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Barry Dov Walfish





The Denigration of Esau





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Barry Dov Walfish





The Denigration of Esau








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The Denigration of Esau

Why does Esau in Jewish tradition come to be known as עשו הרשע “Esau the Wicked”? The answer has to do with the history of Judea’s relationship with Esau’s eponymous descendants, the Edomites, and the connection Jews made between them, Rome, and Christianity. The negative view of Esau is expressed nowhere more forcefully than in Rashi’s commentary.


The Denigration of Esau

Esau and Jacob, Andrey Mironov, 2014. Wikimedia

Rabbinic literature uses the epithet הרשע (ha-rashaʿ) for a select few bad actors, among them:

  • Pharaoh (b. Sotah 12a), enslaver of the Israelites, murderer of their baby boys;
  • Balaam (m. Abot 5:19), who wished Israel evil, and managed to seduce them into idolatry;
  • Nebuchadnezzar (b. Berakhot 57b), destroyer of the First Temple;
  • Haman (b. Megillah 10b), who hatched a plot to destroy the Jews and convinced King Ahasuerus to enable it;
  • Titus (b. Gittin 56b), destroyer of the Second Temple;
  • Tineus Rufus/Turnusrufus (b. Taanit 29a), consular legate of Judea at the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt, responsible for quelling the uprising.[1]

Yet another character who receives this epithet, Jacob’s brother Esau (b. Megillah 6a), stands out, since in the Bible he is not described as a bad person. In fact, he is generally painted as the wronged party in the rivalry between the two.[2]

Esau in His Younger Years

After an undetermined period of barrenness, Rebekah conceives (Gen 25:21), but she has a difficult pregnancy, for וַיִּתְרֹצֲצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ “the children struggled together within her” (25:22). Rebekah goes to consult YHWH, who tells her that she will give birth to twins and that they will each produce a nation, that one will be mightier than the other, and that one will serve the other (25:23).[3] She does indeed give birth to twins:

בראשית כה:כה וַיֵּצֵא הָרִאשׁוֹן אַדְמוֹנִי כֻּלּוֹ כְּאַדֶּרֶת שֵׂעָר וַיִּקְרְאוּ שְׁמוֹ עֵשָׂו.
Gen 25:25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau.

Nothing is said about the appearance of his brother, only that he was hanging on to Esau’s heel (ʿqb) when he emerged (25:26), which explains his name (Yaʿaqob).[4]

The narrative skips over the brothers’ childhood and tells us how they turned out:

בראשית כה:כז וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד אִישׁ שָׂדֶה וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים. כה:כח וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת עֵשָׂו כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת יַעֲקֹב.
Gen 25:27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a simple man, living in tents. 25:28 Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game (lit., “game was in his mouth”); but Rebekah loved Jacob.

In other words, Esau is an outdoorsman, while Jacob is a mild-mannered homebody. One day, as Jacob is at home cooking a lentil stew, Esau comes in from a hunting expedition, exhausted. Esau asks Jacob to give him a portion of the red (ʾadom) stew to sate his hunger (25:29). The text adds parenthetically that this is the basis for his other name, Edom (25:30). Instead of responding directly to his brother’s request, Jacob asks him to sell him his birthright (v.31), to which Esau responds:

בראשית כה:לב …הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת וְלָמָּה זֶּה לִי בְּכֹרָה.
Gen 25:32 …I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?

Jacob makes him take an oath and then sell him the birthright, after which:

בראשית כה:לד וְיַעֲקֹב נָתַן לְעֵשָׂו לֶחֶם וּנְזִיד עֲדָשִׁים וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת הַבְּכֹרָה.
Gen 25:34 Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way, and Esau spurned the birthright.

The picture of Esau that emerges from this narrative is of someone who is a bit of a brute, unrefined, uncouth, a hunter who lives by his skill and cunning but has little regard for the finer things in life and certainly does not think very far ahead. But he is no villain.

Esau Later in Life

Later stories about the brothers do little to change this picture. In ch. 27, an elderly, blind Isaac wishes to bless his favorite son Esau, but Rebekah coaxes her favorite son Jacob into pretending to be Esau, and the ruse succeeds: Jacob receives the coveted blessing. As he was in the birthright story, Esau is again outmaneuvered by his brother, and he knows it:

בראשית כז:לו וַיֹּאמֶר הֲכִי קָרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב וַיַּעְקְבֵנִי זֶה פַעֲמַיִם אֶת בְּכֹרָתִי לָקָח וְהִנֵּה עַתָּה לָקַח בִּרְכָתִי וַיֹּאמַר הֲלֹא אָצַלְתָּ לִּי בְּרָכָה.
Gen 27:36 He said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob (yaʿaqob)? For he has tripped me up (yaʿaqbēnî) these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?”

