Food for Thought by Rabbi Shaya First


Can a steak dinner really be so important? In the midst of Parashat Toledot, Yitzchak makes an ostensibly strange request of Eisav before blessing him.  Yitzchak Avinu first asks him to go out to the field, and hunt for some game. Then “Va’Asei Li Mat’amim Ka’Asher Ahavti VeHavi’ah Li VeOcheilah Ba’Avur Tevarechecha Nafshi BeTerem Amut,” “And [use that game] to make for me cooked delicacies in the style that I love, and bring them to me for me to eat, in order that my soul should bless you before I die.” (Bereishit 27:4) Why does Yitzchak find it so critical to make a request for expensive meat in this context?  To compound the question, Radak (ibid.) comments that Yitzchak, who most commentators (save for Ibn Ezra) assume was affluent, asked for wild meat, because he felt that he would enjoy it more (and not because he could not afford his own meat). Why was it so critical that this meal be so tasty? Is this request for such a specific and luxurious type of steak connected to the historic Berachot that Yitzchak was soon going to deliver?

A close look at the Mefarshim on our Parashah reveal a number of distinct answers to this burning question. Most authorities explain Yitzchak desired to ensure that the Berachot were transferred to his son in the most ideal manner possible. One approach, advanced by the sixteenth century Turkish commentator Rav Moshe Alshich, argues that Yitzchak attempted to ensure Eisav was deserving of the blessing, by providing him with the opportunity of performing the paramount Mitzvah of honoring his parents. By hunting and preparing the precise dish that Yitzchak was craving, Eisav’s benefit from the Berachah would be guaranteed. The Alshich notes that since the blessing Yitzchak wanted to bestow upon Eisav was on focused on material benefit aplenty, Eisav’s implementation of food from the physical world for a Mitzvah, was very fitting.

Malbim (ad loc.; see also HaEtav VeHaKabalah there), however, takes a different approach. He argues that the purpose of the lavish dinner was to establish a firm connection between Eisav and Yitzchak during the Berachah. Malbim writes that a Berachah is optimized when the person giving the blessing and the recipient feel very connected. Since Eisav went out of his way to prepare a meal for Yitzchak that he greatly enjoyed, Yitzchak felt a deep level of connection and appreciation for Eisav that would otherwise have been unachievable. This broke down any remaining metaphysical separation between them, and maximized the effectiveness of the Berachah from Yitzchak to Eisav.

Rabbeinu Bachya, similar to the Malbim, emphasizes how the strength of a blessing could be enhanced through a meal, yet differs in his focus of specifically how such a meal would improve a blessing. He maintains that the Berachot transferred in our Parashah were in essence a subcategory of prophecy, as they pertained to the future of Eisav’s descendants. In general, there are guidelines for the requisite mental state for someone to receive a prophecy. There is a principle that Ein HaShechina Shoreh Elah MiToch Simcha, that for the Divine presence to rest upon a person, they must be in a state of happiness. The paradigm of this concept can be found in Sefer Melachim, where the prophet Elisha, before prophesying, asked to a musician to play pleasant music for him so that he would be in a positive state of mind. By indulging in a delicious meal before blessing Eisav, Yitzchak ensured that he was in the ideal mental state for a Divine prophetic blessing, a true state of Simchah.

According to each of these approaches, Yitzchak’s motive in asking for this delicious meal was not just to fill his stomach, but for a much more noble and spiritual purpose. Regardless of whether it was to give Eisav a chance to perform Kibbud Av Ve’Eim and be worthy of blessing, to form a strong bond with Eisav, or to enable Yitzchak Avinu to be in a joyful and focused state of mind to form a powerful connection with the Divine, this certainly was not a standard dinner. Rather, it was a meal eaten for a purpose.

Finally, the Chizkuni presents a unique understanding of the urgency of Yitzchak’s Berachah. He notes that Yitzchak’s dinner provides a fascinating contrast with Eisav’s meal of lentils that he ate in exchange for his firstborn rights. That meal was eaten out in a barbarian and gluttonous manner (some Midrashim record that Eisav literally asked Yaakov to pour lentils down his throat), solely to fill Eisav’s stomach, and at the great spiritual cost of the Bechorah.  Chizkuni writes that Yitzchak’s true motive in asking Eisav to hunt and prepare a meal was to provide him with an opportunity to rectify the manner in which he had consumed his meal at the outset of the Parashah. Yitzchak saw this as a prerequisite for bestowing the Berachot upon his son.

The contrast between the role food plays in Yitzchak’s and Eisav’s minds is reminiscent of a comment of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. As recorded in his posthumous work Festival of Freedom that one of the Torah’s main goals for humankind is elevating our natural human instincts and desires, including eating. Rav Soloveitchik writes there that channeling the physical instincts and human limitations towards the service of God is a primary goal of the Torah. That is why Judaism puts a great emphasis on utilizing our eating for the purposes of the divine. In the words of the Rav himself, “I will tell you frankly that it is easy to go into a synagogue and pray for an hour with sincerity and dedication. But it is difficult to discipline one’s body. Nonetheless, Judaism is interested in taking physiological functions stemming from natural, spontaneous and primitive drives in man and converting them into a service of the Almighty, into Avodah. ‘In all your ways, know Him. (Prov. 3:6)’ Find him not only when you are in synagogue on Yom Kippur for Ne’ilah; find him when you are in your office, your dining room, your bedroom, in public and in private life.” Elevating our eating, with regards to both manner and purpose, is one of the responsibilities of a Jew. Yitzchak Avinu knew this, but Eisav still had to internalize this idea.

What Makes You, You? by Menachem Kravetz (‘20)  

Burial of Sarah Imeinu: Test of Teshuvah? by Ezra Seplowitz (‘20)