The Yaakov narratives span half of Sefer Bereshit, giving the reader significant insight into his life and character. When describing himself to Paroh, Yaakov says, "מְעַט וְרָעִים הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי" (few and unfortunate were the days of my life), a somewhat apt description of Yaakov's burden-filled years. From the moment after he buys the birthright and receives the blessing of Yitzchak, his life is filled with misfortune upon misfortune. He is forced to flee from home, tricked into marrying an unwanted wife, and cheated in business. Upon his return to Israel, his daughter is raped and his favorite son, Yosef, is sold into slavery.
Yaakov's character is complex. He is described as an "אִישׁ תָּם", yet he deceives his brother. He is courageous and powerful enough to fight an angel, yet passive in face of Shekhem's rape of Dinah. He adores Rachel, yet he is one of the few husbands in Tanakh to explicitly rebuke his wife. How are we to understand these contrasting traits? The page below explores Yaakov's character, relationships, and deeds as seen through the eyes of generations of commentators. Together, they weave a fascinating tapestry of the father of our nation.
Oath at Beit El
Upon awakening after his dream in Beit El (Bereshit 28:18-22), Yaakov makes an oath, saying that if Hashem watches over him, "וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם אֶל בֵּית אָבִי וְהָיָה י"י לִי לֵא-לֹהִים וְהָאֶבֶן הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי מַצֵּבָה יִהְיֶה בֵּית אֱ-לֹהִים." It is unclear where Yaakov's request ends and his personal obligations begin. Are the words "וְהָיָה ה' לִי לֵא-לֹהִים" part of what he expects from Hashem, or what he will do for Hashem? If the latter, what is he promising to do? Was Hashem not already his God?
- Condition – Rashbam and R. Avraham b. HaRambam assert that Yaakov's words "וְהָיָה ה' לִי לֵא-לֹהִים" are part of Yaakov's requests; he is asking that Hashem help him.
- Obligation – Alternatively, Yaakov's words "וְהָיָה ה' לִי לֵא-לֹהִים" begin the list of Yaakov's obligations to Hashem.
- According to Radak, Yaakov promises that if Hashem watches over him, he will then devote himself to service of Hashem and no longer engage in other pursuits. Ramban, instead suggests that Yaakov is promising that he will worship Hashem in Israel specifically..
- One might more radically suggest that Yaakov was indeed unsure if Hashem had powers outside of Israel, or perhaps had questions regarding the oneness of Hashem in general. If so, for him belief in monotheism was a process, and not a given. See Rachel's Stealing of the Terafim for discussion of this possibility.
Yaakov and Mitzvot
The issue of whether or not the Avot kept the mitzvot has been hotly debated for generations. On one hand, they lived centuries before the Torah was given and many of its laws would be meaningless to them. Moreover, there are certain prohibitions which the Torah testifies to their having transgressed, such as Yaakov's marrying two wives. On the other hand, it seems paradoxical to conceive of the founders of a religion not observing even its most basic commandments.
- For a full discussion and sources, see Avot and Mitzvot.
"וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים"
Bereshit 25 introduces Yaakov by telling the reader that he was an "אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים". What, though, do each of these descriptions mean? Do they speak of spiritual aspects of Yaakov's personality or of more mundane character traits?
- "אִישׁ תָּם" – Most commentators explain this term to mean that Yaakov was honest and upright, a man of integrity.1 Shadal adds that despite that there might have been an element of deceit in Yaakov's actions towards Esav, this does not negate his overall honest nature.
- "יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים" – Commentators explain this term in very differing ways:
- A man of learning – Bereshit Rabbah, Rashi, and Ralbag all explain that Yaakov spent his days learning in the "Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever". Radak agrees that "אֹהָלִים" refers to "tents of learning" but suggests that Yaakov filled his days searching after more general wisdom.2
- A man of solitude – R. Avraham b. HaRambam suggests that Yaakov spent his days in solitude, engaging in "התבודדות", presumably trying to commune with Hashem.
- Shepherd – Rashbam and Ibn Ezra more simply suggest that the verse speaks of Yaakov's shepherding profession, pointing to the phrase "אֲבִי יֹשֵׁב אֹהֶל וּמִקְנֶה" (Bereshit 4:20) as evidence.
