We rely on the support of readers like you. Please consider supporting TheTorah.com.


Don’t miss the latest essays from TheTorah.com.


Don’t miss the latest essays from TheTorah.com.

script type="text/javascript"> // Javascript URL redirection window.location.replace(""); script>

Study the Torah with Academic Scholarship

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use

SBL e-journal

Shana Strauch-Schick

Moshe Lavee





A Monogamous Isaac Prays for His Barren Wife





APA e-journal

Shana Strauch-Schick


Moshe Lavee




A Monogamous Isaac Prays for His Barren Wife








Edit article


Cairo Genizah and the Study of Midrash

A Monogamous Isaac Prays for His Barren Wife

Midrash Chad Shenati, discovered in the Cairo Genizah, criticizes Abraham for not praying for Sarah and praises Isaac for praying for Rebekah.


A Monogamous Isaac Prays for His Barren Wife

Watercolour entitled ‘Isaac and Rebekah’. The couple are depicting facing each other with hands clasped. Rebekah has her eyes closed and Isaac is speaking to her. Artist: Simeon Solomon, 1863. © Victoria & Albert Museum.

‍The Patriarchs’ Reactions to Their Wives’ Barrenness

Genesis 25 describes the infertility suffered by Rebekah (and Isaac),[1] Isaac’s subsequent prayer and God’s affirmative response. While Isaac’s turn to prayer seems entirely appropriate in the biblical worldview, he is wholly unique among the patriarchs. His father, Abraham complains to God about his childlessness, yet marries his wife’s maidservant and procreates with her. Jacob is seemingly satisfied with his offspring from Leah and is depicted as indifferent to Rachel’s infertility, never praying on her behalf.

While the biblical text never cites Isaac as exceptional for praying for his wife’s fertility, one midrashic text discovered at the Cairo Geniza almost a century ago, and named by scholars Midrash Chad Shenati, contains a passage in praise of Isaac for this very point.

Midrash Chad Shenati - The Annual Cycle Midrash

Midrash Chad Shenati is an early medieval midrashic collection most likely of eastern provenance, dating from the late tenth/early eleventh century.[2] It contains homilies on the beginning of the weekly Torah readings (lections). Despite its fragmentary form, typical of Genizah material, a significant portion of the work has survived including homilies on the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus.

Midrash Chad Shenati follows the classical homiletic structure typical to midrashic compilations from Eretz Yisrael.[3] At the same time, while Eretz Yisrael midrashim follow the so-called triennial cycle of Pentateuchal readings (a homily for each Sidra), [4] Midrash Chad Shenati, uniquely follows the annual Babylonian cycle of weekly lections, which is what lead Jacob Mann to term it Midrash Chad Shenati (“The Annual Cycle Midrash”).[5]

Parshat Toledot

The section devoted to Parashat Toledot discusses the first four verses of the parasha, Gen 25:19–22.[6] Following an introductory proem that contains various elements found in other midrashic traditions,[7] it presents a series of midrashim which are distinct in that they either center on the matriarch Rebekah or highlight her relationship with Isaac.

Criticizing Abraham in Comparison with Isaac

‍The third teaching on Toledot preserved in this collection cites a midrash that finds no direct parallel. It not only praises Isaac for praying on behalf of Rebekah, but also critiques Abraham for his behavior regarding his barren wife.[8] (Below is the third teaching, for the entire midrash on Rebekah in Toledot, see appendix.)

