Birth Rights

  • Rav Alex Israel







This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Mr Paul Pollack
in honor of Rabbi Reuven and Sherry Greenberg



Birth Rights

by Rav Alex Israel



            Our parasha this week enters into the famous drama between Jacob and Esau; two brothers who fight with each other over the right to blessings and position.  We see twins who are clearly very different in their physical appearance, their personalities and their interests (25:25-27). There is strong tension between them, Esau being 'loved' by his father and Jacob preferred by his mother Rebecca (25:28).  The competition between them comes to a climax as we watch Jacob deviously masquerading as his twin brother in order to receive the special blessings from their blind and elderly father, Isaac (ch. 27).  What exactly are these brothers vying for?  What is the source of this intense rivalry?




            The first episode in which the birthright theme surfaces between the two brothers is the famous story of the pottage.


"Jacob was cooking a pottage, Esau came in from the open famished.  And Esau said to Jacob, 'Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished' - which is why he was named Edom.  Jacob said, 'First sell me your birthright.'  And Esau said 'I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?'  But Jacob said, 'Swear to me first.'  So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob.  Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate, he drank, he rose and went away.  Thus did Esau spurn the birthright" (Genesis 25:29-34).


            What is this birthright?  What are the implications of having a birthright?  And can a birthright be sold?  If a birthright is for the firstborn, then how can that position be transferred by a sale (paid for by a bowl of pottage, no less!)?  Either you are the firstborn or you aren't!


            Additional questions are raised by this incident.  Is Jacob not taking advantage of Esau?  Is he not "stealing" the birthright, gaining it by extortion?  And then we may ask about Esau's attitude to the birthright.  Did Esau "spurn" the birthright or was it taken from him under duress?  Did Esau desire to rid himself of his birthright?  If so, then why?  Is a birthright a burden rather than a benefit?




            The Hebrew word for the birthright - bekhora - appears in only one place outside the Jacob-Esau story.  It appears in connection with children's inheritance rights.  In Jewish law, the firstborn receives an inheritance double the size of his brothers.  This is standard practice as recorded in Deuteronomy 21:17:


"Allot to him a double portion of all he possesses; since he is the first fruit of his vigor, the birthright is his due."


            From this source, it would seem that Jacob is buying future inheritance rights from Esau.  This reading of the story fits well with our narrative.  Let us see this approach in the words of the Ibn Ezra:


"FIRST SELL ME YOUR BIRTHRIGHT: The birthright is receiving a double portion of the father's wealth.


And as for the logic of his statement: I AM AT THE POINT OF DEATH (lit. walking towards death): Every day, when hunting, he put his life in danger, there being animals who might kill him.  It was a clear possibility that he might die before his father."


            Esau tells Jacob that there is no point in his holding on to the birthright as he is "going to die."  Esau does not expect to see the money of his father's inheritance.  He expects to die in the course of his life's career as a hunter.  In that case, he might as well sell his future options now.


            It would seem that the pottage itself was not payment for these future rights.  According to the Rashbam (who agrees with the Ibn Ezra), Jacob paid for these rights with real money.  The withholding of the pottage was Jacob's way to force Esau to contemplate the fragility of his life.  Timing is of the essence.  He chose to confront Esau with the birthright issue at a moment when he knew that Esau was famished, possibly having been chased by a wild animal (bears and lions were common place in Israel before this century).  As Esau is considering the dangers of his profession and the thin line which separates life and death - its ephemeral nature - Jacob asks him to sell him his rights to his father's estate.  Esau considers his tenuous lifestyle and readily agrees to the deal.




            Later on in the story, Esau mentions how "Jacob tricked me twice: First he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!" (27:36). It seems that Esau regrets the sale!  Would this mean that Jacob had forced the birthright from Esau at a moment of weakness?


            The problem is heightened when we remember that we are told, here in verse 34, that "Esau spurned the birthright!" Does Esau resent the sale or is he happy to be rid of the birthright?