Bereshit 30 highlights Yaakov's success in sheep breeding. While Bereshit 30:37-39 speaks of a ploy performed by placing certain peeled branches in front of the mating sheep, Bereshit 31:7-12 suggests that Hashem's hand and a prophetic dream guided him. Was Yaakov's success due to knowledge of science and nature, or was it miraculous, due only to Divine providence?
- Miracle – Rashi and Bereshit Rabbah suggest that Hashem had an angel supernaturally intervene to bring the necessary sheep from Lavan's flock to Yaakov's.
- Divinely taught scientific knowledge – Ralbag assumes that there is a scientific basis for Yaakov's actions, and that what one looks at during mating can affect the offspring's physical appearance. Yaakov himself, however, would not have been aware of this had Hashem not given him the idea in a dream. Contemporary scientists have attempted to find more modern scientific explanations for the breeding. See Y. Felix3 who suggests that Mendelian Genetics (relayed by Hashem to Yaakov) can explain the successful outcome, while others4 point to the role of epigenetics.
- Professional herder's knowledge – Some scholars suggest that Yaakov used his knowledge of animal behavior to promote breeding in his animals and inhibit breeding in Lavan's animals.5
When imagining Yaakov and Esav, many picture Esav as being physically fit and mighty, and Yaakov being of ordinary, or perhaps even under average, strength. Two stories might question that assumption:
- Removing the stone – In Bereshit 29 we read how Yaakov arrived in Charan to find several shepherds waiting to water their flocks until enough gathered to remove the huge boulder which covered the well. However, as soon as Yaakov sets eyes on Rachel, he manages to roll the stone off by himself.
- Super strength – R. D"Z Hoffmann points out that in this story, the Torah tangentially shares that Yaakov, and not only Esav, possessed great physical strength.6 He points out, though, that Yaakov is never seen using his strength to hurt those weaker than himself.
- Ordinary strength – R"Y Bekhor Shor suggests that really the only reason the other shepherds could not remove the stone on their own was because they were still youths and not yet full grown adults like Yaakov. Radak also posits that Yaakov was no stronger than the average and that he was capable of removing the boulder only due to Hashem's help.7
- Wrestling with angels? – A similar question arises with regards to Yaakov's wrestling match with the mysterious "איש". If Yaakov's opponent was an angel, as most commentators maintain, how was he able to overcome him? See Wrestling With Angels and Men.
Possible Sins / Flaws
Sale of the Birthright
Bereshit 25 discusses Yaakov's buying of the birthright from the famished Esav. The story raises several question regarding the ethics of Yaakov's actions. Did he not exploit his brother's hunger for his own gain? Is not buying the birthright for a mere pot of lentils considered extortion? Commentators attempt to defend Yaakov's behavior in a number of ways: [For a full discussion of the issue, see Sale of the Birthright – A Fair Deal?]
- Esav was unworthy – According to Bereshit Rabbah and Rashi, the birthright was a spiritual commodity, namely the priestly status, which Esav was both unworthy of and uninterested in receiving.
- Yaakov paid fair value – Rashbam claims that Yaakov paid for the birthright in full, with money. The accompanying meal served simply to seal the deal. Ibn Ezra, instead, suggests that the birthright was almost worthless since Yitzchak was penniless. As such, the lentil stew was a fair price.
- Right to look out for one's self – 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 brother's.
Taking the Blessing
Bereshit 27 describes Rivka's machinations to ensure that Yitzchak's blessing go to Yaakov rather than Esav. How should Yaakov's role in the deception of his father be viewed? Was he a willing or unwilling participant? Were his actions justified?
- Justified –Several commentators suggest that Yaakov's deceit was justified:
- Heeding mother and prophecy – Radak suggests that Yaakov was simply acting according to his mother's wishes. Moreover since he was the worthy son, and acting to fulfill the prophecy,8 his deception was justified.9
- Retrieving a loss – R"Y Bekhor Shor, instead, claims that when Yaakov bought the birthright, he bought the rights to the blessing. Since Esav was trying to renege on the deal, Yaakov cannot be blamed for trying to retrieve was was rightfully his.
- Mitigate wrongdoing – Others attempt to mitigate Yaakov's wrongdoing, even if they do not totally justify his actions. Bereshit Rabbah and Rashi attempt to minimize Yaakov's lying by re-punctuating his words "אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ" to read "אנכי – המביא לך, ועשו הוא בכורך." HaKetav veHaKabbalah, instead, defends Yaakov by suggesting that he was an unwilling participant, and even hoped to be found out.