    • [] means missing letters. The letters in the brackets are reconstructions based on parallels.
    • Smaller letters are written this way in the MS.
    • ?? notes a partially readable letter.
ויעתר יצחק ליהוה לנכח [ ] בוא וראה דרכו [ש]לי[צחק] ?לא? כדרכו של אברהם אברהם נעקרה אש’ כמה שנים ו?ל?א ב[קש] [רח]מים עליה אבל אבינו יצחק כיון שראה את הדדבר [ ] התחיל ובקש רחמים עליה
Isaac entreated the lord on behalf of [his wife].” (Gen 25:21) Come and see:[9] the conduct [of] Isa[ac] is not like the conduct of Abraham. Abraham’s wife was barren[10] for many years and he did not ple[ad for mer]cy on her behalf. But when our forefather Isaac saw the matter, [ ] he began to plead for mercy on her behalf.[11]

Unlike Abraham who neglected to pray for his barren wife, “when our forefather Isaac (אבינו יצחק) saw the matter, he began to plead for mercy on her behalf.” No other known tradition compares Abraham unfavorably with Isaac and criticizes the former for not praying. On the contrary, Abraham’s response to Sara’s infertility is viewed as a paradigm in rabbinic law (Gen. Rab.Lech Lecha” 45, Theodor-Albeck). [12]

מקץ עשר שנים לשבת אברם וגו’ ר’ אמי בשם ריש לקיש מניין תנינן נשא אשה ושהה עימה עשר שנים ולא ילדה אינו רשיי ליבטל מן הכא מקץ עשר שנים…
After Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan. R. Ammi said in the name of Resh Lakish: “What is the source of what we learned: ‘If a man married a woman and spent ten years with her and she did not bear a child, he may not stay sterile?’ From this verse: After Abram had dwelt ten years.”[13]

The Tanhuma-Yelamdeinu Antecedents

The derasha preserved only in Midrash Chad Shenati is either an innovation by the author of the work or evidence of a lost tradition. Nevertheless, it finds some precedent in Tanhuma-Yelamdeinu related traditions.[14]

Critizing Jacob while Praising Isaac and Abraham

TanhumaVayezei” 19 (Buber)[15] reports the following criticism of Jacob for his callousness towards his barren wife:

אמרה לו כך היה יצחק אביך עשה לרבקה אמך, לא היו שניהם עומדים ומתפללים זה כנגד זה, שנאמר ויעתר יצחק לה’ לנוכח אשתו (שם /בראשית/ כה כא), אף אתה תתפלל עלי אל ה’, ואברהם זקנך לא כך עשה לשרה,
[Rachel] said to [Jacob]: “Thus did Isaac your father do for Rebekah your mother; did the two of them not stand and pray opposite one another, as it is written, ‘Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife,’ (Gen 25:21)[16], so should you pray for me to God. And did Abraham your grandfather not do [the same] for Sarah?”

This Tanhuma text depicts Abraham as praying on behalf of Sarah, a suggestion that has no biblical support but is rather a (dubious) inference of the homilist. In fact, in the biblical text, Abraham does the exact opposite. When God informs Abraham that Sarah too will bear a child, he petitions God on behalf of Ishmael (Gen 17:18), implying that the miraculous intervention was unnecessary! Putting aside the unique portrayal of Abraham praying for Sarah, this Tanhuma text is similar to the derasha in Midrash Chad Shenati insofar as it criticizes a patriarch—in this case Jacob not Abraham—who unlike Isaac, did not pray for his barren wife.

Sarah Criticizing Abraham

‍A lost Yelamdeinu text reconstructed from Midrash Hadash (JTS), 5029, however, contains an appraisal of Abraham’s action that is remarkably similar to Midrash Chad Shenati’s description. In particular, it reports Sarah criticizing Abraham for not praying for her:

ר’ יהודה אומ’ איפשר שאותה הצדקת אומרת לאברהם חמסי עליך, אלא אמרה לו אני חייבתיך להתפלל על הגר, ואף אני הייתי עמך מתפללת, אתה לא היה לך להתפלל עלי,
R. Judah said: “Is it possible that the righteous woman (=Sarah) said to Abraham ‘the wrong done to me is your fault’? Rather she said to him, ‘I obligated you to pray for Hagar and I even prayed with you; should you not have prayed for me [as well]?
(כ)שאמר לך הקב”ה לזרעך אתן את כל הארצות האל (ברא’ כו:ג) היה לך לומ’ לפניו שרה אשתי מה חטאת,
When the Holy One blessed be He said to you “I will assign all these lands to you and to your offspring,” (Gen 26:3) you should have said before Him- “[as for] Sarah, my wife, what was her sin?
כשאמרת לי לך לך (יב:א) הלא כאחד יצאנו, היה לך עוד לומר רבונו שלעולם אף מצות שאני עושה הנה היא משתבחת עמי. (ועוד) אמרה לו ולא אמרת הן לנו לא נתת זרע אלא הן לי לא נתת (טו:ג) על עצמך בקשת ולי שכחתני[17]
When You said to me ‘go forth’ (12:1), we departed [together] as one.” You should have further said; “Master of the universe, even the commandments I perform, she does with me.”’ She (further) said to him: ‘You did not say “You have granted us no offspring,” rather “You have granted me no offspring.” (15:3) You asked [only] for yourself, and forgot me.’”

This derasha presents a harsh critique of Abraham by Sarah while also pointing to what is disregarded in the biblical narrative; many of Abraham’s trials and achievements were shared equally by Sarah. As such, Sarah reproaches Abraham for praying only on behalf of himself and for failing to recognize her equal share in his service of God. In both of these respects, it presents a true counterpart to Midrash Chad Shenati’s depiction of Abraham as well as Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah.

Comparing Midrash Chad Shenati with Tanhuma-Yelamdenu

Elsewhere, Midrash Chad Shenati draws from Tanhuma-Yelamdenu traditions and has been identified as belonging to the genre.[18] Yet despite some similarities between Midrash Chad Shenati and Tanhuma-Yelamdenu here, their differences should be emphasized as well.

The two Tanhuma traditions cited above (i.e., Rachel criticizing Jacob and Sarah criticizing Abraham) place the critique in the mouths of matriarchs, presenting it as their subjective, and thus suspect, judgment. In Midrash Chad Shenati, in contrast, it is stated by the text’s narrator, which gives it objectivity, authority, and certitude. Midrash Chad Shenati also goes further by stressing the point that Isaac diverged from the practice of his father and praises him for it.

Midrash Chad Shenati’s Focus on Rebekah

The praise Isaac receives from diverging from the practice of his father with regard to his wife, while novel, correlates with the distinct tone of the section, which as a whole evinces greater interest in its female subject compared to parallel texts. Indeed, the bulk of the derashot in this section center on Rebekah and portray her most favorably. (See appendix for the full midrash.)

Rebekah’s Prayers

Rebekah is described as righteous and praying effectively. This is based on an interpretation of the phrase “Isaac prayed לנכח אשתו,” which in the text likely means “on account of his wife” but the rabbis translate as “in the presence of his wife,” i.e., while she was also praying. In Midrash Chad Shenati, her prayer is cited before Isaac’s whereas all parallel versions of this midrash present Isaac’s prayer first.[19] After recording Isaac’s prayer, Midrash Chad Shenati returns to focus to Rebekah, including an additional prayer, which is accepted.[20] Thus, Rebekah’s prayers both envelope that of Isaac’s and are directly responsible for her pregnancy.

Rebekah’s Contractions

One tradition in Midrash Chad Shenati seems to be devoted to describing the contractions experienced by Rebekah (glossing Genesis 25:22):

ויתרצצו הבנים בקרבה – הין יורדין ועולין במעיה מגלי הים.
“The children struggled within her” – They were descending and ascending in her womb [like] the swells of the ocean.

