The Birthright — for a Bowl of Soup ?

(originally published on;


The Jew as a manipulator is certainly not a new theme. In fact, through the unregulated realm of the modern world of the internet – fuelled by the recent international financial crisis – the notion has gained steam. Yet one of the great ironies of Jewish life is that our very own Biblical sources seem to lend some credence to these anti-Semitic claims: How are we, the “Children of Israel” to relate to the seemingly manipulative behavior of our forefather, Ya’akov? How are we to view Ya’akov’s machinations that won him the birthright – and thus the leadership of our people?

Tense Beginnings

From the moment of their birth, Ya’akov and Esav are struggling. Indeed, Jacob’s very name derives from the Hebrew word, ‘heel’. He tightly grasped Esav’s heel during birth, determined to be born prior to Esav.

After the two were fully grown, the Torah, in Bereishis Ch. 25, reports the following incident:

29. Now Jacob cooked a pottage, and Esau came from the field, and he was faint. 30. And Esau said to Jacob, “Pour into [me] some of this red, red [pottage], for I am faint”; he was therefore named Edom. 31. And Jacob said, “Sell me as of this day your birthright.” 32. Esau replied, “Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?” 33. And Jacob said, “Swear to me as of this day”; so he swore to him, and he sold his birthright to Jacob. 34. And Jacob gave Esau bread and a pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank and arose and left, and Esau despised the birthright.

Normally, a hungry person should cite his hunger as the reason for his request. Why, then, does Esav cite his exhaustion?

The answer may lie in the verse itself. On the Hebrew version of Esav’s request, הלעיטני נא – Rashi comments: “I will open my mouth, and [you] pour very much into it.” Rashi’s translation thus makes sense of Esav’s comment, “for I am faint”: He needs to have the stew poured into his mouth because he is too weak to do so. But what prompts Esav’s outlandish call to be served in such a manner?

Red, Red Pottage

Even more troubling is the term Esav uses to describe the food: “Pour into [me] some of this red, red [pottage]” Typically, a person requests a food by name: chicken, steak, eggs. Why does Esav choose to label the food by its color?

Perhaps more perplexing is the conclusion of the verse: “… he was therefore named Edom.”

The historical figure Lancelot Brown was called “Capability” after he once commented that he could see the ‘capabilities’ of an area for landscaping. But Brown was to become famous as the British master of naturalistic garden design. Even Brown’s nickname, therefore, related to a specific talent or interest that he possessed . Esav’s nickname, “Edom” (‘red’ in Hebrew) derives from the fact that, once, he referred to the stew as “this red, red pottage”. Why did this comment earn him the nickname, Edom? How does Esav’s choice of words characterize him?

The Sale

On the simplest level, Ya’akov’s offer of the pottage in exchange for the birthright seems unethical; he exploits his brother’s weak condition. As mentioned above, Ya’akov’s response calls into question the moral fabric of the final of the three Biblical forefathers. It fuels anti-Semitic claims: The Jews, claiming to be G-d’s Chosen People, earned their title by way of Jacob’s chicanery!

As the story draws to a close, the Torah reports: “And Jacob gave Esau bread and a pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank and arose and left, and Esau despised the birthright?” Of what significance is the new fact introduced by the Torah – that the cooked dish contained lentils? Finally, what is the Torah, in this final verse, trying to convey about the nature of the exchange?

Unraveling the Mystery: What’s in a Lentil?

The midrash Yalkut Shimoni notes that Ya’akov cooked up the lentils to console his father Yitzchak, who had just begun mourning. It continues: “What is unique about lentils? – Just as lentils are circular, so too, mourning is circular. There are those who explain: just as a lentil has no mouth, so, too, a mourner has no mouth…. Rabbi Yochanan said, that wicked person (Esav) committed five transgressions on that day.. he murdered. It says here, “and he was tired” and it says there, “My soul is exhausted from murdering”….. He denied G-d’s existence, It says here ‘Why do I need this birthright?’ and it says there ‘This is My G-d and I will beautify him..’”