            The Rashbam comments:


"Exactly because, later on, Esau regrets selling his birthright: 'He took away my birthright' - the Torah tells us his inconsistency and stupidity (when it tells us that ESAU SPURNED THE BIRTHRIGHT).  Now, when he wants to eat he sells it and he regrets it later."


            The Shadal is more incisive:


"When his father became old (27:1) and Esau realized that he will die and he (Esau) might outlive him, at that point he regretted the sale and saw the entire incident as a trick."


Whether Esau is fickle or an opportunist, the commentaries do not take Esau's pain or regret over this incident particularly seriously.




            This approach is not the only way that this episode has been understood.  Many of the commentators were puzzled that Jacob should show such a strong interest in the material inheritance of his father.  After all, when Jacob prays to God on his way to Charan, he asks for only the basics: "bread to eat and a piece of clothing to wear" (28:20).  It would seem that Jacob shows little interest for material possessions.


            Rashi views the concept of a birthright not so much in terms of rights and benefits.  He understands the birthright as instilling religious duty.  The firstborn of each family would be the religious representative of that family, offering the family sacrifices and performing sacred ritual.  He explains the exchange of the birthright in the following way:


"SELL ME YOUR BIRTHRIGHT: Because religious worship was performed by the firstborn.  Jacob said to himself, 'this man of evil deed is not fit to bring offerings to the Lord.'

BEHOLD I AM ABOUT TO DIE: Said Esau, 'What is the content of this service?'  Jacob replied, 'There are numerous warnings, restrictions, penalties and even death which are connected to the correct Temple service of God' ... Esau said 'I will die as a result of it!  Why do I need it?'

AND ESAU SPURNED THE BIRTHRIGHT: The Torah testifies to his evil ways for he ridiculed the service of God."


            In this understanding, the birthright imposes not material nor any other remuneration for the firstborn.  The birthright implies obligation and responsibility - even danger - for the firstborn are meant to act as priests serving God as representative of their family.  Esau rejects the responsibility of the Divine Service.  He feels that its strict laws will result in his death. (Improper Temple service could result in death e.g., Lev. 10:1,2.)  It would also be apparent that Esau does not particularly value this form of activity as a life's career.


            This interpretation reflects a well-known biblical tradition that previous to the appointment of the Tribe of Levi as Priests and Levites, it was the firstborn who would act as Temple functionaries (see Numbers 8:15).  Jacob covets this sacred role whereas Esau finds it meaningless.  According to Rashi, by transmitting this story, the Torah stresses Esau's desire for freedom, especially from this sacred role, as opposed to Jacob's desire for duty.


            According to this reading, it would seem that there is no pressure, no extortion.  Jacob welcomes the opportunity to play a part in the Divine Service whereas Esau is keen to be rid of it.


            It is unclear why Esau regrets the sale later, but we may suggest that as he feels the increasing rivalry of Jacob, he resents any encroachment of Jacob on his "territory," no matter what.




            A third approach to our story regards the birthright as neither material inheritance nor priestly worship.  Rather, it sees this title as a leadership position within the family.  This line is taken by a number of commentators.  The Ramban states:


"It is possible that the dual portion of the firstborn was a law of the Torah but not existent previously.  Rather, the firstborn was to assume the father's position as head of the family, with the requisite honor of his younger brothers.  This is why he said to Isaac, 'I am Esau your firstborn,' to say that he was the firstborn, fitting to be blessed."


            According to this approach, the firstborn assumes the control of the family, with all that is included in that.  Perhaps another biblical support for this image is the plague of the death of the firstborn in Egypt.  The plague was the most severe in that the leader of each household was pinpointed.  It was as if God was attributing responsibility to the family leaders.


            The Abrabanel takes this approach further:


"The brothers were not concerned about their financial inheritance nor did Jacob pursue the firstborn for a position of honor ...  The entire effort here was to determine who would inherit the blessing of Abraham: that God would be with him and his descendants to give them the inheritance of the Land ... this was the 'wealth and riches' that Isaac inherited from Abraham.  This is also the 'money and wealth' that would be passed on to his children.  Not the material wealth of herds and other benefits.

