Marat Kila’s Notes on Esau in a Supercommentary on Rashi
When Rebecca gives birth to Jacob and Esau, who are destined to become two different nations, there is no obvious negative judgment of Esau. Esau and Jacob grow up to be opposites in later life, but in ways that each attract the favor of a different parent, and their preferences are complementary: Esau prefers the outdoors and Jacob the indoors (Gen 25:27–28). Over several shared and thematically linked chapters of Genesis (25–27 and 32–33), Jacob and Esau continue to act as narrative foils for one another, with Esau marrying a cousin from their father’s side and Jacob two cousins from their mother’s side. But Jacob also deceives Esau repeatedly.
First, Jacob withholds food from a starving Esau until the latter agrees to sell his birthright to Jacob, a story that seems to condemn Jacob’s unfamilial and inhospitable behavior at least as much as it condemns Esau’s willingness to abandon his birthright in the face of death (25:29–34). Later, Jacob agrees to his mother’s plan to disguise himself and lie to their blind father to steal the blessing that Isaac intended for Esau, and Esau responds with shock and tears, followed by rage (27:1–41).
Rebecca separates her sons by sending Jacob to her family in Haran (27:42–45); by the time the two brothers reunite, decades later, Esau has forgiven Jacob:
בראשׁית לג:ד וַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוָּארָו וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ.
Gen 33:4 Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.
Esau politely refuses Jacob’s gifts until Jacob urges him to accept them, and Esau invites Jacob to join him in Seir. Esau then vanishes from what is presented as Jacob’s story, appearing only briefly to join Jacob in burying their father. Although Jacob is the focus of the Esau-and-Jacob narratives, the text conveys at least some sympathy for Esau.
Symbolism of Jacob and Esau
Esau and Jacob also represent the future nations of Edom and Israel, which had an even more complicated relationship than their eponymous brothers. Edom existed as a weak nation just southeast of Judah for most of the First Temple period, often coming under Israelite rule.
Edom achieved more lasting independence after the northern Israelite kingdom was destroyed in 722 B.C.E. by the Assyrians, and after the southern Judahite kingdom ended in 586 B.C.E., the Edomites expanded into Judah’s territory, coming into conflict with Judeans who were returning from Babylon. Later biblical texts blame Edom for its perceived role in the destruction of the First Temple:
תהלים קלז:ז זְכֹר יְ־הוָה לִבְנֵי אֱדוֹם אֵת יוֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָם הָאֹמְרִים עָרוּ עָרוּ עַד הַיְסוֹד בָּהּ.
Ps 137:7 Remember, O YHWH, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall; how they cried, “Strip her, strip her to her very foundations!”
איכה ד:כא שִׂישִׂי וְשִׂמְחִי בַּת אֱדוֹם יוֹשֶׁבֶתי בְּאֶרֶץ עוּץ גַּם עָלַיִךְ תַּעֲבָר כּוֹס תִּשְׁכְּרִי וְתִתְעָרִי.
Lam 4:21 Rejoice and exult, Fair Edom, who dwell in the land of Uz! To you, too, the cup shall pass, you shall get drunk and expose your nakedness.
The entire book of Obadiah predicts Edom’s future extinction. In the late book of Malachi, God proclaims:
מלאכי א:ב ...וָאֹהַב אֶת יַעֲקֹב. א:ג וְאֶת עֵשָׂו שָׂנֵאתִי וָאָשִׂים אֶת הָרָיו שְׁמָמָה וְאֶת נַחֲלָתוֹ לְתַנּוֹת מִדְבָּר.
Mal 1:2 “I have loved Jacob, 1:3 but I have hated Esau; I have made his hill country a desolation and his heritage a desert for jackals.”
Esau as Rome/Christianity
By the end of the Second Temple period, Esau-Edom had become a kind of synecdoche for Israel’s oppressors. The post-70 C.E. apocalypse of 4 Ezra describes Esau as the symbol of the present world and Jacob as the symbol of the world to come. Other early Christian writers seized on a similar idea when they claimed the mantle of Jacob for Christianity and put non-Christian Judaism in the role of the despised and now disinherited Esau.
Meanwhile, rabbinic tradition began to equate Rome, the present state oppressing the Jews, with Esau-Edom. This trend probably began during and after the unsuccessful Bar Kokhba rebellion in 132–135 C.E.: ironically, the name Bar Kokhba, “son of the star,” alluded to Balaam’s oracle in which Edom is conquered and Israel triumphs:
במדבר כד:יז אֶרְאֶנּוּ וְלֹא עַתָּה אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ וְלֹא קָרוֹב דָּרַךְ כּוֹכָב מִיַּעֲקֹב וְקָם שֵׁבֶט מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל וּמָחַץ פַּאֲתֵי מוֹאָב וְקַרְקַר כָּל בְּנֵי שֵׁת. כד:יח וְהָיָה אֱדוֹם יְרֵשָׁה וְהָיָה יְרֵשָׁה שֵׂעִיר אֹיְבָיו וְיִשְׂרָאֵל עֹשֶׂה חָיִל.
