A New Perspective on Yaakov’s Purchase of the Birthright by Rabbi Chaim Jachter



Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook (Orot HaKodesh 3:11) writes that it is forbidden for one to develop his Yirat Shamayim (fear of Heaven) at the expense one’s natural sense of morality.  Rav Kook insists that one must strive to integrate Yirat Shamayim and his natural sense of morality.  One may extrapolate from Rav Kook that the Torah fundamentally never conflicts with natural morality, an idea that Rav Walter Wurzberger develops at length in his work Ethics of Responsibility.  Indeed, Rav Wurzburger develops the idea that one’s natural morality should serve as a hermeneutical tool to interpret the Torah.  For instance, Halachic decisors strive to resolve problems of Mamzeirut and Igun in light of this principle.  For example, Rav Avraham Shapira writes, “It is the accepted practice amongst our rabbinical sages to expend extraordinary effort to find a Halachic solution to relieve someone from the status of Mamzer” (Techumin 9:27). 

Commentaries to the Chumash vigorously apply this principle to the narrative sections of the Torah.  They will often interpret texts in a manner that satisfies our natural sense of morality.  An example is the manner in which commentaries of all generations seek to harmonize the story of Yaakov’s purchase of the birthright from Esav with our sense of natural morality (for a summary of many of these approaches see Rav Yehuda Nachshoni’s Hegut BiParshiot HaShavua 1:96-100).  The reader of the story recoils from what appears at first glance to be Yaakov’s exploiting Esav’s hunger and impulsivity in order to secure the birthright.  Yet none if any of the classical commentaries assert that Yaakov sinned by engaging in this activity.  Let us examine two major and representative approaches to this issue and subsequently suggest a somewhat novel approach to resolve this problem.

Rashi’s Approach

Rashi (Bereshit 25:31, based on Bereshit Rabbah 63:13) interprets that Yaakov was seeking the Bechorah to attain the privilege of serving God (presumably in the Tabernacle and Temple service), as the service of God is performed by the first-born.  According to Rashi, Esav did not deserve the privilege of this honor, as Esav was wicked.  Indeed, Rashi seizes every opportunity to highlight the wicked character of Esav.  It appears that Rashi concedes that Yaakov’s actions were immoral per se.  The actions are justified, though, because the Torah sanctions acting immorally with immoral individuals (see Samuel II 22:26-27, Psalms 18:26-27, Daat Mikra commentary to Bereshit 2:297, and Rav Elchanan Samet, Iyunim Biparshat Hashavua pp.178-191). 

A potential weakness, though, in Rashi’s approach lies in its seeming anachronistic approach to this story.  A Pshat (straightforward reading of the Biblical text) approach might have difficulty with Rashi’s assertion that Yaakov was seeking to secure the right to serve God in the Tabernacle or Temple.  A Pshat approach would have difficulty sustaining Rashi’s introduction of a concept from the books of Exodus and Numbers to the book of Bereshit.  In fact, in the book of Bereshit we find that Hevel as well as Kayin offered sacrifices even though Hevel was not a first-born (although Kayin offered first presumably because of his first-born status, see Rav Elchanan Samet, Iyunim Biparshat Hashavua 1:11).  Perhaps it is for this reason that the Rashbam and Ibn Ezra do not interpret the right of the first-born in this context as the right to serve in the offering of sacrifices. 

Rashbam’s Approach

The Rashbam presents a more Pshat oriented approach to this problem.  He asserts (as does Ibn Ezra) that Yaakov merely sought to purchase from Esav the first-born’s customary double share in Yitzchak’s future estate.  Daat Mikra, Bereshit 2:231 notes that it was customary in the Near East during the time of book of Bereshit for the first-born to receive a double share in the father’s estate.  Rashbam asserts that Yaakov paid full value for this purchase of the right of primogeniture.  The Rashbam insists (as does the Seforno) that the soup was merely a technical means to seal the deal similar to the Kinyan Suddar (formal act of transaction) that is described in the book of Ruth (4:7).  According to this approach, Yaakov did not exploit Esav’s hunger to attain the right of the first-born for a mere bowl of soup.  Rather, he paid full price for this monetary purchase.  Rashbam thus resolves moral conflict surrounding this story by diminishing the significance of Yaakov’s purchase and “increasing” the amount Yaakov paid.

