarchal status were inherited by his eldest son,42 with younger sons either serving the older one, enlisting in the royal army,43 or venturing out on their own.44
"הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת" – R"Y Bekhor Shor interprets these words in their most literal sense; Esav is exhausted from an extended hunting expedition and is veritably on the verge of dying of hunger.45 R"Y Bekhor Shor assumes that the incident took place far from their city and parents' home,46 and thus Esav really did not have any alternative sources of food.47
It was a steal – R"Y Bekhor Shor maintains that Yaakov paid for the birthright with a bowl of lentil stew, rather than money.48 According to him, Yaakov was able to make a great deal for himself by taking full advantage of the leverage he had due to Esav's dire circumstances.49
"וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת הַבְּכֹרָה" and Esav's character – R"Y Bekhor Shor is sympathetic to Esav's willingness to sell the birthright, viewing it as natural human instinct to put one's life before one's money. Esav's decision was thus a very rational one, rather than impulsive.50 R"Y Bekhor Shor adds that Esav trusted that his father's love would ensure that despite the sale he would still be able to inherit all.51 See also his interpretations in Chapter 27Bereshit 27:2Bereshit 27:4Bereshit 27:10Bereshit 27:13Bereshit 27:41About R. Yosef Bekhor Shor that Yitzchak, in fact, tried to help Esav evade the consequences of the sale by using the method of a "living will".52
Evaluation of Yaakov's actions – This position views the inheritance as a winner takes all, with the loser receiving nothing. As such, it is understandable that Yaakov places his own interests ahead of his brother's and looks out only for his own welfare. The birthright was a zero sum game, and without his bold act, Yaakov would have been left empty handed upon his father's death and forced to find a different land of his own.53 Yaakov's actions cut a portrait of a hard-nosed businessman engaged in cut-throat competition, but they are not deceptive.54 Alternatively, a more critical view of Yaakov's conduct is taken by RadakBereshit 25:31Bereshit 25:34About R. David Kimchi.55
Does Yaakov ever receive the birthright? The Melekhet Machshevet and Hoil Moshe note that Yaakov indeed inherited all of Yitzchak's land holdings, and Esav was forced to emigrate from the land of Israel and carve out his own territory.56