In reaction to his loss of the blessing, Esau bursts into tears and sobs, arousing his father’s and the reader’s sympathy. Moreover, while it is true that Esau declares that after his father’s death, he will kill Jacob in retribution for this act of deception, and that when Jacob returns, Esau comes to greet him with an army of 400 men, in the end, he appears to be reconciled to him:

בראשית לג:ד וַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוָּארָו וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ.
Gen 33:4 But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.[5]

While ostensibly inspired to look kindly on Jacob because of the many presents Jacob sent him, Esau clarifies that he has no need for presents and is happy with his lot:

בראשית לג:ט וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו יֶשׁ לִי רָב אָחִי יְהִי לְךָ אֲשֶׁר לָךְ.
Gen 33:9 But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.”

Esau is even described as joining Jacob in the burial of their father after his passing (Gen 35:29). All in all, this hardly seems like the portrait of a wicked villain. So why does rabbinic tradition treat him this way? The reason is connected to history and typology.

Conflict with the Edomites in the Second Temple Period

Esau is identified in the Torah with Edom, a nation bordering on Judah to the southeast. During the First Temple period, Edom was sometimes a vassal of Israel or Judah, and sometimes independent, but was always the weaker party.[6] After the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., however, the Edomites took the opportunity to move into the Negev and southern Judean hill country as far north as Hebron,[7] and remained entrenched there, even through the time that Judeans began to return from Babylon to resettle the land, beginning in 538 B.C.E. In keeping with this change of fortunes, we begin to see very negative evaluations of Edom during the Second Temple period.

For example, Psalm 137, which describes itself as a dirge set in the Babylonian exile, accuses the Edomites of relishing Judah’s destruction:

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 said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”

The prophet Obadiah left only twenty-one verses of prophecy, all directed to Esau/Edom, dripping with hatred and enmity:

עובדיה א:יח וְהָיָה בֵית יַעֲקֹב אֵשׁ וּבֵית יוֹסֵף לֶהָבָה וּבֵית עֵשָׂו לְקַשׁ וְדָלְקוּ בָהֶם וַאֲכָלוּם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה שָׂרִיד לְבֵית עֵשָׂו כִּי יְ־הוָה דִּבֵּר.
Obad 1:18 The house of Jacob shall be a fire, the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau stubble; they shall burn them and consume them, and there shall be no survivor of the house of Esau; for YHWH has spoken.

The prophet Malachi, writing in the early Second Temple period, is equally forthright in his enmity and antagonism towards Esau:

מלאכי א:ב אָהַבְתִּי אֶתְכֶם אָמַר יְ־הוָה וַאֲמַרְתֶּם בַּמָּה אֲהַבְתָּנוּ הֲלוֹא אָח עֵשָׂו לְיַעֲקֹב נְאֻם יְ־הוָה וָאֹהַב אֶת יַעֲקֹב. א:ג וְאֶת עֵשָׂו שָׂנֵאתִי וָאָשִׂים אֶת הָרָיו שְׁמָמָה וְאֶת נַחֲלָתוֹ לְתַנּוֹת מִדְבָּר. א:ד כִּי תֹאמַר אֱדוֹם רֻשַּׁשְׁנוּ וְנָשׁוּב וְנִבְנֶה חֳרָבוֹת כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת הֵמָּה יִבְנוּ וַאֲנִי אֶהֱרוֹס וְקָרְאוּ לָהֶם גְּבוּל רִשְׁעָה וְהָעָם אֲשֶׁר זָעַם יְ־הוָה עַד עוֹלָם.
Mal 1:2 I have loved you, says YHWH. But you say, “How have you loved us?” Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? says YHWH. Yet 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. 1:4 If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” YHWH of hosts says: “They may build, but I will tear down, until they are called the wicked country, the people with whom YHWH is angry forever.”

These negative prophecies reflect the shift in the historical relationship between Edom and Israel/Judah that took place as a result of the destruction of the First Temple. Another shift, which takes place in the Roman period, is better understood as typological.

Rome and Edom: A Typological Shift

In the Roman period, Edom and Esau come to represent Rome. While many factors led to this identification, one major factor was the position of Herod, who was appointed by Rome as the king of Judea, and who was from a family of Edomite/Idumean converts to Judaism.[8] He and his descendants were hated by many Judeans, and their acting as Roman proxies helped solidify the Edom = Rome equation.

