Yitzchak – Overview
For many, Yitzchak is perceived as the "middle child" of the Avot, overshadowed by Avraham on one side and Yaakov on the other. Yitzchak, though, is a role model in his own right, a man of faith, perseverance and tradition. In the spiritual realm, his strength lies not in innovation but in preservation, continuing his father's legacy and passing it forward. In the material realm, in contrast, Yitzchak paves his own way. He exchanges his father's nomadic shepherding lifestyle with an agrarian one, as he both works and settles the land. He emerges as a successful businessman, diplomat, and agriculturist.
In the realm of family, Yitzchak's life is an oxymoron of love and deception. Though he watches his father raise a knife to sacrifice him, he is able to emerge from the ordeal "together" and at one with Avraham. Yitzchak loves his wife dearly; he is the only forefather not to wed another when she proves barren. Yet, the two disagree about fundamental issues and appear to lack communication, with Rivka resorting to deception to get her way. The page below will attempt to explore all these facets of Yitzchak's character and life.
"Frum From Birth"
Yitzchak is the only of the Avot who is neither born into a polytheistic household (as was Avraham) nor later forced to live with the idolatrous members of his extended family (as was Yaakov). In fact, it seems that he never leaves Israel at all. Moreover, when Yishmael appears to be a negative influence, he is removed from the home,1 leaving Yitzchak under the sole influences of his parents. How did this sheltered environment impact Yitzchak's religious identity? Though he was still exposed to the polytheism of Canaan, did this relative isolation make him more solid in his beliefs, or might it be that it is direct challenges to one's value system that actually strengthen one more in the long run?
Test of Faith – Akeidat Yitzchak
What role did Yitzchak play during the Akeidah? Was he a willing participant or an unwilling victim? Was the trial just as much (if not more) of a test of faith for him as it was for Avraham? These questions are intricately related to another set of unknowns in the text. How old was Yitzchak during the event? Was he aware of the plan all along, or only at the last minute? See Yitzchak's Role in the Akeidah for elaboration.
- Unknowing, unwilling victim – Ibn Ezra presents Yitzchak as a youth, aged 13 or so during the episode,2 and suggests that he was unaware of the plan3 and was forced to be sacrificed against his will.4
- Aware and willing participant – In contrast, many sources5 suggest that Yitzchak was an adult,6 fully cognizant of what was going on, and a totally willing participant. R. Levi in Bavli Sanhedrin 89b goes further to suggest that the entire idea to be offered as a sacrifice stemmed from Yitzchak himself!7
- Ambivalent – Bereshit Rabbah 56:4 takes a middle position, presenting Yitzchak as having doubts,8 calling to his father in the hopes that he will have mercy but nonetheless ultimately going "together" with Avraham to be sacrificed.
Yitzchak's Observance of Mitzvot
Did Yitzchak keep all the mitzvot? The issue has been hotly debated for generations. On one hand, Yitzchak lived centuries before the Torah was given and many of its laws would be meaningless to him, suggesting that he did not keep them. On the other hand, it seems paradoxical to conceive of one of the founders of a religion not observing even its most basic commandments. Though Yitzchak himself never appears to explicitly transgress any commandment, with the exception of circumcision, he also does not explicitly observe any. For sources and a full discussion of the issue, see Avot and Mitzvot.
A Man of Prayer?
Bereshit 24:63 states, "וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה". Commentators debate the meaning of this phrase and whether it refers to a religious or mundane pursuit:
- Prayer – Bavli Berakhot 26b9 explains that "לָשׂוּחַ" relates to the word שיחה, conversation, and suggests that the verse is sharing that Yitzchak had been praying.10 Ramban and Shadal add that Yitzchak had specifically gone to "בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי"11 to pray as this was a sacred site where an angel had appeared. As such, the two verses highlight Yitzchak's holy devotion to Hashem.
- Mundane pursuits – Ibn Ezra and Rashbam, in contrast, understand "לָשׂוּחַ" to be related to the word "שיח", plant. Thus, Ibn Ezra suggests that Yitzchak had gone for a stroll among the bushes, while Rashbam maintains that he had been planting in the field. According to both, the verse is simply explaining how it came about that Yitzchak was nearby when Rivka arrived.
- Mourning – It is also possible that the field spoken of is "מְעָרַת שְׂדֵה הַמַּכְפֵּלָה" and that Yitzchak had gone to mourn his mother. If so, the verse is connected to the end of the story, "וַיִּקַּח אֶת רִבְקָה... וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ".
Faith in Hashem
See the discussion above.