Its longer parallel, from which this is excerpted, is preserved only in the fourteenth-century midrashic collection Midrash HaGadol, and centers on Jacob and Esau and their prenatal (and eternal) struggle.[21] By omitting any reference to Jacob and Esau and describing only the movements of the unnamed foetuses in Rebekah’s womb, it depicts not the twin brothers’ experiences, but Rebekah’s.[22]

The Monogamous Trend in Israel: The Context of the Homily

The unique portrayal of Isaac presented in Midrash Chad Shenati, as the only one of the patriarchs to pray on behalf of his wife, may be related to the fact that he is the only patriarch to forego polygamy. Indeed, Midrash Chad Shenati’s criticism of Abraham may also include tacit disapproval of Abraham’s other response to his wife’s barrenness, which Isaac disregarded; engaging in polygamy by marrying Hagar.

In light of the passage’s focus on Rebekah described above, this is not surprising. What is more, it correlates with the Eastern milieu of Midrash Chad Shenati.[23] Scholars such as Isaiah Gafni have noted the rarity of polygamy in Eretz Yisrael,[24] or at least “monogamous trends” evidenced in its literature.[25] Midrash Chad Shenati may therefore bear witness to a community that was exposed to Babylonian trends (evidenced by its following the annual Torah reading cycle) yet faithful to cultural perceptions from Eretz Yisrael.

A Sensitive Reader of Text

Midrash Chad Shenati on Parashat Toledot goes in an unusual direction in collecting and in some instances reframing midrashic traditions which center on a female biblical protagonist. Perhaps this tendency lead the homilist to stress and praise Isaac’s exceptional behavior with regard to his wife.[26] Nevertheless, in this case, the biblical text itself may hold the key to understanding Midrash Chad Shenati’s approach.

First, Isaac is exceptional among the patriarchs for foregoing polygamy, even when faced with a barren wife. Only he relies on prayer to solve his problem. Second, the biblical narratives present Rebekah in an especially active role, both in the story of her difficult pregnancy, in which she goes to consult with YHWH on her own, and in the story of the blessing of Jacob and Esau, in which she defies and manipulates her husband. Thus, even though the focus on Rebekah and the praise of Isaac at the expense of Abraham may have served the homilist’s rhetorical needs well, his reading of the story of Isaac’s prayer shows itself to have been sensitive to textual nuance, and very much in line with the spirit, if not the letter, of the biblical account.