One might, however, raise two problems with this approach.  First, Esav certainly perceives in hindsight that he was manipulated into selling the right of the first-born, as Esav later expresses to Yitzchak (Bereshit 27:36).  Second, is that if Yaakov merely purchased the right to the double share of the first born it is difficult to understand why the Torah presents this story.  Why must the Torah inform us of details surrounding the division of Yitzchak’s estate?

A New Approach

Both Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (commentary to Bereshit 25:34) and Daat Mikra Bereshit 2:235) assert that Yaakov’s purchase of the birthright from Esav was an invalid sale.  Rav Hirsch notes that Bereshit Rabbah (63:14) records Bar Kappara referring to this transaction as “Mischakim,” games.  Daat Mikra notes that in the ancient Near East such a sale would not be valid unless the father consented.  Accordingly, why did Yaakov engage in this false and seemingly meaningless sale and why does the Torah dignify this story by recording it for posterity?  One might answer that Yaakov was engaging in a character test to objectively determine whether Esav was worthy of his first-born rights and obligations (Rav Mordechai Breuer, Pirkei Bereshit pp.494-496, presents a similar idea but takes it in a different direction than we do).  Someone who would relinquish his birthright in exchange for soup, even if he were ravenously hungry, is not a worthy successor to the legacy of Avraham.  Indeed, the Jewish People have survived through the millennia only because of the willingness and readiness of Jews to preserve the Torah even in the most severe circumstances. 

Moreover, Esav’s impulsivity and lack of emotional self-control also constitute sufficient reason for him to lose the birthright.  Indeed, it is for this reason that Reuven is later to lose his rights as the first-born (see Bereshit 49:4 and Divrei Hayamim 1:5:1).  Indeed, Yehuda demonstrates that his leadership skills are superior to Reuven by their respective responses to a crisis artificially created by Yosef.  Reuven seeks to convince his father to immediately permit Binyamin to travel to Egypt by offering to kill two of his children if he does not return with Binyamin to Canaan.  Yehuda, on the other hand, does not immediately seek to convince Yaakov to permit Binyamin to travel to Egypt.  Rather, he patiently waits until the food supply has run out and Yaakov is left with no other viable choice other than to permit Binyamin to travel.  Reuven’s impulsive and irrational solution to the problem as opposed to Yehuda’s patient and effective resolution of the problem, prove Yehuda to be the true leader and Reuven lacking the temperament to lead.  In the case of the “sale” of the birthright Esav exhibits impulsivity and lack of emotional self-control, as he expresses, “I am about to die, why do I need the birthright?” (Bereshit 25:32), thereby demonstrating his inadequacy as a leader (the Seforno 25:31 articulates a similar approach).

The right of the first-born that Esav is ready to relinquish in exchange for a bowl of soup seems to refer to the privilege to serve as the leader of a family that will preserve and cultivate the legacy of Avraham and Sarah (as indicated by the Ramban and Chizkuni).  We recall that character tests to determine if one is worthy of membership in good standing of Avraham’s immediate family abound in the book of Bereshit.  Avraham servant’s character test of Rebecca (as explained by commentaries collected and expanded upon by Nechama Leibowitz, Iyunim Bisefer Bereshit 157-161) and Yosef’s testing his brothers (as explained by Abravanel to Bereshit 42) to see if they would acquiesce to Binyamin’s enslavement are two examples of such character tests.  The three angels’ visit to the tent of Avraham and Sarah disguised as travelers may be construed as a test to determine the worthiness of Avraham and Sarah to merit having a child at a very advanced age (see Yonatan Grossman, Megadim 29:24).  Rashi (Bereshit 22:1) in one explanation suggests that the episode of the binding of Yitzchak was designed to test and demonstrate Yitzchak’s worthiness to serve as the successor to Avraham (as opposed to Yishmael). 

