Morality and Legitimacy
After briefly describing the birth of Yaakov and Esav and their occupations, the Torah records the episode of the sale of the birthright ("בְּכֹרָה"). In this story, a famished Esav begs Yaakov for some lentil stew, and Yaakov acquiesces, but only on condition that Esav sell him his birthright. Commentators throughout the ages have raised the following questions as they struggled with the ethics and legality of Yaakov's actions:
- Did Yaakov exploit Esav's vulnerability at a moment when Esav was starving to death?1
- Was Yaakov not guilty of extortion by purchasing the birthright for a meager pot of lentils?2
- Can one sell a birthright?3 Are there any Biblical parallels to our transfer and transaction? Did Yaakov ever receive the birthright which he purchased?
In medieval times, the ethical issues provided ammunition for Christian claims of Jewish dishonesty, as can be seen from the following passages:
יקופין אחד מצא ר' יוסף בדרך פריש, ואמר לו: יעקב אביכם גנב היה ואין אוכל רבית כמהו, שבשביל קערה אחת שהיתה שוה מחצה קנה הבכורה, שהיתה שוה אלף זקוקים. (ספר יוסף המקנא סימן י"ו)
ומכאן תפיסה עצומה על יעקב אבינו ראש יחסנו ועיקר שרשנו אשר בו נתפאר, שונאיו ילבשו בושת אשר על פנינו יוכלו לחרף ולגדף ולומר: מי הוא זה ואי זהו אשר מלאו לבו להפר ברית אחים, ובראותו אחיו הבכור עיף ויגע ישיגהו בין המצרים ותרע עינו עליו מלתת לו לחם ונזיד עדשים עד ימכור לו זכות בכורתו? ולא ישיב ידו עד שבא עליו במרמה שניה לקחת גם את ברכתו... ואיה איפה תמימותו אשר נאמר עליו ויעקב איש תם? (עקדת יצחק שער כ"ג)
A Dominican friar encountered R. Yosef on the road to Paris and said to him: Your father Jacob was a thief, and there has been no usurer like him; for a single bowl (of lentils) that was worth half a coin, he purchased the birthright which was worth a thousand coins. (Sefer Yosef HaMekannei 16)
... (Akeidat Yitzchak Bereshit #43)
How did Jewish commentators respond to these accusations? And, more importantly, how did they confront for themselves the challenges posed by Yaakov's behavior?4
Birthright – Material or Spiritual – Benefit or Burden?
It is difficult to assess Yaakov and Esav's actions without first determining what exactly the "בְּכֹרָה" (birthright) was and appraising its value. The word "בְּכֹרָה" appears in only two other contexts in the Tanakh, in the laws of inheritance of Devarim and in the description of the transfer of the birthright from Reuven to the sons of Yosef in Divrei HaYamim. From both of these sources,5 it would seem that the birthright refers to a financial commodity, a double portion of a father's inheritance.6 However, the Torah gives no indication that Yaakov ever pursued or received such a double portion of Yitzchak's estate.7 This makes one wonder whether Yaakov was really motivated by pure materialistic greed and envy.
Alternatively, the "בְּכֹרָה" in our story may be integrally connected to the unique religious status the Torah assigns to a firstborn child (בְּכוֹר). In Shemot 13:2, the Torah consecrated all firstborns, dedicating them to the service of Hashem.8 Additionally, Hashem refers to the Children of Israel as "בְּנִי בְכֹרִי יִשְׂרָאֵל" (Shemot 4:22). This implies a special status of a chosen nation, unconnected to financial assets. Might these usages shed light on the meaning and significance of the "בְּכֹרָה" in our chapter?
It is instructive to also consider the events from Esav's viewpoint. At first glance, it might seem that Esav was literally dying of hunger and only sold his birthright under duress:
וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת וְלָמָּה זֶּה לִי בְּכֹרָה. (בראשית כ"ה:ל"ב)
And Esav said, "Behold I am going to die, and of what use to me is the birthright". (Bereshit 25:32)
Yet, was there really no other food available in their home? Did Esav really have no option other than to agree to Yaakov's terms, or was he simply expressing that the birthright, for some reason, was worthless to him? And if the birthright was indeed a valuable commodity even to Esav, why does he despise and scorn it ("וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת הַבְּכֹרָה") rather than complaining about the unscrupulous circumstances of the sale to his doting father?9