The rabbis were heirs to the disdain for Herod, and the midrash and Talmud take the equation of Edom and Rome for granted. Living in the time after the destruction of the temple and the quashing of the Bar-Kokhba uprising, Rome, in the guise of Edom, was despised.

According to Gerson Cohen in his classic article on the topic,[9] the earliest reflection of this attitude is the statement attributed to R. Aqiva in Genesis Rabbah (65:21), commenting on Gen 27:22 “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau”:

אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בַּר אִלָּעִי ר' הָיָה דוֹרֵשׁ הַקּוֹל קוֹלוֹ שֶׁל יַעֲקֹב מְצַוַּחַת מִמַּה שֶּׁעָשׂוּ לוֹ הַיָּדַיִם יְדֵי עֵשָׂו.[10]
R. Judah ben Illai said: Rabbi [i.e., my teacher R. Aqiva] said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob”; the voice of Jacob cries out at what the hands, “the hands of Esau” did to him.

This is clearly a lament for what the Romans did to the Jews in the Great Revolt (66–73 C.E.) and the Bar-Kokhba uprising (132–136 C.E.).[11]

The typology of Edom = Rome took another step after the 4th century and the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity. With Christianity becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire, Edom/Esau = Rome becomes Edom/Esau = Christianity/the Church.[12] This develops into a major theme in rabbinic midrash[13] and in medieval Jewish exegesis, and makes itself felt especially strongly in Rashi’s commentary on Genesis.[14]

Rashi’s Consistent Denigration of Esau

Rashi on the Jacob-Esau narrative is single-mindedly consistent in his negative portrayal of Esau. Rashi has almost nothing good or even neutral to say about Esau. Conversely, Jacob is portrayed as a righteous soul without a blemish on his character. Contrary to the opinion that Rashi only made use of midrashic sources when they help solve an exegetical problem, or fill an important gap in the narrative,[15] it seems clear, at least in this case, that he reads verses against their plain meaning in order to impress upon the reader the utter wickedness and depravity of Esau.

To demonstrate this point, we will look at how Rashi deals with Esau in the narrative of Jacob and Esau’s birth and youth.[16]

Idol Worship from the Womb (Gen 25:22)—Rebekah is suffering because the boys are struggling in her womb:

ויתרוצצו. עַ"כָּ הַמִּקְרָא הַזֶּה אוֹמֵר דָּרְשֵׁנִי, שֶׁסָּתַם מַה הִיא רְצִיצָה זוֹ וְכָתַב אִם כֵּן לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי? רַבּוֹתֵינוּ דְּרָשׁוּהוּ לְשׁוֹן רִיצָה; כְּשֶׁהָיְתָה עוֹבֶרֶת עַל פִּתְחֵי תּוֹרָה שֶׁל שֵׁם וָעֵבֶר יַעֲקֹב רָץ וּמְפַרְכֵּס לָצֵאת, עוֹבֶרֶת עַל פֶּתַח עֲבוֹדַת אֱלִילִים, עֵשָׂו מְפַרְכֵּס לָצֵאת.
And [the boys] struggled — You must admit that this verse calls for a midrashic interpretation since it leaves unexplained what this struggling was about, and it states [that she exclaimed] “If so, why am I [suffering]?” Our Rabbis explain that the word va-yitrotsetsu has the meaning of running [moving quickly]: whenever she passed by the doors of Torah [i.e., the study-houses of Shem and Eber], Jacob moved convulsively trying to come out, but whenever she passed by the gate of a pagan temple Esau moved convulsively trying to come out [cf. BerRab 63:6].

The midrash (Bereshit Rabbah) on this verse contains other interpretations that are neutral, speaking about the brothers in equal terms. Rashi ignores these and picks the midrash that puts Esau in a bad light. Jacob already in utero desired to study Torah, while Esau wished to worship idols.

Wicked by Nature (Gen 25:23)—Glossing the prophetic oracle about the future of Rebekah’s two sons:

ממעיך יפרדו. מִן הַמֵּעַיִם הֵם נִפְרָדִים זֶה לְרִשְׁעוֹ וְזֶה לְתֻמּוֹ.
Shall be parted from your belly —From the belly they are separated, [each taking a different course] — one to his wickedness, the other to his [life of] integrity.