...  Jacob presumed that this Godly inheritance could not be shared by the two brothers.  They had such different personalities.  They were opposites both in their attitudes and in their occupations.  Jacob was a God-fearing man desiring God's command and fitting to inherit the Divine destiny.  Whereas Esau was a man who acted badly; he had no place for God in his heart ... thus it was essential that only one of them should sit on the throne of Abraham and Isaac.

...  Jacob had grave worries.  Would Esau - being the firstborn - become Isaac's heir?  ...  Or would he - Jacob - inherit the Abrahamic destiny due to his righteousness and purity?  Because it was an impossibility to have both of them inherit as a team, one of them being pure and the other impure ...  Thus Jacob began to think of plans whereby he could acquire the birthright from Esau."


            Jacob is not interested in monetary wealth.  He wants to know who will be the heir to the legacy of Abraham.  This is a tradition described by God when he spoke about Abraham - "For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his family line to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and upright" (18:19) - of religion and ethical standard.  Jacob wants to be the heir to this tradition.  He wants to be the father of the nation which will inherit the Land of Canaan.  He feels that he can do this better than Esau who seems to show little family commitment.




            The Shadal takes this approach a step further.  He tries to explain why this incident is set in the family kitchen, Jacob acting as cook.  He notes the way that Esau marches in to get his soup and "ate, drank, stood up and left."  He makes an enlightening comment:


"Jacob was constantly concerning himself with the needs of the family home.  Esau would eat daily at home but spent his days hunting - not enough to fill the family needs but he would occasionally provide a tasty joint of meat - but the traditional family trade was sheep farming and Esau gave no assistance in this area."


            He describes Jacob's feelings of resentment to his brother who took from the family but wished not to contribute.




            The Shadal notes also that although Jacob buys the birthright form Esau, we never see him use it.  In fact, as we see later in his speech, "I am Esau your firstborn" (27:19), it is clear that Isaac still sees Esau as firstborn years later and Jacob knows that.  Jacob never acts as firstborn and never mentions this incident to his father.  So what power does the sale have?  What was it about?


The Shadal suggests that:


"Jacob did not intend to achieve any advantage in the family will nor did he wish to gain any blessing of great import.  Rather, Jacob wished that after his father's death, that Esau should let him manage the family estate and to lead the household.  Jacob deliberately requested this particular request so that Esau could not throw him out of the house or exile him from the land, thereby preventing Jacob from becoming the fulfillment of the "blessing of Abraham:" the promise of the Land to the descendants of Abraham."


            So our third approach sees Jacob worried about one thing.  Jacob knows that there is a promise which has been made to Abraham.  He is to father a nation which is to transmit certain messages to the world.  The vehicle for this is the Nation of Israel in the Land of Israel.  Jacob wants to ensure that this spiritual destiny is left in safe hands.




            After all this talk about firstborn sons and birthright, we might be left with the impression that Judaism finds particular power in the firstborn.  To my mind this is far from true.  A casual look at Sefer Bereishit would give a clear anti-firstborn impression.


            Cane is the firstborn, but Abel is preferred.  Yishmael is Abraham's firstborn but Isaac becomes Abraham's heir and the leader of the family.  In the next generation, Jacob inherits the legacy of Isaac rather than Esau.


            Jacob's firstborn, Reuven is pictured consistently in a negative light as opposed to Yehuda and Joseph, the natural leaders of the brothers.  Even with Joseph's children, Jacob gives preference to Ephraim over Menashe, the firstborn (48:14).


            Moses is not the oldest nor is King David.


            It would seem that the Torah is telling us something through this persistent theme.  This parasha comes not to emphasize the role of the firstborn and the status of the birthright but rather to lower its importance.  The Torah tells us that it is good deeds and a God-fearing heart which will achieve success and honor.  Birth confers no automatic rights for man. It is the actions of man which will lead him to the greatest heights.


Shabbat Shalom.