Num 24:17 What I see for them is not yet, what I behold will not be soon: A star rises from Jacob, a scepter comes forth from Israel; it smashes the brow of Moab, the foundation of all children of Seth. 24:18 Edom becomes a possession, yea, Seir a possession of its enemies; but Israel is triumphant.
Genesis Rabbah (5th c. C.E.) connects Esau to Rome—specifically, to the Roman troops who slaughtered Jewish rebels at Beitar:
בראשית רבה סה רבי יהודה בר אלעי היה דורש הקול קולו של יעקב מצוחת ממה שעשו לו הידים ידי עשו. אמר רבי יוחנן קולו של אדרינוס קיסר שהרג בביתר שמונים אלף רבוא בני אדם.
Gen Rab 65:21 Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai would expound: “‘The voice is the voice of Jacob’ (Gen 27:22) crying out because of what ‘the hands are the hands of Esau’ did to him.” Rabbi Yoḥanan said: The voice [of Jacob, due to] the emperor Hadrian who killed eight hundred million people in Beitar.
Thus, not surprisingly, rabbinic texts had very little good to say about the biblical figure of Esau, whom they had come to identify with the Roman Empire and eventually with Christianity. Esau, they concluded, had worshipped idols, plotted rape and murder, and personified evil, so that Jacob was justified in anything he did to supplant him. While debating whether Esau greeted Jacob sincerely at their reunion or just pretended (Gen 33:4), Sifrei Bemidbar (3rd century C.E.) explains:
ספרי במדבר סט רשב"י אומר הלכה בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב אלא נהפך רחמיו באותה שעה ונשקו בכל לבו.
Sifrei Bemidbar 69:2 R. Shimon b. Yochai says: It is a settled fact that Esau hates Jacob, but his mercy gained the ascendancy at that time and he kissed him with all his heart.
Medieval Jewish Dislike of Esau
Some medieval Jewish commentators went even further in demonizing Esau, with the most emphatic condemnation coming from Jews who lived among Christians. A grave-marker for two Jews killed by Christians in thirteenth-century Würzberg simply read קמו עליהם בני עשו והרגום , “Esau’s descendants rose against them and killed them.”
Rashi in particular seems to have consistently either selected the most negative option available among his midrashic sources on Esau, invented additional anti-Esau readings for himself, or both—and Rashi was tremendously influential on later commentators, especially in Christian countries. Given this tradition, it is quite an anomaly to find a medieval Ashkenazi Jewish commentator with something positive to say about Esau.
It is even more of an anomaly to find a medieval Ashkenazi Jewish commentator on Rashi with something positive to say about Esau. But there is one notable example, appearing in a Rashi supercommentary [a commentary on a commentary] from the circle of the Maharil (Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin, 1365–1427) in Worms.
While this supercommentary preserves comments attributed to a number of famous fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Ashkenazi rabbis, it also preserves comments attributed to individuals who appear in no other context—including, quite anomalously, a woman named Marat [“Mistress”] Kila. Four comments are attributed to her, all falling within the book of Genesis, two of which are quite innovative, and seem to run counter to Rashi’s emphasis in how they interpret the story of Jacob and Esau.
Esau Feels Bad for His Mother
Rebecca, complaining about Esau’s Hittite wives and concerned that Jacob will marry one as well, tells Isaac: קַצְתִּי בְחַיַּי, “I am weary of my life” (27:46). Isaac then sends Jacob to Paddan-Aram to find a wife. Shortly thereafter, Esau sees that his father is displeased with his Canaanite wives and he also takes a new wife, this time from the Ishmaelites (28:8–9).
While the Torah only attributes Esau’s action to Isaac’s displeasure, Kila suggests that he is also responding to Rebecca’s complaint:
ומרת קילא ז”ל תירצא על ידי שאמרה רבקה קצתי בחיי ובשביל שהלך עשו אל ישמעאל, ויצא יעקב.
And Marat Kila, may she be remembered for good, expounded concerning what Rebecca said, “I am fed up with my life”: And [it was] on account of [this statement of Rebecca’s] that “Esau went to Ishmael” (Gen 28:9), and “Jacob left” (Gen 28:10).
In Kila’s reading, Rebecca’s complaint is the cause of not only Jacob’s departure to find a non-Hittite wife, but also Esau’s decision, in the preceding verse, to marry one of Ishmael’s daughters. Kila’s comment expands the plain sense of the biblical narrative, which states that Esau remarried because he realized that his Hittite wives displeased Isaac (Gen 28:8). Its novelty lies in the way it equates Jacob and Esau through their separate quests to find and marry women their mother might approve of: Both of them are good sons, responding to their mother’s distress.
