Parshat Toldot: Brothers

“And Yitzchak answered and said unto Esav: Behold, I have made him your lord, and all his brothers I have given to him for servants; and with corn and wine have I sustained him; and what then shall I do for you, my son?” (Beresheit 27:37)

Our parasha discusses the birth of Yaakov and Esav and the relationship that developed between these two brothers. The parasha focuses on two incidents involving the brothers.

The first incident is described in the beginning of the parasha. Esav is the firstborn. However, Esav thoughtlessly trades to Yaakov his rights as firstborn for a bowl of porridge. Towards the close of the parasha, the second interaction is described. Yitzchak summons Esav to him to receive a blessing. Rivka discovers Yitzchak’s intention to bless Esav and intervenes. She instructs Yaakov to disguise himself as Esav and stand in his place. Yitzchak is indeed deceived by this subterfuge, and erroneously bestows the blessing upon Yaakov – believing the entire time that he is blessing Esav. Esav discovers the deception and asks his father, Yitzchak, to bless him as well. Yitzchak responds that he cannot provide Esav with the blessing he seeks. He has already blessed Yaakov. He has assigned to Yaakov supremacy over his brothers and he has blessed Yaakov with the material well-being. Esav continues to appeal to Yitzchak and eventually he does secure a blessing, of sorts.

Our passage describes Yitzchak’s initial response to Esav. He tells Esav that he has made Yaakov a master over his brothers. The commentaries are bothered by a simple problem with this passage. The passage implies that Yaakov has a number of brothers. Yitzchak tells Esav that all of Yaakov’s brothers have been given to him as servants. Yitzchak uses the plural – brothers. But, Yaakov and Esav were Yitzchak’s only children. Who are these brothers to whom Yitzchak refers? The commentaries offer two basic responses to this question.

Before we can consider these two answers, it is important to review two previous incidents. Yitzchak was not Avraham’s only son. Before Yitzchak was born, Avraham had another son. Sara gave her servant – Hagar – to Avraham. Through Hagar, Avraham father Yishmael. In addition, the Torah tells us that after the death of Sara, Avraham took another wife – Keturah. Through Keturah, Avraham had additional sons.

Now, let us consider the first answer to our question. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra explains that Yitzchak used the plural – brothers – to include the children of Avraham’s concubines. Although the children of Avraham’s concubines were actually Yaakov’s uncles, and not his brothers, Ibn Ezra contends that they were the “brothers” that Yitzchak included in his use of the plural.[1]

Nachmanides rejects this interpretation. He insists that although Yitzchak used the plural – brothers – the reference was to Esav alone. Of course, this raises the question: why did Yitzchak use the plural – brothers – if he only intended to refer to Esav? Nachmanides responds that the use of the plural was intended to allude to the ongoing nature of Yaakov’s supremacy. He would enjoy supremacy over his brother, Esav, and Yaakov’s children would experience the same relationship with Esav descendants.[2] In other words, the plural is used to allude to Esav’s many descendants.

This is a fascinating dispute. Nachmanides does not explicitly state his objection to Ibn Ezra’s interpretation of the passage. However, it is not difficult to anticipate his reservation. Yitzchak had two children. We can understand his desire to clarify – through this blessing – the relationship between his sons. He wished one son to assume dominance over the other. However, why would Yitzchak be concerned with granting one of his sons supremacy over Avraham’s other children? Why did Yitzchak feel that it was necessary to establish a relationship between his son and the children of Avraham’s concubines?

There is another problem with Ibn Ezra’s interpretation of our passage. As Ibn Ezra explains, Yitzchak granted Yaakov primacy over Avraham’s children from his concubines. Who were these concubines? Conceivably, both Hagar and Keturah can be described as Avraham’s concubines. However, Ibn Ezra seems to be referring to Keturah alone.[3] In other words, it seems that according to Ibn Ezra, Yitzchak’s intention was to grant his son dominance over the sons of Keturah. But, he was not concerned with addressing the relationship between his son and Yishmael. If Yitzchak felt that it was important to grant his son primacy over the sons of Keturah, why did he not feel compelled to establish a relationship between his son and Yishmael?

It is possible that these questions can be answered through analyzing an interesting dispute in halacha. Hashem gave the mitzvah of milah – circumcision – to Avraham. Hashem told Avraham that this commandment applies to him and to his descendants. Bnai Yisrael – the children of Yaakov – is not the only nation that can claim descent from Avraham. The descendants of Esav, Yishmael, and the sons of Keturah can also trace their lineage back to our forefather, Avraham. Does the commandment of milah apply to these people, or does it only apply to Bnai Yisrael?