Preserver of the Tradition
See Avraham and Yitzchak for a discussion of the many ways in which Yitzchak's deeds appear to merely mirror or complete those of his father. Several modern scholars12 note that this is one of Yitzchak's biggest contributions. In contrast to his trailblazing father, Yitzchak's strength lay in his preserving the tradition, taking Avraham's innovations and giving them continuity and permanence.
D. Sabato13 notes that Yitzchak stands out from both Avraham and Yaakov in his being a man of the land. He engages in agriculture rather than shepherding, spending his time sowing and working the land. In contrast to his father, the nomad, he stays put in Israel, becoming a permanent settler.14 As such, it is he who acts to truly realize the promise of "זרע וארץ".
One of the traits that distinguishes Yitzchak is his perseverance. This is exemplified in several stories:
- Praying for his wife – Rivka is barren for a full twenty years, yet Yitzchak does not give up on her,15 but rather continues to pray until Hashem gives him children through her specifically.
- Digging of wells – Bereshit 26 describes Yitzchak's non-tiring pursuit of water in face of Philistine hostility. Despite the continued disputes, he continues digging until he prevails.
Family Life: Parents
Yitzchak and Avraham
How, if at all, was Yitzchak's relationship with Avraham affected by the Akeidah? Nowhere does the Torah explicitly address the question, but several phrases in the story might be mined for clues:
- "וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו" – The text's repeated emphasis on the fact that "וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו" (Bereshit 22:6, 8, and 19) might suggest that, throughout, the two were of one mind and one heart. The final appearance of this phrase contains a slight twist, reading: "וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו". Can anything be learned from the omission of the word "שְׁנֵיהֶם"?
- More distant – Perhaps the new formulation is meant to hint that, despite Avraham and Yitzchak still being close after the near-sacrifice, something was nonetheless amiss.
- Closer – Alternatively, the omission might suggest that the two got even closer; what used to be "two" is now just "together," as if the experience somehow tied them into one being.
- Including others – R. Hirsch more simply explains that this phrase includes not only father and son, but also the youths who had accompanied them. The Torah highlights that despite the lofty experience, it did not cause either Avraham or Yitzchak to be aloof or act superior to others. Not only was their bond not affected, but their ability to relate to the world around them remained intact as well.
- "וַיָּשׇׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל נְעָרָיו... וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע" – Where was Yitzchak? Does the omission of Yitzchak imply that father and son separated, and if so, is this an indication of a ruined relationship?
- No separation – Ibn Ezra and Radak explain that Yitzchak's presence is simply assumed by the text and that father and son returned together.
- Parting of ways – Midrashic sources suggest that Yitzchak either went to learn Torah or up to Gan Eden, while Abarbanel suggests that Avraham sent Yitzchak ahead to tell his mother what had happened and to ease her worry. Either way, the verse does mean to make any negative statement about the father-son relationship.
- Hurt relationship – Alternatively, one could suggest that Yitzchak's relationship with his father was never the same after the story. The two needed distance and might have lived apart.
Yitzchak and Sarah
When Rivka weds Yitzchak, the texts shares, "וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָק הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת רִבְקָה וַתְּהִי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶהָ וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ." Why does the Torah find it necessary to share that Yitzchak was comforted after his mother's death? What might this suggest about Yitzchak's relationship with his mother?
- Particularly close – Radak and Ramban imply that the two were particularly close and even though several years had passed since his mother's death, Yitzchak was only consoled when he married Rivka.
- Not unique – Rashi suggests that Yitzchak's reaction to his mother's death was not necessarily unique, but is simply the "the way of the world." One naturally clings to one's mother while alive and when she dies one gets comfort from one's wife. If so, though, it is not clear why the Torah would need to go out of its way to share this fact.
- Longed for her righteousness and blessing – HaKekav VeHabballah, working off the Midrash that Sarah's tent had been filled with blessings while alive,16 suggests that it was Sarah's good deeds and the ensuing blessing that Yitzchak missed and it was these that Rivka replaced.
Family Life: Siblings
In contrast to Yaakov and Esav who explicitly vie with each other for firstborn status, Yitzchak and Yishmael do not explicitly compete, as Yitzchak is but a toddler when Yishmael is expelled from home. What was their relationship like? What role did it play in Yishmael's banishment? How did the relationship change afterwards?
Prior to the Expulsion
Bereshit 21 details how Yishmael is rejected and banished from home, while Yitzchak is chosen to inherit. Several sources suggest that this decision stemmed from Yishmael's being perceived as a threat to Yitzchak. [See Banishment of Hagar and Yishmael for details.]