The reason why Yaakov felt a need to engage in such a character test was the imbalance in Yitzchak’s family.  The Torah (Bereshit 25:28) notes, in what might constitute an introduction to our story, that Yitzchak loves Esav because of the meat from the hunt that the latter serves the former.  Yaakov may have wished for Yitzchak to be told of this incident and subsequently realize that Esav is unworthy the right of the first-born.

Indeed, Esav reveals this incident to Yitzchak in the immediate aftermath of Yaakov’s dressing as Esav to receive the blessing from his father.  A major question posed by the commentaries such as Ibn Ezra (Bereshit 27:40) is why Yitzchak did not revoke the blessing he mistakenly conferred upon Yaakov based on deception.  An answer might be that when Yitzchak discovered that Esav sold the right of the first-born under pressure, Yitzchak realized that Esav was unworthy to continue the legacy of Avraham and Sarah and thereupon suggested to Esav that he abandon the land of Israel in favor of life in Seir east of the Jordan River (see Daat Mikra commentary to Bereshit 27:40). 

Another reason for Yaakov to subject Esav to this character test is to determine the propriety of engaging in extraordinary means to secure the right of the first-born.  Rav Elchanan Samet (Iyunim Biparshat Hashavua 1:71) wonders what constituted the moral license for Yaakov to engage in deception to secure the right of the first-born.  According to our interpretation, Yaakov engaged in this character test in order to verify his assumption that Esav was unworthy of the right of the first-born.  The result of Yaakov’s experiment was that Yitzchak was blinded to Esav’s spiritual inadequacies to be the leader of or even a member of the future house of Avraham.  Thus drastic action was justified in order to correct Yitzchak’s misperception that threatened the future of the legacy of Avraham and Sarah.

Moreover, Rav Samet (Iyunim B’Parshot HaShavua p. 63 notes Yaakov’s determination and steadfastness when he presents himself to Yitzchak as Esav.  Yaakov does not break under the pressure of Yitzchak’s repeated questioning and investigating his identity.  This reflects Yaakov’s full confidence that he acting entirely appropriately.  What gave Yaakov such confidence?  One might answer that since Yaakov had empirical evidence that Esav was unworthy of the birthright, he had no doubt that he was correct to take the birthright from Esav. 

Finally, the last words of this incident “and Esav denigrated the birthright” (Bereshit 25:34) may support our interpretation.  Unlike Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni who interpret that after he ate the soup Esav denigrated the worth of the birthright, Rashi interprets that this is the voice of the Torah noting that Esav has denigrated the birthright.  This might be interpreted as the Torah’s summary of this incident, that Esav thereby denigrated the birthright.  Note that the text does not summarize the incident by stating that Esav has sold the birthright, for indeed, he has not!  Rather, in this character test, Esav has denigrated the birthright and has proven himself unworthy of its privileges and obligations.  We should note that our novel approach to this issue might be implied by Rashi’s comments to this story, if we understand Rashi in a non-literal manner.

Although Yaakov’s actions were both correct and necessary, he had to pay a price for engaging in such drastic activities (as Rav Elchanan Samet develops at length in Iyunim BiParshat HaShavua pp.68-71 in the context of Yaakov posing as Esav).  Just as he subjected Esav to a character test, so too Yaakov suffered from the character test that was necessary for Yosef to impose upon his brothers.  In certain circumstances it is necessary to choose between the lesser evil of two bad choices.  The choice to subject Esav to a character test was a less offensive choice than to permit Yitzchak to elevate Esav to a position of leadership or even membership in the house of Avraham.  Nevertheless, a price had to be paid for engaging in an activity that per se is offensive, but necessary due to the circumstances involved, as demonstrated at length by Rav Samet in the context of Yaakov dressing as Esav. 


Accordingly, Yaakov did not exploit Esav in this incident.  Rather, he laid the groundwork to preserve the future of the legacy of Avraham and facilitated the creation of the Jewish People.  Extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary actions.   

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