Eyn Hamidrash Omer Ela Darsheni – A very cryptic source! Our sages maintain that the sale of the birthright occurs on the day of Avraham’s funeral. This is the backdrop of our passage: Ya’akov is busy cooking stew as a meal of consolation for his father. Lentils, notes the midrash, have deep symbolic meaning: In their grief, mourners are speechless. In fact, Jewish law forbids one visiting a house of mourning to initiate conversation; only when the mourner himself indicates a desire to talk, is it permissible to respond and engage in conversation. Lentils also reflect the cyclical nature of life – including birth, marriage and ultimately — death.

That said, why does the very same midrash bother noting that the wicked Esav – committed five transgressions on that day?

Rashi explains: “On that day, Abraham died, lest he see Esav, his grandson, start treading on an evil path, for that would not be the ‘good old age’ that the Holy One, blessed be He, had promised him. Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He, shortened his life by five years, for Isaac lived one hundred and eighty years, and this one (Abraham) [lived] one hundred and seventy-five years, and Jacob cooked lentils to feed the mourner (Isaac).”

In other words, G-d timed Avraham’s death such that Avraham would be spared the emotional pain were he to be made aware of his grandson’s immoral conduct.

In summary, the lentils were fed to console Yitzchak, who lost his father Avraham that day. Avraham died early as part of a Divine plan. How, though, does the midrash so definitively assert that Avraham died on that day?

A closer study of the 25th chapter of Bereishis, in which this episode appears, solves the mystery:

At the end of Parshas Chayei Sarah, 25:7, the Torah reports:

7. And these are the days of the years of Abraham’s life that he lived: one hundred years and seventy years and five years. 8. And Abraham expired and died in a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people. 9. And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the Cave of Machpelah in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which faces Mamre.

The scholars who authored our midrash noted that just 22 verses later, Ya’akov is cooking lentil soup. What’s the connection? Ya’akov is preparing lentils, a food symbolic of mourning, to comfort his father Yitzchak on the loss of Avraham.

What’s in a Birthright?

Now that we understand “what’s in a lentil” – let us discuss, What’s in a Birthright? What lies at the heart of the struggle between Esav and Ya’akov?

The Torah awards a first born male a double portion of the inheritance upon his father’s death:

Rather, he must acknowledge the firstborn…and give him a double share in all that he possesses, because he [this firstborn son] is the first of his strength, then he has the birthright entitlement.

It could also be that prior to the Giving of the Torah, the birthright came with certain rights of inheritance . Is the battle between Esav and Ya’akov, however, to be reduced to mere squabbling over money?

A Tale of Two “Zeh”s

To understand the concept of a birthright more clearly, let us return to our midrash.

The sages, sensitive to the original Hebrew text, declare that on that fateful day, Esav denied G-d’s existence. Their proof? The Hebrew phrase for the English “Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?” is “Heinei Anochi Holech Lamus, v’lama zeh li bechora”?

Literally, the verse reads, “…so why this do I need a birthright?” The word “this” or “zeh”– in Hebrew is awkward. The sentence would have made equal sense had it been omitted.

The verse’s unusual wording prompted the midrash to link the “zeh” used by Esav here to the another famous usage of the word “zeh” : As the Children of Israel fled Egypt, they recited the famous “Song at the Sea” :

The Eternal’s strength and His vengeance were my salvation; this is my God, and I will beautify Him, the God of my father, and I will ascribe to Him exaltation.

Linking the “zeh” of Esav’s question – “Why do I need a birthright?” to the Jewish people’s statement, “This (“zeh”) is my G-d” – the sages understood that Esav, by forfeiting the birthright, was divesting himself of a belief in the Almighty G-d.

Overly Critical?

At first glance, the midrashic treatment of Esav is patently unfair: Esav does not literally deny

G-d’s existence . He merely sells the birthright! How did the midrash make the jump from a business deal to Kefira – denial of G-d’s very existence?

To answer this question, let us return to an earlier issue: What’s in a birthright?