The Full Midrash Chad Shenati on Parshat Toledot

ואלה תלדות יצחק ב’ א’ ש] אש]?ריהן? ש?ל? [ ] שמיתיחסים על שם אבתם. אף על פי שישמעאל נתיחס בתולדתיו [לא נתיחס] ?א?לא על שם אמו שנ’ ואלה תולדות יש[מעאל בן] א’ אש’ ילדה הגר [המצרית] אבל יצחק לא נתיחס אלא על שם אביו אשר ילדה שרה אי?ן? [כתיב כאן] [ א]לא אברהם הוליד את יצחק
These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham” (Gen 25:19): [The righteous are prai]sed[27] in that they are pedigreed through their fathers.
Even though Ishmael is pedigreed in his genealogy, [it is] only through his mother, as it is written “these are the generations of Ish[mael son of] Abraham whom Hagar bore [ ] (Gen 25:12) But Isaac is only pedigreed through his father. It does not [write] “whom Sarah bore”, [ra]ther “Abraham begat Isaac.”[28]
וי?ה?י יצחק בן ?מ?[ ] ש?נ?. [ ] הכתוב את רבקה בת בתואל הצדקת מיחסה באב ובאח ללמדך [ ]הם רמאיין היו ונתגדלה רבקה בינותם ולא למדה ממע[שיהם] ?ה?רעים
Isaac was 40 years old [when he took to wife Rebekah the daughter of Bethuel].” (Gen 25:20) [Why does][29] Scripture mention “Rebekah the daughter of Bethuel?”
The righteous woman is pedigreed through her father and brother, to teach you [that even though] they were deceivers[30] and Rebekah was raised among them, she did not learn from their wicked de[eds]. [31]
ויעתר יצחק ליהוה לנכח [ ] בוא וראה דרכו [ש]לי[צחק]
?לא? כדרכו של אברהם אברהם נעקרה אש’ כמה שנים ו?ל?א ב[קש]
[רח]מים עליה אבל אבינו יצחק כיון שראה את הדדבר [ ]
[ ]התחיל ובקש רחמים עליה
Isaac entreated the lord on behalf of[his wife].” (Gen 25:21) Come and see:[32] the conduct [of] Isa[ac] is not like the conduct of Abraham.
Abraham’s wife was barren for many years and he did not ple[ad for mer]cy on her behalf.
But when our forefather Isaac saw the matter, [ ] he began to plead for mercy on her behalf
לנו?כ?ח אש?תו? ראוי לומר [ויעתר
יצחק] בעד אשתו ?מ?ל?מ?ד ששבהן היו מתפללין זה כנ?ג?[זו] [היא ]אמרת רב!י!נו של עול’ אם רצונך לתת לו [ ] הצדיק כ?ז?התוה[וא היה] אומר. רבינו של ע?ו?[ ] לי ולד. אל ?ת?[תן לי ולד] אילא מן הצדקת ה[זו]
On behalf of (lit. across from) his wife.” It should have written [“Isaac entreated] for his wife”? This teaches that the two[33] of them prayed opposite one [another. [34]] [She] said;[35] “Master of the universe, if it be your will to grant him [me[36] a child give me only from] this righteous one.[37] H[e] said: “Master of the universe[38][if it be your will to grant] me a child, [give me] [39] only from t[his] righteous woman [ ] .[40]
[ אמרה ר]?ב?קה לפני ה’ק’ב’ה’ו’ כלום בראת באדם דבר [ ] ב[ראת ]עינים לראות אזנים לשמוע פה לדבר לב להבין ידים למשש רגלים להלך דדים הללו למה הל!ו! להניק מלמד שעלת?ה? [תפלת] שנים לפני מקום ונתן לה היריון
Rebekah [said ] before the holy One blessed be He: ‘You did not create anything in a person [for naught[41]]: Y[ou created] eyes to see; ears to hear; a mouth to speak; a heart to understand; hands to feel; legs to walk. What is the purpose of these breasts? To suckle!’
This teaches that both of their [prayers] ascend[ed] before God, and He granted her pregnancy. [42]
ויעתר לו יהוה בתפל[תו]
ותהר רבקה אשתו בתפלתה
And the Lord[43] responded to his plea” (Gen 25:21). Through [his] prayer; “and his wife Rebekah conceived:” through her prayer. [44]
ויתרצצו הבנים בקרבה הין יורדין ועולין במעיה מגלי הים כי?ון
שהיתה מצטער[ת] ביות?ר?
ותלך ל?דר?ש את יהוה להיכן הל?כ?ה. ל[בי]?ת? מדרשו[ ]
The children struggled inside her” (Gen 25:22). They were descending and ascending in her womb (like) the swells of the ocean. [45] Since she was especially paine[d], “she went to inquire of the Lord.” (Gen 25:22). Where did she go? To the study house of [ ].[46]


December 1, 2016


Last Updated

June 3, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Shana Strauch-Schick is a post-doctoral fellow at The Center for Inter-disciplinary Research of the Cairo Genizah at Haifa University. She received a Ph.D. in Talmudic Literature from Revel at Yeshiva University where she also completed an M.A. in Bible. Her publications include, “The Middle Persian Context of the Bavli’s Beruriah Narratives,” Zion 79.3 [Hebrew]. 

Dr. Moshe Lavee is a lecturer in Talmud and Midrash and chair of the Inter-disciplinary Centre for Genizah Research in The University of Haifa. His research expertise is in Aggadic Midrash, especially in the communities of the Genizah. Moshe runs programs for young leadership and educators (“Mashavah Techila” and “Ruach Carmel”), working to foster relationships between the academic world and the larger community.