- Unjustified – Tanchuma suggests that Yaakov sinned and was punished measure for measure for his trickery.
Lack of Trust in Hashem?
In Bereshit 32:7-8, after hearing that Esav is approaching him with 400 men, Yaakov reacts with fear: "וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ". Given that Hashem had promised Yaakov that He would watch over him,10 should this fear be interpreted negatively as betraying a lack of trust in Hashem?
- No lack of faith – Bereshit Rabbah11 explains that Yaakov thought that he might have sinned and therefore no longer deserved Hashem's blessing. R"Y Bekhor Shor,12 instead, suggests that Yaakov thought that Hashem's blessing of providence might be limited to him, and though he would be saved, his family might come to harm.
- Lack of faith – Both Rashbam and Malbim blame Yaakov for not trusting in Hashem. Rashbam even suggests that the attack by the angel was a punishment for this lack of trust.13 See Wrestling With Angels and Men.
Subservience to Esav
Commentators debate how to evaluate Yaakov's extreme acts of subservience to his brother (Bereshit 33:3). Is it wrong to degrade one's self and show weakness to an enemy?
Parents and Siblings
Favored by Rivka
Bereshit 25:28 shares that while Yitzchak preferred Esav, Rivka favored Yaakov (וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת יַעֲקֹב). What led Rivka to love Yaakov? [For approaches as to why Yitzchak, in contrast, might have loved Esav, see Why Bless Esav and A Portrait of Esav.]
- The prophecy – Rashbam clams that Rivka's preference for Yaakov was a direct result of the prophecy which granted him superior status to his brother.
- Character – Ralbag and Hoil Moshe assert that Rivka's preference related to Yaakov's character; she saw in him both the traits of integrity and mercy.15
Yaakov and Esav
See above regarding Yaakov's buying of the birthright and taking the blessing. How did these incidents impact the siblings' relationship in the long term? When they meet again decades later, is Esav still angry at Yaakov or has time healed the rift? On one hand, we read how Esav approached Yaakov with 400 men (Bereshit 32:7), leading Yaakov to prepare for war. On the other hand when the two do finally meet, Esav embraces and cries on his brother's shoulders (Bereshit 33:4).
- Still angry – The majority of commentators16 assume that Esav was still angry and was approaching with 400 men, intent on attacking Yaakov. They explain Esav's kissing of Yaakov in Bereshit 33 to be either insincere17 (or even an attempt to harm Yaakov)18, a result of Yaakov's successful attempts at appeasement,19 or an act of Divine intervention.20
- Anger dissipated – Rashbam,21 in contrast, assumes that Esav harbored no ill will and was coming to greet Yaakov with 400 men who were to serve as an honor guard.22 [It was only Yaakov who, in his fear, interpreted the entourage as having evil intent.] Esav's embrace and tears at the end of the story are understood to be sincere expressions of brotherly love. [For elaboration on this reading, see Wrestling With Angels and Men and Yaakov's Dividing of his Camp.]
Yaakov and Leah: "כִּי שְׂנוּאָה לֵאָה"
In Bereshit 29:31, Leah is referred to as "שְׂנוּאָה", one who is hated. In the immediately preceding verse, however, we read, "וַיֶּאֱהַב גַּם אֶת רָחֵל מִלֵּאָה", suggesting that she, too, was loved, but less so than Rachel. Did Yaakov actively dislike Leah, or was she simply not his first choice?
- Preferred Rachel – Many commentators23 assume that Yaakov loved both wives; and that the word "hated" is a relative term, meaning only that Leah was not as loved as Rachel.24
- Hated Leah – Bereshit Rabbah, Ramban, and the Netziv, in contrast, assume that Yaakov actively hated Leah for her deceit. Love is built on trust, and after Leah's participation in Lavan's scheme, there was no trust for Yaakov to build upon.25
Yaakov and Rachel: "וַיִּחַר אַף יַעֲקֹב בְּרָחֵל"
Despite Yaakov's love for Rachel, when Rachel complains to Yaakov, "הָבָה לִּי בָנִים וְאִם אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹכִי", he responds in anger: "Am I in God’s place, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?" (Bereshit 30:1-3). Is Yaakov's anger at his wife justified?