The Talmud concludes that the mitzvah of milah does not extend to the descendants of Esav and Yishmael.[4] However the Talmud’s position regarding the status of the descendants of the sons of Keturah is not clear. Nachmanides contends that the commandment does not extend to the descendants of the sons of Keturah.[5] In other words, the commandment exclusively applies to Bnai Yisrael – the descendants of Yaakov. Maimonides disagrees. He argues that the commandment does extend to the descendants of the sons of Keturah.[6]

It is easy to understand Nachmanides’ position. The mitzvah of milah was given to Avraham and his descendants. Although it is true that Yaakov and his descendants are not the only people that can trace their lineage to Avraham, certainly Bnai Yisrael have a unique and exclusive status as Avraham’s fundamental progeny. Therefore, it is reasonable to contend that this commandment should only extend to Bnai Yisrael.

Maimonides’ position is more difficult to understand. Maimonides agrees with the Talmud’s ruling that the commandment of milah does not extend to the descendants of Yishmael and Esav. Yet, he contends that the mitzvah does apply to the descendants of the sons of Keturah. Apparently, Maimonides does not regard the commandment as exclusive to Bnai Yisrael. Yet, he argues that it applies to some of Avraham’s descendants – in addition to Bnai Yisrael – but not to all of these other descendants. In other words, if Maimonides maintains that the commandment is not exclusive to Bnai Yisrael, why does it apply to the descendants of the sons of Keturah, but not to the descendants of Avraham’s other children?

Maimonides offers a fascinating explanation for his position. He explains that the commandment of milah was given to Avraham and his descendants. When Yitzchak was born, Hashem told Avraham that this son would be regarded as his primary progeny.[7] Maimonides explains – based on the discussion in the Talmud – that there are two elements in this message. First, Yitzchak will be Avraham’s primary progeny. Second, Yishmael is excluded from the status of zera Avraham – the progeny of Avraham. Why does this exclusion not extend to the sons of Keturah? At the time that Hashem made this declaration, Avraham only had two sons – Yitzchak and Yishmael. The declaration was only intended to address the relative status of these two sons. Yitzchak would be Avraham’s primary progeny and Yishmael was excluded from the status of zera Avraham. The sons of Keturah were not yet born. The exclusion was not intended to make reference to them.

Similarly, at the end of our parasha, Yitzchak addresses Yaakov and tells him that he alone is the recipient of Avraham’s spiritual legacy.[8] Yitzchak’s intention was to distinguish between his two sons. Yaakov would be regarded as Avraham’s primary progeny. Esav was excluded from the status of zera Avraham.[9]

In short, the descendants of Yishmael and Esav are explicitly excluded from the status of zera Avraham. Therefore, the mitzvah of milah does not extend to their descendants. However, the sons of Keturah and their descendants are not excluded from the status of zera Avraham. Although they lack the positive quality of being Avraham’s primary progeny, they are not excluded from the status of zera Avraham. Accordingly, the mitzvah of milah does extend to the descendants of the sons of Keturah.

We can now understand the dispute between Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides. Apparently, both agree on one issue. In granting one of his sons primacy, Yitzchak intended to preempt any contention regarding the primacy of this son. According to Nachmanides, the only contentious issue that required resolution was the relative status of his two sons – Yaakov and Esav. There was no need to address the status to descendants of the sons of Keturah. Nachmanides maintains that the status of these descendants of Avraham is unequivocal. The exclusion of the descendants of the sons of Keturah from the mitzvah of milah signifies that they are not regarded as zera Avraham. Yitzchak had no reason to establish the dominance of his son over these people.

However, according to Ibn Ezra, Yitzchak felt compelled to also address the status of his son relative to the descendants of the sons of Keturah. This is consistent with Maimonides’ ruling that these descendants – unlike the descendants of Yishmael and Esav – are included in the mitzvah of milah. This inclusion signifies their status as somewhat equivocal. They are not excluded from the status of zera Avraham. Therefore, according to Ibn Ezra, Yitzchak felt compelled to declare his son’s dominance also over the descendants of the sons of Keturah.

[1] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 27:29.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 27:37.

[3] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 25:6.

[4] Meseshet Sanhedrin 59b.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on the Talmud Mesechet Yevamot 46a.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 10:8.

[7] Sefer Beresheit 21:12.

[8] Sefer Beresheit 28:4.

[9] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 10:7-8.

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