Esau Never Did Anything Wrong to Jacob
Upon their reunion, Jacob asks Esau to accept Jacob’s gift, comparing seeing Esau’s face to seeing the face of God:
בראשׁית לג:י וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אַל נָא אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ וְלָקַחְתָּ מִנְחָתִי מִיָּדִי כִּי עַל כֵּן רָאִיתִי פָנֶיךָ כִּרְאֹת פְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים וַתִּרְצֵנִי.
Gen 33:10 But Jacob said, “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably.”
In a comment on the final Hebrew word, Rashi explains that the Hebrew stem ר.צ.ה/י implies the need to appease or propitiate someone or something, as in French appaisement. He then adduces a prooftext:
ויקרא כב:כ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ מוּם לֹא תַקְרִיבוּ כִּי לֹא לְרָצוֹן יִהְיֶה לָכֶם.
Lev 22:20 You shall not offer any that has a defect, for it will not be accepted in your favor.
Kila once again uses Rashi to rewrite the biblical narrative:
ומרת קילא ז”ל תירצא דדעת רש”י שלא לטעות [ולפרש] ותרצני כמו פייסתני שהוא משמע שעשו פייס את יעקב והוה משמע שעשו חטא כנגד יעקב שרצה לפייסו...
And Mistress Kila, may she be remembered for good, expounded on Rashi’s intention that one not err [and interpret] “you have received me favorably” as if it were “you reconciled with me,” as if he meant that Esau reconciled with Jacob and that Esau transgressed against Jacob such that he wanted to appease him…
משום דלא מצינו בשום מקום שעשה עשו שום דבר ליעקב לכך הביא רש”י [ראיה מהקרבנות] כמו הקרבנות באים לפייס ולרצות לא שהקבו”ה פייסם אלא שהקבו”ה נתפייס להם. אף כאן מתפייס עשו ליעקב שהיה עשו כועס עליו ו[י]לון פי’ רש”י נתפייסת לי ולא פייסתני.
But since we do not find in any place that Esau did anything to Jacob, therefore Rashi brought [a proof from the sacrifices]: just as the sacrifices come in order to reconcile and appease, not that the Holy One of Blessing reconciles with them, but rather the Holy One of Blessing is reconciled to them – similarly here Esau was reconciled to Jacob after Esau was angry at him, and the commentary of Rashi specifies “you are reconciled with me” and not “you reconciled with me.”
This is a careful reading of not just Genesis but of Rashi. Since Rashi’s prooftext uses the stem ר.צ.ה/י to describe how God might respond to a suitable sacrifice, Kila points out that Rashi’s choice of prooftext means that the one being propitiated is, like God, fundamentally blameless, because the “reconciliation” of the sacrifice is not mutual: God accepts (or does not accept) a sacrifice from errant Israelites.
Similarly, she concludes, Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation is not mutual. This is because Esau is fundamentally blameless; his anger at his brother, like God’s anger at the Israelites, is in fact justified, and this is clearly why Jacob tried to appease Esau with gifts and compared his face to God’s.
From any Jewish perspective, Kila’s line of argument here would be mildly transgressive, since it compares the human Esau to the divine God of Israel, even if Jacob was the one who first made this comparison. But from the perspective of a long interpretive tradition in which Esau is made progressively more evil, Kila’s textual intervention is shocking in its positive portrayal of Esau.
Thinking Differently about the Past
Kila’s era was not a high point of Jewish-Christian relations—the Jewish communities of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century western Ashkenaz (later Germany) were undergoing periods of persecution, pogrom, and expulsion. However, Kila’s comments lack any obvious nods to the now-traditional Jewish equation of Esau with Edom, Rome, and Christianity. Although her sympathetic reading of Esau would represent an interesting response to Christian theological efforts to equate the Jews with Esau, she might equally well have been commenting from an exegetical perspective in which the text of Genesis had nothing to do with Christianity.
In fact, we know nothing about Kila beyond her comments on Rashi, so we cannot speculate about her motivations; moreover, her later impact was nonexistent. Perhaps she was simply an independent thinker and an attentive reader. Indeed, the preservation of her comments suggests that they must have been quite memorable to the supercommentary’s original compiler!
A number of highly educated women, often from rabbinic families, appear in the textual archive of late medieval Ashkenaz—and specifically in the teshuvot (responsa) and the Sefer Minhagim emerging from the Maharil’s circle in Mainz)—so it is certainly plausible that they also read Rashi, but Kila is unique in having her commentarial voice preserved. The preservation of a woman’s positive comments on Esau in this manuscript speaks to the vibrancy and unexpected breadth of late medieval Ashkenazi interpretation.
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Dr. Rabbi Wendy Love Anderson is the rabbi of Temple Israel of Albany. She received her M.A. in Jewish Studies from the Academy for Jewish Religion, where she also received rabbinic ordination, and her Ph.D in History of Christianity from the University of Chicago. She is the author of The Discernment of Spirits: Assessing Visions and Visionaries in the Late Middle Ages.
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