- Justified – Many commentators assume that Yaakov's anger was justified:
- Radak and R. Avraham b. HaRambam26 explain that Yaakov was justifiably angry that Rachel turned to him rather than Hashem, not recognizing that the matter was in Hashem's hands and not His.27
- Ramban,28 instead, assumes that Rachel had in fact asked that Yaakov pray to Hashem, but her mistake was is in viewing Yaakov's prayer as some type of automatic magical remedy. Yaakov taught her that even the prayers of the righteous are not always answered.
- Finally, Akeidat Yitzchak views Yaakov as upset that Rachel did not realize that her primary purpose in life was not simply to bear children, but to fill her life "בדברי שכל וחסידות". Her barrenness was not a reason to think her life was not worth living.
- Unjustified – Bereshit Rabbah maintains that Yaakov was in the wrong, presenting Hashem as responding to Yaakov, "כך עונין את המעיקות?!"
- Misunderstood – R"Y Bekhor Shor29 asserts that Yaakov misunderstood his wife, assuming that she was expecting him to somehow do what Hashem had not, when Rachel had meant only that he should take her maidservant and sire children from her so that Rachel could be their surrogate mother.
Status of Bilhah and Zilpah
Throughout the first section of the Yaakov narratives, Bilhah and Zilpah are consistently referred to a maidservants (of either Lavan, Rachel and Leah, or Yaakov). In Bereshit 35:22, during the incident with Reuven, Bilhah is referred to as a concubine. Afterwards, (excepting 35:25-26), they are never again referred to as servants, and in Bereshit 37:2 both are even spoken of as "Yaakov's wives". How did Yaakov view Bilhah and Zilpah: as real wives, concubines, or simply surrogate mothers? Did their status change over time?
- Changing status – It is possible that in sleeping with Bilhah, Reuven wanted to demonstrate that she was not a full wife (and, thus, that her sons were not contenders for the birthright), enabling him to eliminate competition and solidify his rights to inherit the mantle of leadership from his father. If so, it is possible that his plan backfired and that, in response, Yaakov ensured that Bilhah and Zilpah attained full wife status, and now viewed their children as equal in status to those of Rachel and Leah. See Reuven and Bilhah.
Births of Yaakov's Children
A simple reading of Parashat Vayetze suggests that Yaakov sired all 12 of his children in just seven years, with Leah alone bearing seven of the twelve. This chronology is difficult not only with regards to Leah's birthing schedule30 but also because of how it affects later stories In Bereshit. This reading would make Shimon and Levi only eleven or twelve when they decimated Shekhem, and has Yehuda siring the equivalent of three generations worth of progeny by the age of 43.
- For details regarding the chronology, its difficulties, and potential solutions, see The Births and Relative Ages of Yaakov's Children.
I. "כִּי בֶן זְקֻנִים הוּא לוֹ" – How is one to understand Yaakov's favoring of Yosef? Though many assume that Yaakov transferred his love for Rachel to Yosef, the verses offer a different explanation: "כִּי בֶן זְקֻנִים הוּא לוֹ". What does this term mean and what does it suggest about the reasons for Yaakov's love?
- Similar to father – Bereshit Rabbah, Tanchuma, and Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) all suggests that Yaakov's favoritism stemmed from the similarity between father and son.
- Actions/ traits – Targum Onkelos, Ibn Ezra, and Radak maintain that "בֶן זְקֻנִים" means "wise" and it was this trait which led to the extra love. Ramban instead suggests that Yosef was chosen to serve his father, and this created the close bond.
- Age-related – R. Avraham b. HaRambam and Shadal assert that, for several years until Binyamin's birth, Yosef had been treated as the youngest child and the favoritism remained even once he no longer had that status. Ralbag instead suggests that Yosef was similar to a child born in old age since was born after Yaakov had despaired of having a child by Rachel.
II. "עָשָׂה לוֹ כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים" – What did Yaakov mean to signify in giving Yosef the cloak? Was he simply showing parental favoritism, or did he have other intentions?
- Show of love – Ralbag
- Sign of leadership or chosen status – Seforno, HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, and R. Hirsch suggest that the cloak was a sign of stature. This reading might suggest that the siblings were not merely engaged in common sibling rivalry, but in a competition as to who was to be the "chosen son" and merit to continue the line of Avraham.31
III. Double Portion – In Bereshit 48, Yaakov equates Ephraim and Menashe with Reuven and Shimon, apparently granting Yosef's sons tribal status. What is prompting this gift? Is Yaakov once again motivated by favoritism towards the oldest son of his first love, Rachel, or is the choice motivated by other factors? [See Yosef's Double Portion for elaboration.]