Rav Moshe Alsheich explains:

ויאמר יעקב מכרה כיום את בכרתך לי

הנה הבכורה היתה אז לשמש בכהונה לעבודה


… The bechora was then designated for someone to serve as the Kohen (Priest) [to head the sacrificial] worship…

In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, the firstborns’ right to serve in the Sanctuary was lost to the Levi’im. It is to this that the Torah is referring when it says, “I took the Levites in place of every firstborn among the Children of Israel.”

The Song at the Sea is often translated as, “This is my God, and I will beautify Him, the God of my father, and I will ascribe to Him exaltation.” However, this is just one interpretation of the verse. Another explanation, cited by Rashi reads,“…Onkelos rendered it as an expression of habitation (נָוֶה) [as in the following phrases]: “a tranquil dwelling (נָוֶה)”

In other words, the intense prophesy felt at the splitting of the sea prompts the Children of Israel to dedicate themselves to constructing a permanent “Home” in which to worship G-d: First, the mishkan , and then the Beis Hamikdash .

True, by waiving the birthright, Esav does not directly deny G-d’s existence. Esav rather rejects his role as the “father” of the original priestly class , the first – born males. Why, then, does the midrash equate his statement with the more grievous transgression of denying G-d’s very existence? The midrash could very well be asserting that an unwillingness to worship G-d constitutes a rejection of Him. Put another way, the Torah gives little weight to philosophical belief in a Creator if such a faith does not translate into action, if it doesn’t inform one’s religious consciousness and practice. For how can one who has truly internalized the concept of G-d as the Creator and Providential guide of the world — live a life void of ongoing gratitude and worship of that same G-d?

The name “Edom” Re-visited

In light of the above, we can now re-visit the label Esav used to describe the food. According to the Beis Halevi, on the day of Avraham’s funeral, Esav was embarrassed; he had spent the day indifferent, out in the field, while the rest of his family was mourning the loss of his grandfather. When he returns home and sees the lentil stew cooking, he uses the term “red, red stuff” feigning ignorance of the day’s events. This, adds the Beis Halevi, is also why he does not want to eat in a normal manner: As soon as he would insert his spoon in the bowl, he would see that it was lentils – and would thus have to relate to what went on that day! This is why he says “Pour it into me”. The professed reason, “because I am tired and I don’t have any energy to lift my spoon to my mouth” – masks his true intent.

The death of the Avraham was not just the demise of another grandfather – it was the death of a Patriarch of the Jewish people. As the first monotheist, Avraham’s groundbreaking work in “making souls” for his new religion was to have a profound impact on humanity. It created the nucleus of what was later to become the Jewish people. Ya’akov, who delved into Torah wisdom early on in life, strongly identified with his grandfather. He thus took the initiative to prepare the meal of consolation. For some time, Ya’akov’s deep connection with Avraham and Yitzchak convinced him that he truly warranted the mantle of “first born.”

But it wasn’t until Esav asked for the “red red stuff” –ignoring and detaching himself from the legacy of Avraham Avinu – that Ya’akov proposes the sale. You, Ya’akov tells Esav, are not fit to be the “bechor”. Esav – who has no desire to fill the position – effectively agrees with his brother. Indeed, far from manipulating Esav, Ya’akov helps Esav express what was truly latent in the latter’s soul. The name “Edom” attached to Esav thereafter represents something fundamental about Esav’s “disconnect” from the beliefs and way of life represented by his grandfather, Avraham.

This, then, is the intent of the Torah, “And Jacob gave Esau bread and a pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank and arose and left, and Esau despised the birthright.”

Even after his physical needs were met, Esav does not regret having made such a deal. Ultimately, it may also help address why Ya’akov felt comfortable feeding Esav the entire pot of lentils — instead of comforting his father, Yitzchak. Ya’akov understood that the wresting of the birthright from Esav would, the long-term give his father much more comfort: It would reassure him that the legacy of Avraham Avinu would continue for generations to come.

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