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Let's Stew that Birthright

By: Rav Yonatan Horovitz

The shiur this week is dedicated in honor of my dear father Mordechai ben HaChaver Avraham Halevi, z"l. The 19th yartzeit of his passing is on 2nd Kislev, Shabbat Kodesh, Parshat Toldot.


One of the best known episodes in the Torah appears in this week's parsha - the story of the stew being prepared by Ya'akov which Esav desires as he returns from the field.  Esav supposedly gives up his birthright for a bowl of stew. Surreal, no? Did Esav really relinquish his role as firstborn merely so that he could gulp down some stew? Was Ya'akov really that good a chef that his dish was worth trading for the prided position of firstborn? We will examine these pesukim and note that while this event is well known, it may not be quite so simple to unravel.

Now Ya'akov cooked a stew, and Esav came from the field, and he was faint.

And Esav said to Ya'akov, "Pour into [me] some of this red, red [stew], for I am faint"; he was therefore named Edom.

And Ya'akov said, "Sell me as of this day your birthright."

Esav replied, "Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?"

And Ya'akov said, "Swear to me as of this day"; so he swore to him, and he sold his birthright to Ya'akov

And Ya'akov gave Esav bread and a stew of lentils, and he ate and drank and arose and left, and Esav despised the birthright. (Bereishit 25:29-34)


We begin by looking at the second passuk.  Esav asks for some food which happens to be red or in Hebrew, "adom".  The Torah then informs us that for this reason Esav was called Edom. Why would the color of the food that he desired affect his name? 

Ya'akov's reaction is also strange. Esav, being a hunter, has probably had a hard and tiring day in the field. He may not have eaten since he departed early in the morning. While he may not have said "please", Esav's request for food is genuine and justified. Why would Ya'akov choose this moment to enter into a discussion about the birthright?

Esav's response also requires explanation. "Behold I am going to die." Was Esav referring to his feelings at that moment or was he making a general statement about his philosophy on life?

It is worth noting that nowhere in the pesukim does it state that the birthright was sold for the stew. Esav sold Ya'akov the birthright with an oath which is comparable to a signed contract. When the transaction was complete Ya'akov then gave Esav food but this was not a quid pro quo.

The key to answering the above questions may lie in the pesukim which appear before this episode and which, based on our masorah, comprise part of the same unit in which we find this story.

ויגדלו הנערים, ויהי עשו איש יודע ציד איש שדה, ויעקב איש תם יושב אוהלים (ברשאית כה: כז)

I have purposely quoted this passuk in Hebrew because translations do not necessarily do it justice. Here the Torah describes the different characteristics of the two sons of Yitzchak. What does איש ציד איש שדה  mean? A man of the field, a hunter?  And what is an איש תם יושב אוהלים ? Innocent, naïve, simple, a tent dweller? And what did Ya'akov do in the tent?

It appears that the ensuing story elaborates on these characteristics and gives us a glimpse into the different lives of these two personalities.

The Torah depicts Ya'akov at home. At the time they may well have lived in tents. He is preparing food possibly for himself, but more likely for the family. Esav returns from the field.  We can assume that he is wearing ragged clothes, in dire need of a wash, and is exhausted from a long day hunting.

When Esav asks for the food, the Torah employs the word הלעיטני . This word denotes vulgarity. He does not wish to partake of a meal ; he wishes  to gulp down his  food. Esav also does  not define the food, describing it rather by its color. He repeats the word adom denoting, as  Rashbam explains, that he is in a rush. This attitude towards the materialistic aspects of life portrays a particular character trait and it therefore makes sense that this episode defines Esav as Edom.

Ya'akov responds by relating not to Esav's request for food but rather to his attitude. Is this really the behavior expected of the firstborn? As Abarbanel explains, the firstborn has a responsibility towards the family. He must look out for those close to him and bear the weight of ensuring the future for his elderly parents, siblings and their children. If Esav is only concerned with the here and now, he clearly does not have interest in investing in the future.

This idea is alluded to in the words of the Chizkuni on Esav's words "behold I am going to die". Esav claims that the birthright relates to the eventual inheritance of the land. Hashem had promised Avraham that this would only take place in four hundred years time.  Seeing as I (Esav) will not be alive at that time, I have nothing to gain from the birthright. Rashbam explains these words of Esav as relating to his chosen profession. I (Esav) am out hunting amongst wild beasts and am endangering my life ion a regular basis. There is no point in investing in a something of which I will be unlikely to benefit.

All of the above points to the fact that this exchange between Ya'akov and Esav is actually a clash of worldviews.  Ya'akov challenges Esav to define his priorities in life. If he truly concerns himself only with the present, surely he cannot accept the burden of his birthright. As we see from the test Esav did not dispute Ya'akov's suggestion. As Abarbanel puts it: "Esav considered this and said, ‘I choose not to walk in the way of my fathers who prided themselves on dwelling at home.’" Abarbanel may be embellishing the text more than is necessary but his basic idea still holds true. Esav was not interested in fulfilling the role appropriated to him by his birthright – he was happy to sign that role over to his younger brother Ya'akov.

The final passuk confirms the brothers' respective roles. Ya'akov gives food to his older brother Esav as is befitting of one who is now taking responsibility for the family. Esav, we are told, then eats :  ויאכל וישת ויקם וילך . The four verbs in a row convey speed coupled with a desire to leave the scene. The final verb:ויבז  relates to his attitude to the birthright - one of disdain and apathy. It is at this point that Ya'akov takes on his new role which, later on, will allow him to continue in his father's path and spread the Abrahamic legacy to those around him.

As stated above this shiur is dedicated in memory of my father z"l.  Although he passed away 19 years ago, I can still imagine him discussing the above words with me. He would question and investigate and try to get to what he believed the Torah meant. My father also had a great sense of what was important in life and, together with my mother z"l, instilled this in all of his children. יהי זכרו ברוך

Shabbat shalom

Rav Yonatan


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