- Spiritual threat – According to many sources, Sarah believed that Yishmael needed to be expelled to ensure that Yitzchak did not learn from his negative ways (which included idolatry, illicit sexual acts, murder and scornful or degrading speech) . R. Avraham b. HaRambam explains that Sarah feared that she and Avraham might die while Yitzchak was still young, leaving him to grow up under the sole influence of Yishmael, with no contrasting role models.
- Physical threat – R. Levi, Rashi, and Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer all maintain that Yishmael had actually attempted to kill Yitzchak. As such, Yishmael's banishment was also necessary to physically protect Yitzchak.
- Monetary threat – According to Radak, Ralbag, and Sforno, Sarah viewed Yishmael as a threat to Yitzchak's inheritance and wanted Avraham to disown him and prove that Yitzchak was the sole heir.
- No threat – R. Avraham Saba uniquely claims that Yishmael was not really a negative influence and Sarah only mistakenly assumed that he was mocking her.
Torah does not say anything about the siblings' interactions or relationship after the expulsion except to share that they jointly buried Avraham. This might indicate that, in the long term, Yishmael did not harbor extensive ill will towards either his father or half-brother. Interestingly, Bereshit Rabbah presents Yitzchak as being the one to orchestrate a reconciliation of the family, having him bring Hagar (identified by the midrash with Keturah) to remarry his father after Sarah's death. [For elaboration, see Avraham's Many Wives.] Though the midrash does not mention Yishmael, it might suggest that he, too, renewed his relationship with the family.
Family Life: Marriage
Matchmaking via Messenger
Bereshit 24 expounds at length about the search for an appropriate wife for Yitzchak. Somewhat surprisingly, Yitzchak is absent from almost the entire episode as Avraham sends his servant, rather than Yitzchak himself, to find the appropriate woman from Aram Naharayim. Why does not Yitzchak himself go?
- Norm of the time – It is possible that it was simply the norm of the time for a father to arrange the marriage of his son, as marriages were often alliances between families and not just a relationship between a man and wife. [See חתן / התחתן that in Tanakh, the two parties who are "מתחתן" are either the father of the bride and father of the groom or the father-in-law and son-in- law. It is possible that the latter only occurs when a father is not in the picture.]
- Not allowed to leave Israel – R. Yitzchak in Bereshit Rabbah implies that after his near sacrifice during the Akeidah, Yitzchak took on holy status, like an "עולה תמימה", and it was prohibited for him to defile himself by leaving the sanctity of Israel.17
- Passive character – Several modern scholars,18 in contrast, suggest that Yitzchak's absence from the story relates to a larger trend in the Yitzchak narratives, his portrayal as a generally passive character who follows his father rather than trailblazing on his own. [See above, though, that this need not be read negatively.].
Choosing a Spouse
What were the main criteria when choosing Yitzchak's spouse? Was lineage, beliefs or character most important? For elaboration, see A Wife for Yitzchak.
- Lineage – Rashi and Rashbam claim that the most important factor was that the woman be related to Avraham.
- Beliefs – According to R. Saadia, proper belief was crucial. Though Avraham's family, like the surrounding Canaanites, were idolatrous, there was more of a chance that they would convert than anyone else.
- Character – According to Ramban, R. Yosef ibn Kaspi, and Ran, in contrast, the most critical factor was that Yitzchak's wife have a generous and kind nature and be of upright moral character. Ran distinguishes between idolatrous beliefs which can be rectified through education and evil character traits which are ingrained and hereditary. As such, it is the latter which is more important
Love, not at first sight?
Bereshit 24:67 speaks of Yitzchak and Rivka's marriage, sharing, "וַתְּהִי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶהָ". Why does the text emphasize that Yitzchak loved Rivka, and why is this first mentioned only after the marriage?19
- The text might be highlighting that despite not having chosen Rivka on his own and not knowing her before the wedding, Yitzchak still loved her.
- R. Hirsch adds that the fact that love follows marriage shows how Rivka and Yitzchak's love grew with the years. As their marriage was not built on lust, but on compatibility and shared values, it grew with time.
Yitzchak is the only one of the forefathers to not take an additional wife. Despite Rivka being barren for twenty years, neither spouse suggests that he take a maidservant in her stead. Instead, Yitzchak prayed, "לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ". What does this phrase mean? Why does Yitzchak not follow his father in also wedding a servant?
- Radak explains that due to Yitzchak's great love for Rivka, he did not want to take a second wife and so he prayed for his wife, that she be his sole wife and the one to bear him a child.
- Rashi suggests, instead, that each spouse faced the other, implying that each prayed for their partner. This highlights the unique and selfless love the couple had, each praying not for themselves but for the other.20
The story of Rivka's deceiving of Yitzchak to ensure that Yaakov received the blessing raises an important question about the couple's relationship. If they disagreed about their children and who deserved the blessing, why did they not simply discuss the matter?