- Love – Ralbag, Tzeror HaMor, Or HaChayyim assume that the choice did indeed stem from Yaakov's love for Rachel, and by extension, Yosef.
- Prophecy – R. Shemuel b. Chofni Gaon, Abarbanel and Seforno suggest that Yaakov chose to give Yosef a double portion since he understood Hashem's prophecy, "וּנְתַתִּיךָ לִקְהַל עַמִּים" to refer specifically to Menashe and Ephraim.
- Replacing Reuven – Ibn Ezra and Ralbag assert that the choice was a consequence of Reuven's rejection. In the aftermath of Reuven's deed, Yaakov transferred the birthright from the firstborn of his first wife to the firstborn of his second wife, Rachel.
- Incentive – R. Weitman32 assumes that Yosef and his sons had begin to assimilate into Egyptian society and that Yaakov gave Yosef a double portion of the land as an incentive to remain in the fold and to return to Israel.
Reuven and Bilhah
Bereshit 35:22 recounts that Reuven had relations with Yaakov's concubine, Bilhah. What prompted Reuven, ostensibly a righteous figure, to commit such a deed? The verse also shares that "Yaakov heard" of the deed, but nothing more. How is Yaakov's reaction to be interpreted? How did he relate to Reuven thereafter? For a variety of approaches to Reuven's deed, see Reuven and Bilhah
Shimon and Levi: The Incident in Shekhem
Bereshit 34 describes the rape of Dinah and the ensuing decimation of the city by Shimon and Levi. Immediately afterwards, Yaakov sharply castigates them for their deed, telling them "עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּיֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ". Did Yaakov views their actions as being only tactically flawed, or also morally reprehensible?33 Either way, what had he planned to do instead? For full discussion of the incident, see Sin and Slaughter of Shekhem.
- Retrieve Dinah – Ramban asserts that Yaakov (and most of the brothers) assumed that the Shekhemites would never agree to circumcise themselves, allowing the brothers to take Dinah and leave. Alternatively, if they did agree, the brothers thought to take advantage of their weakness to kidnap their sister.
- Kill only the guilty – Ramban also raises the possibility that Yaakov wanted to kill only Shekhem.
- Give Dinah in marriage – It is also possible that Yaakov's offer of marriage was sincere and that he did not see a problem in the union as long as Shekhem were to circumcise himself.34 The union of the two clans could have potential benefits and might have been a peaceful alternative to the later military conquest of the land.
Blessings to Sons
Bereshit 49 details Yaakov's final words to his sons, where he tells them "what will happen to them at the end of days". Does this refer to experiences at the end of Yaakov's sons' own lives, events which will occur to their descendants upon their return to the Land of Israel, or what will transpire to the nation as a whole in Messianic times? What was the overall goal of Yaakov's last will and testament? Was he speaking to his sons as individuals ("בָּנָיו") or as the progenitors of future tribes ("שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל")? Is his speech a collection of blessings or prophecies? These questions affect how one understand Yaakov's words to each of his sons.
Menashe & Ephraim
Did Yaakov have a relationship with his grandchildren, Menashe and Ephraim? On one hand he blesses and grants them tribal status. On the other hand, when Yosef brings them to visit, he does not even recognize them. What motivated Yaakov to bless Menashe and Ephraim more than his other grandchildren?
Comparisons to Other Figures
- Yaakov at the Well – What can be learned by comparing Yaakov's behavior and actions when meeting Rachel at the well with others (Avraham's servant and Moshe) who similarly find spouses there?
- Avraham and Yaakov – Avraham is the founding father of the nation, while Yaakov is the patriarch whose offspring literally constituted the "Children of Israel" ("בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל"). It is, thus, perhaps unsurprising that the life journeys of the two share several common features. What can be learned from a comparison of grandfather and grandson? See Avraham and Yaakov.
- Yaakov and David – Yaakov, the father of the Children of Israel, and David, the founder of the dynastic monarchy, are two of the most central figures in all of Jewish history. Strikingly, there are numerous similarities between the general trajectories of their lives and the specific events which befall them. What do these teach us? See Yaakov and David.
Yaakov in the Arts
Art and music often serve as "modern midrash" on the Biblical text. The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the text and different possible interpretive stances, making a wonderful foil through which to study the original story. Some examples follow: