Rebekah: Midrash and Aggadah
Rebekah, one of the four Matriarchs, is characterized by the Rabbis as a prophet and a righteous woman. Although her family and those among whom she lived were deceitful, she was not adversely influenced by her surroundings, but grew up as “a lily among thorns.” She was the recipient of special blessings: the well water rose up to her, the dough she kneaded was blessed, the cloud was visible over her tent, and the Sabbath candles burned from one Sabbath eve to the next. The latter had also been present in Sarah’s tent, thus showing that Rebekah continued in the way of Sarah. Rebekah is portrayed by the midrash as a prophet: God revealed His plan to her when her sons were still in her womb, and, with her prophetic perception, she knew that Esau planned to kill Jacob. Rebekah wins the midrash’s praise for her ability to distinguish between the wicked Esau and the righteous Jacob. She aided in the execution of God’s plan, by causing Jacob to receive Isaac’s blessing.
The Rabbis derived several laws of brides from the manner in which Rebekah was sent forth from her father’s house. Various details in her life were perceived by the Rabbis as representative of what would later befall the people of Israel: the well water rose up to her, just as it would rise up in the future to the people of Israel; the gifts that Abraham’s servant gave her are a paradigm for those that Israel would receive from God: the two Tablets of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments. The Rabbis observe that the Israelites would leave Egypt by merit of Rebekah’s willingness to leave her parents’ house. The midrash thereby transforms Rebekah from an individual character with a personal story into a symbol of the realization of God’s promise to Abraham. Through her, Isaac’s line would continue, and by her merit he would become a great and numerous nation that would go forth from Egypt and inherit the land of Canaan.
In the midrashic telling, Rebekah was born at the same time that Isaac, who was then twenty-six years old, was bound on the altar (Seder Olam Rabbah 1). When God was revealed to Abraham at Mount Moriah and commanded him not to sacrifice his son, He also disclosed to him, by the spirit of divine inspiration, that Isaac’s bride had already been born (Gen. Rabbah 57:1). This exposition shows that the divine plan is woven far from men’s eyes. When Abraham thought that his only son and heir was about to die, God had brought his future wife into the world, and the people of Israel would be built from their offspring.
Abraham sought a wife for his son Isaac. He bequeathed all that he possessed to Isaac, and took this writ and gave it to his servant (whom the midrash calls “Eliezer"). When Abraham commanded the latter, he told him (Gen. 24:7): “He will send His angel before you”; according to the midrash, God designated two angels when Abraham said this. One angel would accompany Eliezer on his journey, and the other would take Rebekah out of her parents’ house (Gen. Rabbah 59:10). When the servant reached Haran, he prayed to the Lord, and suggested a sign by which he would recognize the suitable maiden (Gen. 24:14): The midrash comments on this that Eliezer was one of the four who made unseemly requests. If a handmaiden had come forth to him, would he have chosen her as Isaac’s bride? If she had been lame or blind, would he have designated her as Isaac’s intended? Despite this, God granted his request and had Rebekah come before him (Gen. Rabbah 60:3; BT Taanit 4a).
The Rabbis list three whose mates were appointed for them next to a well (be’er): Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. As for Isaac, Rebekah met Abraham’s servant next to the spring, and it is said of Isaac’s meeting with Rebekah (Gen. 24:62): “Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi” (Ex. Rabbah 1:32).
Gen. 24:16–17 relates that when Abraham’s servant saw Rebekah, who was very beautiful, with her jar on her shoulder, he ran toward her, which the midrash interprets as running to her good deeds. In another tradition, all the women would go down to fill their jars with water from the spring, but when Rebekah saw the water, it immediately rose. God said to her: You presage for your children: just as the water immediately rose upon seeing you, so, too, when the well sees your offspring, the water will immediately rise, as it is said [Num. 21:17]: “Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well; sing to it” (Gen. Rabbah 60:5). Yet another tradition compares Rebekah to the daughter of royalty, who would not normally go forth to fetch water, but that day did so. She was appointed for Isaac while still in her mother’s womb and therefore, even though she did not know who he was, she consented to marry Isaac (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 16).
When the camels had finished drinking, the servant gave Rebekah “a gold nose-ring weighing a half-shekel, and two gold bands for her arms, ten shekels in weight” (Gen. 24:22). For the midrash, this gift symbolizes another present that Israel would be given in the future: the two bands correspond to the two Tablets, and the ten shekels to the Ten Commandments (Gen. Rabbah 60:6). This exegesis imparts special significance to Eliezer’s selection of Rebekah, who at that moment became one of the founders of the Jewish nation. The finding of a proper wife for Isaac ensured the continuity of Abraham’s line and the realization of the promise to make a people of his seed.
Eliezer made his choice of the maiden conditional on his asking to drink water and her offering to draw water for his camels, as well. The midrash shows that this was not exceptional conduct by Rebekah, and in the continuation of her conversation with her guest she was inclined to show kindness to him. The servant asked (Gen. 24:23): “Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?,” intending only a single night. Rebekah, however, replied (v. 25): “[…] and also room to spend the night”—you can spend many nights in our house. When the servant heard Rebekah’s words and learned that she was from Abraham’s family, he bowed low to God and gave thanks to Him (v. 26), from which the Rabbis learned God is to be thanked for good tidings (Gen. Rabbah loc. cit.).
The midrashic description of the servant’s meeting with Rebekah’s family highlights the moral differences between the families. The striking differential emphasizes the righteousness of Abraham and the members of his household, with even his servant acting with greater integrity and decency than Bethuel and Laban. The negative light in which Bethuel’s family is cast stresses Rebekah’s good qualities, for her ethical level was not harmed by the environment in which she was raised ( see Gen. Rabbah 60:7–9).
In the midrashic understanding of Rebekah’s family giving food to Eliezer, they put before him a bowl of poisoned food, thinking to steal his money. The servant said (v. 33): “I will not eat until I have told my tale”; while he was talking, the angel came and switched the bowls, placing the dish with the poisoned food before Bethuel, who ate from it and died that night (Sekhel Tov [ed. Buber], Gen. 24:33). The servant told Rebekah’s family of his mission, and he said to them: Give Rebekah to Isaac, otherwise [v. 49] “that I may turn right or left.” Laban and Bethuel exclaimed (v. 50): “The matter was decreed by the Lord.” Then the servant took out silver and gold vessels and clothing, which he gave to Rebekah, and he gave her brother and mother vessels of pearl and, some say, roasted ears of corn and nuts (Gen. Rabbah 60:11).
The negative presentation of Rebekah’s family accentuates her uniqueness. Rebekah’s father was a scoundrel, as were the people where she lived, while Rebekah was a righteous woman who came from among them, and was like a lily among the thorns (Lev. Rabbah 23:1). This simile is taken from the description of the beloved in Cant. 2:2.
Various midrashim tell how the members of Rebekah’s family attempted to interfere with the servant’s mission by delaying, or even preventing, her going with him, but God frustrated their designs (see Gen. Rabbah 60:12).. When Rebekah’s mother and brother saw that the servant had not been persuaded by their words, they said to him (v. 57): “Let us call the girl and ask for her reply.” The midrash explains that they called Rebekah and asked her (v. 58): “Will you go with this man?,” thereby hinting to her not to go with “this man” until Isaac himself came to her. Rebekah, however, replied (ibid.): “I will”—I will go against your will (Gen. Rabbah 60:12). The Rabbis say that by this action Rebekah demonstrated her trust in God, and for the sake of that deed, God brought Israel out of Egypt (Seder Eliyahu Rabbah [ed. Friedmann (Ish-Shalom)], para. 25, p. 138). The Rabbis appreciated the courage exhibited by Rebekah when she agreed to leave her family and her birthplace and go to an unknown land, in order to marry a man whom she had never met. By merit of the faith that she thereby exhibited, her descendants would go forth from Egypt, many generations later. By their act, in turn, the Israelites also demonstrated their trust in God when they left their place of residence and set out for an unfamiliar destination.
Rebekah’s relatives realized that they could not prevent her from going with the servant, and said: “Since this has come forth from on high, we cannot stop this. Here is Rebekah before you—take her and go.” The servant arose early in the morning and saw the angel standing outside waiting for him. The servant told the relatives: “Do not delay me, for the man who came with me yesterday and made my errand successful is standing and waiting for me outside.” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 16).
The midrash states that the servant set out at the sixth hour of the day (after sunrise), and he took Rebekah and her nurse Deborah and sat them on the camels. So that he would not be alone with the maiden at night, the way was miraculously shortened for him, and he arrived at Hebron after three hours, at the time of the afternoon minhah prayer. Isaac went forth to recite this prayer, as it is said (v. 63): “And Isaac went out to meditate in the field,” and he saw the approaching camels (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer loc. cit.).
The Rabbis derive several laws of brides from the “sending off” of Rebekah. In Gen. 24:57 Rebekah’s brother and mother say: “Let us call the girl and ask for her reply,” from which they learned that an orphan cannot be married without her consent (Gen. Rabbah 60:12). This exegesis alludes to the tradition that Rebekah had lost her father, for he had died that night (see above). Another tradition argues that the act of sending away was a wedding ceremony. The members of the family ate and drank at the banquet for Rebekah. They then stood and blessed their sister Rebekah, like a cantor who stands and blesses the bride under her wedding canopy (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer loc. cit.). The Rabbis further deduced from this narrative that a bride who comes without a blessing is forbidden to her husband, as if she were menstrually impure. Just as such a woman who has not immersed is forbidden to her husband, so, too, a bride without a blessing is forbidden to him (Tractate Kallah 1:1). How do we know that the source of the wedding blessings is from the Torah? As it is said (v. 60): “And they blessed Rebekah (Tractate Kallah loc. cit.). Another tradition has the family standing disgraced and dejected. The dowry of which they spoke was mere talk, and they sent her off without giving her anything (Gen. Rabbah 60:13).
There are various midrashic traditions for Rebekah’s age when she was married to Isaac. According to one tradition, she was born when Isaac was bound on the altar. Since Isaac was twenty-six years old at the time, and forty when he married Rebekah (Gen. 25:20), she was thus fourteen years old when she married (Seder Olam Rabbah 1). Another tradition gives her age as three years and three days when she left her father’s house (Tractate Soferim, Hosafah [addition] 1, 1:4).
Isaac went out “to meditate in the field toward evening” (v. 62) and the Rabbis identify this activity with prayer. Rebekah saw that Isaac was beautiful and of fine appearance, wrapped in zizit (ritual fringes), and in looks like an angel of the Lord. She asked Eliezer (v. 64): “Who is that man?” (Midrash Tehillim [ed. Buber], 90:18). In another exegetical tradition, Rebekah saw that Isaac’s hand was extended in prayer. She said: “He must certainly be a great man.” She bent over and fell off the camel (Gen. Rabbah 60:15).
When the servant appeared, Abraham told his son Isaac: “This servant is deceitful, and he is suspected of all the forms of licentiousness in the Torah.” Isaac brought Rebekah to the tent, and he took her as a wife only after he learned that the servant had not touched her (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer loc. cit.). The Rabbis comment that Rebekah was the first woman to be married to a man who had been circumcised at the age of eight days. She was both a virgin and (v. 16) also one “whom no man had known” anywhere else, unlike the daughters of the Gentiles, who preserve their virginity in their place of origin, but offer themselves elsewhere (Gen. Rabbah 60:5).
The midrash states that God does not cause the sun of one righteous person to set until He causes the sun of another righteous one to rise, as it is said (Eccl. 1:5): “The sun rises, and the sun sets.” Thus, before God caused the sun of Sarah to set, He caused the sun of Rebekah to shine (Gen. Rabbah 58:2). Rebekah’s birth (Gen. 22) is mentioned by the Torah before the death of Sarah (Gen. 23), because God prepared Sarah’s successor before He took her soul. In this exposition Sarah and Rebekah are compared to the sun that warms and spreads light throughout the world, since these women illuminated the world with their righteousness.
The Rabbis learned from (Gen. 24:67) “Isaac thus found comfort after his mother’s death” that Rebekah’s deeds resembled those of Sarah (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer loc. cit.). The midrash states that as long as Sarah lived, a cloud was visible over her tent, and when she died the cloud departed; when Rebekah came, the cloud returned. All the days of Sarah’s life the gates of the tent were wide open, but once she died, that opening ceased; when Rebekah came, that opening returned. All of Sarah’s days a blessing was in the dough, and the lamp burned in her tent from one Sabbath eve to the next, but they ceased upon her death; when Rebekah came, they returned. Isaac saw that Rebekah acted in the same manner as had his mother: she kneaded dough in purity and set aside her hallah in purity. Immediately (v. 67) “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah” (Gen. Rabbah 60:16). These midrashic expositions stress the close similarity between Sarah and Rebekah. The commandments that are mentioned—hallah and the kindling of the Sabbath light—are commandments reserved for women. Isaac sought in a wife the specific traits that would remind him of his mother and her righteousness. Even though he himself did not select Rebekah, she was the suitable wife for him, because her actions were like those of his mother.
Another tradition portrays the process that Isaac underwent as the change experienced by any person who marries. Isaac mourned three years for his mother, after which he married Rebekah and forgot his grieving for his mother. This teaches that until a person takes a wife, his love is directed to his parents; once he marries, his love is channeled to his wife. In this context, Gen. 2:24 prescribes: “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife.” Can a man leave his father and mother? Rather, his soul lovingly clings to his wife (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer,ed. Higger, chap. 31).
The Torah states (Gen. 25:21) that “Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren.” The midrash includes Rebekah among the seven barren women who were eventually blessed with offspring: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Manoah’s wife, Hannah and Zion, of whom Ps. 113:9 states: “He sets the childless woman among her household as a happy mother of children” (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana [ed. Mandelbaum], Roni, akarah 20:1).
The midrash asks why the Matriarchs were barren. This question is based on the assumption that infertility is a punishment, while these were righteous women, who were chosen by God to be the mothers of the nation; consequently, it is unclear how they could fulfill their destiny if they could not bear children. A number of answers are offered. One is that God desired to shorten the years of the Egyptian servitude (which were counted from the time of Isaac’s birth, and not from the Israelite’s actual stay in the land of Egypt; the longer the births of Isaac, Jacob and Joseph were postponed, the more years that passed without subjugation). Another response is that God wanted the Patriarchs to enjoy the beauty of the Matriarchs for a long time, and a pregnant woman is unattractive. A third answer is that God longed to hear the speech (i.e., prayer) of the Matriarchs, of which He said in Cant. 2:14: “For your voice is sweet and your face is comely” (Cant. Rabbah 2:14:8). The first explanation presents the Matriarchs as bearing the brunt of responsibility for the fate of the Jewish people. Their personal happiness is sacrificed for the good of the people as a whole, and they suffer years of barrenness in order to shorten the suffering of the people of Israel in the Egyptian bondage. The second understanding portrays the Matriarchs as meant to provide their husband’s pleasure and meet their needs. It reveals male thinking about pregnancy and demonstrates insensitivity to the woman’s condition both in the time of her infertility and during her pregnancy. The third is a religious explanation, which encourages people to find balm for their tribulations through prayer, since the Matriarchs prayed and were answered.
A different tradition sets Rebekah apart from the other Matriarchs and finds a special reason for her barrenness. Before she left her parents’ house, her mother and her brother blessed her (Gen. 24:60): “O sister! May you grow into thousands of myriads.” Rebekah’s infertility was intended to show the non-Jewish nations that their prayers go unanswered: the prayers by her family were of no avail, and she had children only after Isaac prayed for her (Cant. Rabbah loc. cit.). When God heard Isaac’s prayer, He shaped a womb for her, since she did not have one (Gen. Rabbah 63:5).
According to a Babylonian tradition, Isaac and Rebekah did not have children because Isaac was sterile. The Mishnah mandates that if a man marries a woman, and she has not given birth after ten years, he is to divorce her (so that he will he able to fulfill the commandment of procreation with another wife). The Rabbis are puzzled by this mishnah, since Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah (see Gen. 25:20), and when the twins were born, he was sixty (see Gen. 25:26). Consequently, Isaac and Rebekah lived together for twenty years without children, yet he did not divorce her. The answer to this question is that the infertility in this case was Isaac’s, and therefore there was no reason to divorce Rebekah (BT Yevamot 64a).
Another tradition claims that both Rebekah and Isaac were incapable of procreation. Gen. 25:21 says: “Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of [le-nokhah—opposite, corresponding to] his wife.” Instead of “for his wife,” he prayed “le-nokhah”—opposite, corresponding to his wife: he prayed for them both, because both were infertile (BT Yevamot loc. cit.).
Although, in the Biblical account, Isaac was the only one who prayed and asked the Lord to give them children, the midrash adds that Rebekah also entreated the Lord; Isaac would prostrate himself on one side, and Rebekah on the other. Isaac said to God: “Master of the Universe! all the children that You give me shall be from this righteous woman.” Rebekah similarly exclaimed: “Master of the Universe! all the children that You give me shall be from this righteous man.” Although both prayed, God responded to Isaac, as it is said: “va-ye’etar lo” (literally, He answered him), since the prayer of a righteous one the son of a righteous one [Isaac the son of Abraham] is not like that of a righteous one the son [i.e., child] of a wicked one [Rebekah the daughter of Bethuel] (BT Yevamot loc. cit.). In another exegetic expansion, after twenty childless years, Isaac took Rebekah to Mount Moriah, to the place of the Binding, and he prayed for her, that she become pregnant, and God answered him (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, ed. Higger, chap. 31).
The Rabbis assert that four barren women became pregnant on Rosh Hashanah: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah (Tanhuma, Vayera 17). Two women, according to the midrash, covered themselves with a veil and gave birth to twins: Rebekah and Tamar (see Tamar).
Rebekah’s pregnancy, as recorded in Gen. 25:22, was not easy: “But the children struggled in her womb.” The midrash relates that Rebekah would go about among women and ask them: Did you ever suffer like this in your lives? “And she said, ‘If so, why do I exist?’” (ibid.). “If so” is the distress caused by pregnancy, and “why do I exist”—if only I had not become pregnant (Gen. Rabbah 63:6).
The Rabbis ascribed to the fetuses in Rebekah’s womb the future competition and enmity between Esau and Jacob, and between their respective descendants. For the Rabbis, Esau represents the Roman empire, and they used the names “Esau” or “Edom” as code words when they wanted to criticize the authorities or to complain of the difficulties posed by foreign rule, so that these sentiments would be understood only by Jews. The Rabbis’ attitude to the pregnancy and birth of Esau was charged with their feelings toward the Roman authorities. The pregnancy expressed an inner struggle between the two, and also a spiritual gap, with each one pulling in a different direction (see (Gen. Rabbah 63:6).
The Rabbis noted that in the description of the birth of the twins, the word for “twins” in Gen. 25:24 appears in defective spelling: ????, while plene spelling is used in 38:27 in the portrayal of Tamar’s giving birth: ??????. The reason they give is that Tamar gave birth to Perez and Zerah, both of whom were righteous, while of Rebekah’s sons—Jacob and Esau—one was righteous and the other wicked (Gen. Rabbah 63:8).
The twins were already separate and different when they emerged from their mother’s womb. Jacob was born circumcised (Gen. Rabbah 63:7), while Esau was born redheaded, which, the Rabbis say, indicates that he would shed blood. They understood the name given him by his parents as an abbreviation: Eisav—ha shav, literally, “this is worthless”—he and his religion are worthless (Gen. Rabbah 63:8).
The Rabbis observe that Rebekah was worthy to bring forth the twelve tribes, which they learned from her saying (Gen. 25:22): “And she said, ‘If so, why do I [with the seemingly superfluous, and untranslated, word zeh—“this"] exist?’“ The numerical value of zeh is twelve, corresponding to the twelve tribes. Another tradition arrives at this count differently: “Two nations” are two; “two peoples” makes four; “one people than the other” makes six; “and the older shall serve the younger” makes eight; “there were twins in her womb” brings the count to ten; and (25:25, 26) “the first one emerged ... then his brother emerged” brings the total to twelve. Accordingly, she was deserving to have all twelve tribes come forth from her (Gen. Rabbah 63:6). Then why did they not emerge from her? Esau was responsible for this. When he left his mother’s womb, he destroyed it, so that she would not give birth again, and not bring forth the twelve tribes (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Zakhor 3:1).
In the midrashic retelling, God told Rebekah during her pregnancy what He would do. He told her: “I hate Esau, and I love Jacob.” He said to her: “You are like a field that has been sown and [brought forth produce] successfully. The stores are filled with grain, and the stables with straw.” He further told her: “All will be well with this stomach, for it will fill the Garden of Eden with the righteous, and Gehinnom with the wicked” (Tanhuma, Bereshit 31). This exposition presents Rebekah’s preference for Jacob as a consequence of the prophecy that she was given during her pregnancy. The partiality toward Jacob was God’s choice when they were still in their mother’s womb, and Rebekah merely implemented the divine plan.
When the children grew up, the differences between them became quite clear (see Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer loc. cit. and Gen. Rabbah 63:9). Gen. 25:28 states that, just as the paths taken by the youths diverged, so, too, their parents were divided in their love for their children: “Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game, but Rebekah favored Jacob.” The Rabbis had difficulty in accepting the fact that Isaac preferred Esau, and that only Rebekah was capable of recognizing Jacob as the chosen of the sons. The continuation of the narrative confirms Rebekah’s preference, and also that God, too, regarded Jacob as the chosen one, from whom the tribes of Israel would come. The Rabbis found various justifications for Isaac’s inclination towards Esau (see Gen. Rabbah 63:10, and Tanhuma, Toledot 8). These traditions present Isaac as someone who was deceived and who did not know Esau’s true nature. Rebekah’s act of deception was therefore intended to bring the truth to light. Thus God became a full partner in the theft of the blessings, since by causing Isaac to go blind He created the suitable conditions for the success of Rebekah’s plan.
The Torah attests that, in contrast with Isaac’s love for Esau, “but Rebekah favored [ohevet] Jacob” (Gen. 25:28). The midrash explains that Rebekah did not act as she did because she loved Jacob more than Esau. Rather, she said: “Esau will not come and mislead that old man to give his blessing only to him, and take the blessing from Jacob” (Gen. Rabbah 65:6). Another tradition argues that Rebekah did, in fact, love Jacob more. The verb ohevet used in this verse is the present imperfect, designating a continued state, for the more she heard his voice, the more she loved him (i.e., her love increased day after day) (Gen. Rabbah 63:10).
Rebekah won the Rabbis’ praise for being able to distinguish between her two sons. Jacob was (Gen. 25:27) “a mild man, who stayed in camp [ohalim, literally, tents].” The Rabbis learn from the plural ohalim that Jacob would sit in two tents: in the academy of Shem, and in the academy of Eber (Gen. Rabbah 63:10). The Rabbis apply to this Prov. 17:15: “To acquit the guilty and convict the innocent—both are an abomination to the Lord.” Isaac justified the guilty [Esau], and was punished with blindness, while Rebekah justified the innocent (Gen. Rabbah 65:6).
In Gen. 27:1 Esau is called “his older son Esau,” and 27:15 attests that Rebekah took “the clothes of her older [ha-gadol] son Esau […] and had her younger son Jacob put them on.” The word ha-gadol (elder, or greater) troubled the Rabbis, for whom Esau symbolized the Roman Empire. They bring a parable about a land that recorded the dimensions of those called to service in the king’s army . One woman had a son who was a dwarf, but she called him “Macro-elaphros [tall].” She asked: “My son is Macro-elaphros, but you do not register him for the army?” They told her: “In your eyes he is Macro-elaphros, but in our eyes, he is a dwarf.” Thus Esau’s father called him “great,” and his mother called him “great.” God said to them: “If he is great in your eyes, in My eyes he is small, as it is said [Ob. 1:1–2]: ‘Thus said my Lord God concerning Edom […] I will make you least among nations; you shall be most despised.’” This analogy shows parents’ lack of objectivity concerning their children. Just as the dwarf’s mother thinks he is of perfect dimensions, so, too, was Esau their gadol [i.e., great] son for Isaac and Rebekah. This analogy emphasizes that being the firstborn is insignificant for God, who knows what is in man’s mind and heart.
The Torah informs us (Gen. 27:15) that Esau had “best clothes” that were in Rebekah’s house, which she gave to Jacob, so that he could deceive Isaac and receive his blessing. The midrash adds that this garment had belonged to Nimrod, and whoever wore it became mighty. It was called “hamudot” because Esau saw it and secretly desired [hamad] it. He killed Nimrod and took the garment from him, and thereby he, too, became a mighty “hunter” (Gen. 10:9). Esau would wear this clothing when he served his father. The Rabbis ask: Esau had several wives, so why did he keep this clothing with his mother? They answer that Esau knew his wives’ doings [i.e., their idolatrous actions] and therefore preferred to have his mother keep his garments. After Jacob had received the blessings from his father, he said: “It is not proper for the wicked Esau to wear this tunic.” What did he do? He dug and buried it in the ground (Gen. Rabbah 65:16; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, ed. Higger, chap. 24).
That day was the eve of the holiday of Passover. Isaac summoned his elder son Esau and told him: “My son, this night the celestial beings recite hymns. This night the stores of dew are opened. Make tasty dishes for me, that I may bless you before I die,” while the spirit of divine inspiration proclaimed [against Esau] (Prov. 23:6): “Do not eat of a stingy man’s food, do not crave for his dainties.” He went to bring, but was delayed there. Rebekah told Jacob: “My son, this night the stores of dew are opened. This night the celestial beings recite hymns. Make tasty dishes for your father, that he may eat and bless you before he dies.” Jacob, who was well-versed in the Torah, in his heart feared his father’s curse. His mother reassured him: “If a blessing—it will be upon you and your offspring; and if a curse—it will be upon me and my soul.” He went and brought two kids. But would Isaac eat two kids? Rather, Jacob took one to offer the Paschal sacrifice, and the other to prepare a dish for his father. Jacob brought the dish to his father, and he said to Isaac [27:19]: “Pray sit up and eat.” Isaac said [v. 22]: “The voice is the voice of Jacob”—Jacob, who declared the unity of God; “the voice is the voice of Jacob”—Jacob, who recites the Torah. “Yet the hands are the hands of Esau” [ibid.]—for all bloodshed, and for every bad death. Isaac gave Jacob ten blessings, corresponding to the ten Utterances with which the world was created. When Jacob left his father Isaac, he was bedecked as a groom and a bride in her attire. Dew fell on him from Heaven, his bones were invigorated, and he became mighty and powerful (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, ed. Higger, chap. 31). This exegesis portrays the actualization of Isaac’s blessings to Jacob (v. 28): “May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth,” as soon as they were given.
When Isaac sends Esau to bring him game, the Rabbis say that Esau thought to himself: “If I find, it will be well, and if not, I will bring what was obtained from robberies and extortion.” Rebekah told Jacob: “Go forth and act for the nation.” “Go to the flock” (v. 9)—which is the people of Israel, of which it is said (Ezek. 34:31): “For you, My flock, flock that I tend.” “And fetch me two choice kids” (Gen. loc. cit.)—if you find two kids, it will be well; and if not, bring me from my ketubbah [marriage contract], for Isaac had written to Rebekah in her ketubbah that each day he would give her two kids. When Rebekah said “good,” she hinted that they would be good both for Jacob and for his offspring: good for Jacob, for by them he would take the blessings, and good for his offspring, for by these kids atonement would be made for them on Yom Kippur [when two goats are taken, one offered as a sacrifice and the other sent to Azazel—see Lev. 16:7–10; M Yoma 4:1–3] (Gen. Rabbah 65:13–14).
Rebekah said to Jacob (v. 13): “Your curse, my son, be upon me!” The Rabbis understand her as saying: Just as Adam sinned and his mother [the earth] was cursed on his account—“cursed be the ground because of you” [Gen. 3:17]—so, too, in your case, the curse will be upon me (Gen. Rabbah loc. cit.). This midrash indicates a mother’s tremendous influence upon her children’s behavior, with matching responsibility for the consequences of their actions. When a child sins, the mother is punished. Rebekah is conscious of this, and intends to lift from her son’s shoulders the responsibility for this act of deception.
Jacob heeded his mother, and (v. 14): “He got them and brought them to his mother.” The Rabbis learned from the sequence of verbs in the verse (literally, “he went, he got them, and brought them") that Jacob did all this under compulsion, downcast, and weeping (Gen. Rabbah loc. cit.). He followed his mother’s orders unwillingly, because he was obedient, while he himself wanted no part of this trickery.
Rebekah gave Jacob the dishes and accompanied him to the door. She told him: “Till now I was obligated to you [out of my love for you, and I did what I could to help you]. From now on your Creator will help you” (Gen. Rabbah 65:17).
Gen. 27:41 records that after Esau learned of Jacob’s theft of his blessing, he declared: “Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.” According to one midrashic view, Esau said: “Many foals died, and their hides were spread on their mothers’ backs” (Gen. Rabbah loc. cit.). Esau has no qualms about killing Jacob while their mother is still alive and what he says merely emphasizes his cruelty. Not only does the horse see her child’s death in her own lifetime; she must also bear its hide on her back when she is ridden. Esau apparently wants Rebekah to feel responsible for Jacob’s death, since she took an active part in the theft of her firstborn’s blessing.
The Torah relates (Gen. 27:41) that Esau secretly planned to kill his brother; the midrash asks how Rebekah learned of this. It is because the Matriarchs were prophets, and Rebekah knew of this through her prophetic powers (Gen. Rabbah 67:9). Rebekah called to Jacob and informed him (Gen. 27:42): “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you.” In the midrashic retelling, Rebekah said to him: “Your brother keens over you as a dead person, he receives consolation for you, and already is drinking the cup of consolation for you.” She sent Jacob to her brother Laban in Haran until Esau’s anger would be assuaged, telling him (v. 44): “Stay with him a while.” The midrash explains that she told him to remain there for seven years. He did not heed his mother’s advice to remain with Laban “until your brother’s fury subsides” (ibid.), and Esau’s ire did not abate.
When Rebekah prompted Jacob to flee to Haran, she told him (v. 45): “Let me not lose you both in one day!” The midrash comments that this was prophetic, for Jacob and Esau were buried on the same day (BT Sotah 13a; Gen. Rabbah [ed. Theodor-Albeck], Zav 21, 1223). The Torah states that in order to persuade Isaac to send Jacob to Paddan-aram (and thus save himself from Esau’s sword), Rebekah bound this up with Jacob’s marriage. She told Isaac (Gen. 27:46): “I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries a Hittite woman like these […] what good will life be to me?” The midrash relates that in order to persuade Isaac, Rebekah began to blow her nose and cast [the mucus] away [to say that they were as disgusting to her as the mucus that comes from one’s nose]. She said: “The Hittite women squabble with one another” (Gen. Rabbah 67:11). In the wake of what she said, Isaac summoned Jacob and warned him not to take a wife from the Canaanite women, not even from the daughters of Aner, Eshkol or Mamre. Jacob heeded his father and mother, and the exegetes apply to him Prov. 12:15: “But the wise man accepts advice” (Gen. Rabbah 67:12).
Isaac blessed Jacob before he sent him to Paddan-aram (Gen. 28:3–4). The midrash explains that since the blessings were as yet shaky in his hands [since he had received them deceitfully], Isaac blessed him once again, and they became firm in his hand [i.e., they were clearly shown to belong to him], so it would not be said that if Jacob had not deceived his father he would not have received the blessings (Gen. Rabbah loc. cit.). Another midrash adds that, in addition to Isaac’s blessing, his mother Rebekah blessed him, as well. She told Jacob (Ps. 91:1): “O you who dwell in the shelter of the Most High and abide in the protection of Shaddai,” (91:11): “For he will order His angels to guard you wherever you go.” The spirit of divine inspiration replied (91:15): “When he calls on Me, I will answer him” (Gen. Rabbah 75:8). Rebekah’s blessing to Jacob was taken from Ps. 91, which the Rabbis term the “song of evil occurrences” (JT Eruvin 10:11, 26c) and which lists evils and disasters from which the one who trusts in the Lord will be saved. This psalm is a sort of incantation at the end of which God responds, in direct speech, that He will protect His faithful. The midrash remarks that although Jacob had already received a blessing from God [Isaac’s first blessing], his parents blessed him once again, for Isaac saw with the spirit of divine inspiration that the Israelites would be exiled. Isaac said to Jacob: “Come and I will give you the blessing of exile, that God will return you from the exile,” and he blessed him [Job 5:19]: “He will deliver you from six troubles [; in seven no harm will reach you]” (Gen. Rabbah loc. cit.).
When Jacob fled to Haran, Rebekah assured him (Gen. 27:45): “Then I will fetch you from there.” Rebekah kept her promise, and sent to bring Jacob, but he did not want to leave Laban’s house. What did she do? She sent Deborah her nurse to fetch him (cited by Rashi on Gen. 35:8, in the name of R. Moses Darshan; see also Midrash Aggadah [ed. Buber], Gen. 35:8).
Rebekah’s death is not mentioned in the Torah, nor does it specify how may years she lived. The midrash lists six pairs that lived the same number of years: Rebekah and Kohath, Levi and Amram (137 years), Joseph and Joshua (110 years), Samuel and Solomon (52 years), Moses and Hillel (120 years), and R. Johanan ben Zakkai and R. Akiva (120 years) (Sifrei on Deuteronomy, 357). According to this tradition, Rebekah was as long-lived as Kohath (see Ex. 6:18), and therefore lived to the age of 133. It is noteworthy that Rebekah is the only woman included in this list, which consists of important figures—prophets, kings and leaders.
The Rabbis explain why Rebekah’s death is not mentioned by the Torah: when she died it was said: Who will go before her bier? Abraham is dead, Isaac’s eyes are dim and he sits in his house, and Jacob has fled from Esau. If the wicked Esau were to go before her, people would say: “Cursed be the breasts that nursed such a man as this.” What did they do? They brought her out at night. Since her bier did not go out in public, the Torah did not mention her death, and merely alluded to it in Gen. 35:8: “Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died” (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Zakhor, ed. Mandelbaum, 3:1).
Several midrashim explain how the death of Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, alludes to the death of Rebekah herself (see Gen. Rabbah 81:5, Eccl. Rabbah 7:2:3). The death of the nurse is immediately followed by (Gen. 35:9): “God appeared again to Jacob on his arrival from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him.” The midrash learns from this juxtaposition that God acted mercifully with Jacob and was revealed to him, to give him the mourner’s blessing for the death of his mother (Gen. Rabbah loc. cit.).
According to the midrash, Rebekah is buried in Kiriath-Arba, which is so named because of the four [arba] matriarchs buried there: Eve, Sarah, Rebekah and Leah (Gen. Rabbah 58:4). Another midrashic etymology states that four couples are buried there: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah (BT Eruvin 53a).
Lam. Rabbah speaks of the glory of pre-Destruction Jerusalem. R. Joshua entered the city and found a young girl standing and drawing water from a spring. He asked her: “Give me water to drink.” She told him: “I will give to you and to your ass.” After he drank and was about to go on his way, he said to her: “My daughter, you have done as did Rebekah!” She replied: “I have done as did Rebekah [for I gave both you and your ass to drink], but you did not act as did Eliezer [for you did not give me a gold nose-ring and arm bands].” At that time R. Joshua said: “I never was bested by anyone, except for one widow, one young girl and several children” (Lam. Rabbah 1:19; see ad loc. for the narratives about the widow and the children). The girl’s wisdom was expressed in her understanding the stranger’s blessing, but she surprised him by using against him additional details that appeared in that Biblical narrative, but that he had not mentioned. R. Joshua thought that the blessing he uttered was proper recompense for her kindness to him, but the girl “bested” him, also verbally, when she showed him that words are not enough, and even left him speechless. This is a narrative of the victory of the child over the adult, of the girl over the man, and of the novice over the sage. The girl’s wisdom in this episode represents Jerusalem’s glory in the years preceding its destruction.
This narrative indirectly teaches that Rebekah’s act of kindness at the well became a model for emulation by Jewish women, even many generations later.
How to cite this page
Kadari, Tamar. "Rebekah: Midrash and Aggadah." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 31, 2015) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/rebekah-midrash-and-aggadah>.