- Rivka insecure – Netziv claims that from the first moment they met, Rivka felt unworthy of Yitzchak. Thus, she never related to him as an equal and lacked the confidence to speak her mind to him.
- Compounded mistake – Ramban suggests that Rivka had not shared with Yitzchak the contents of the prophecy of "the elder shall serve the younger".21 As time passed, though, it became more and more difficult to reveal the prophecy and its significance, especially given Yitzchak's love for Esav.
- Did communicate – It is also possible that the couple did discuss the issue, even multiple times, but that they simply were never able to reach a consensus.
Family Life: Sons
Bereshit 25:28 speaks of Yitzchak and Rivka's respective favoring of different sons: "יֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת עֵשָׂו כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת יַעֲקֹב". What made Yitzchak prefer Esav? What does the reasoning given in the verse, "כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו", suggest?
- Unaware of true nature – Many sources22 suggest that Yitzchak was unaware of Esav's truly wicked nature because Esav tricked him into believing he was righteous.
- No preference – Radak suggests that, in reality, Yitzchak loved Yaakov more than Esav; the verse is simply saying that the only reason he liked Esav was due to the food he brought him. [Cf. Sforno who claims that the verse is only saying that Yitzchak also loved Esav,23 not that he preferred him.]
- Fed him delicacies / firstborn - Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Ramban, and Shadal assert that Yitzchak's preference was related to the fact that he brought him delicacies, as the simple reading of the verse suggests. As these commentators do not posit that Esav had any grievous faults [Rashbam paints him as basically a neutral character], Yitzchak's thoughts were quite natural. The fact that Esav was the firstborn might have further influenced his inclination. For elaboration, see A Portrait of Esav.
In several stories, Yitzchak appears to be acted upon, leading many to portray him as a relatively passive or weak character. Many have further noted that he seems to simply follow his father, repeating his deeds without contributing anything new. Is this the only way to read these stories? Moreover, need his seeming passivity be viewed as a negative trait?
- Like father like son? Is it true that Yitzchak merely lives in his father's shadow; did he not innovate anything of his own?
- Preserver of tradition – See above that modern scholars24 note that Yitzchak's following of his father is not a flaw but a necessity without which Avraham's accomplishments would have never become entrenched.
- Paving a new way – See above that D. Sabato,25 in contrast, notes that Yitzchak did not merely follow but also innovated, becoming an agriculturist rather than a shepherd, leaving his mark on the land in a way that Avraham did not.
- Finding a wife – See the discussion above regarding whether or not Yitzchak's absence from his matchmaking need be read as a reflection of a passive nature.
- Akeidat Yitzchak – See discussion above regarding whether Yitzchak was an unwilling victim or a willing participant, equal to Avraham in passing the test.
- Unaware of Esav's character? – See above regarding whether Yitzchak was blind to, or well aware of, Esav's true character.
How is one to understand Yitzchak's desire to bless Esav? Did not the prophecy of the "the elder shall serve the younger" prove that Yaakov, not Esav, was Hashem's choice? Should he be faulted for desiring to bless Esav? [See Why Bless Esav for a full discussion of the issue.]
- Justified favoritism – According to Ramban, Esav was not a particularly wicked character, and thus his status as firstborn sufficed to make Yitzchak want to give him the blessing. Moreover, according to Ramban, Rivka had never shared the prophecy with Yitzchak so he cannot be faulted for not heeding Hashem's wishes.
- Mistaken favoritism – Bereshit Rabbah, Tanchuma, and Rashi all assert that Yitzchak was blind to Esav's faults and did not realize that he was unworthy of the blessing. Esav had actively misled his father into thinking that he was a righteous person.
- Hoped to bless both – According to R. Hirsch and Malbim, Yitzchak had assumed that his two sons would share in the leadership of the nation, with Yaakov taking on the spiritual role (and receiving the blessing of Avraham) and Esav caring for the physical needs (thus meriting the material blessing).
- Esav needed it more – R. Maimon suggests that Yitzchak recognized that Esav was not as righteous as his brother, and he hoped that the blessing would help improve his character.
Setting up foils is often a useful method to highlight the unique aspects of a character or story. What can be learned about Yitzchak from the following comparisons?
- Yitzchak and Yishmael – How do the stories of the expulsion of Yishmael and Akeidat Yitzchak compare? What can be learned form both the similarities and differences?
- Finding a wife by a well – The wives of Yitzchak, Yaakov and Moshe are all found by wells. The various stories contain many points of contact but is the difference which might be most telling. What do they teach about the various characters?
- Avraham and Yitzchak – How do the lives of father and son compare? See Avraham and Yitzchak.