The statement in the text is totally neutral. Both boys will separate themselves from their mother’s body. Rashi gratuitously adds that one goes on his wicked way, the other follows a righteous path. Perhaps here he is focusing on the idea of separation, imagining a separation in worldviews between the two brothers that begins immediately after birth. Even if there is an exegetical need for a comment here, focusing on the “separation,” the good/evil dichotomy is certainly not called for.

A Defective Twin (Gen 25:24)— Rashi, following the midrash, takes note of the unusual defective spelling of the word תומם, “twins”:

והנה תומם. חָסֵר, וּבְתָמָר תְּאוֹמִים מָלֵא, לְפִי שֶׁשְּׁנֵיהֶם צַדִּיקִים; אֲבָל כָּאן אֶחָד צַדִּיק וְאֶחָד רָשָׁע.
Behold, there were twins — The word for twins is written defective [without alef and yod] while in the case of Tamar [it is written] תאומים [with alef and yod; Gen 38:27]; because in the latter case both children proved righteous while here one was righteous and the other wicked (cf. BerRab 63:8).

This statement is obviously tendentious. It would have been just as legitimate to say that this indicates that both of the brothers were morally deficient (Jacob was certainly not devoid of faults), but the intention is to stress the virtue of Jacob and the wickedness of Esau.

Ruddy is Bloody (Gen 25:25)—Commenting on the physical description of Esau:

אדמוני. סִימָן הוּא שֶׁיְּהֵא שׁוֹפֵךְ דָּמִים.
Ruddy—This is a sign that he would be a blood-shedder (cf. BerRab 63:8).

Again, Rashi uses a neutral statement, that Esau was a redhead or had a ruddy complexion to accuse him of being born a murderer or with a murderous inclination.

Growing into Idol Worship (Gen 25:27)—glossing a totally neutral comment about the boys growing older, Rashi writes:

ויגדלו הנערים ויהי עשו. כָּל זְמַן שֶׁהָיוּ קְטַנִּים, לֹא הָיוּ נִכָּרִים בְּמַעֲשֵׂיהֶם, וְאֵין אָדָם מְדַקְדֵּק בָּהֶם מַה טִּיבָם; כֵּיוָן שֶׁנַּעֲשׂוּ בְנֵי שְׁלשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה, זֶה פֵּרֵשׁ לְבָתֵּי מִדְרָשׁוֹת וְזֶה פֵּרֵשׁ לַעֲ"זָ [לעבודה זרה].
And the boys grew up; and Esau was — As long as they were young they could not be distinguished by their deeds and no one paid close attention to their natures, but when they reached the age of thirteen, this one went his way to the houses of study and the other went his way to idol worship (cf. BerRab 63:10).

This comment functions only to besmirch Esau’s character and contrast it to that of Jacob. There is no textual basis for it.

Hunting His Father (Gen 25:27)—in this same verse, Rashi reinterprets the meaning of Esau’s hunting practice:

ידע ציד. לָצוּד וּלְרַמּוֹת אֶת אָבִיו בְּפִיו וְשׁוֹאֲלוֹ אַבָּא, הֵיאַךְ מְעַשְּׂרִין אֶת הַמֶּלַח וְאֶת הַתֶּבֶן? כְּסָבוּר אָבִיו שֶׁהוּא מְדַקְדֵּק בְּמִצְוֹת.
A skillful hunter [lit., (a man) who knew the hunt]. To entrap and deceive his father with his mouth. He would ask him, “Father, how should salt and straw be tithed”? Consequently, his father believed him to be very punctilious in observing the commandments (cf. Tanḥuma Toledot 8; BerRab 63:10).

Rashi, following the midrash, gives a negative connotation to the reference to hunting or trapping, obviously referring to hunting animals, implying that he used his skill to (en)trap and deceive his father into thinking he observed the commandments punctiliously. There is no textual basis for this comment and it is intended to denigrate Esau.

Lazy (Gen 25:27)—Rashi further denigrates hunting in his gloss on the next phrase:

איש שדה. כְּמַשְׁמָעוֹ, אָדָם בָּטֵל וְצוֹדֶה בְקַשְׁתּוֹ חַיּוֹת וְעוֹפוֹת.
A man of the field —Literally, an idle person, who hunts beasts and birds with his bow.

This comment seems to be Rashi’s own. Rashi here is expressing a negative opinion of hunters and hunting, a common view among rabbis of all periods. Nimrod and Esau were criticized for their hunting prowess. Here Rashi seems to be referring to hunting as a sport, done by idle men, who engage in this activity in their leisure.[17]

תם. אֵינוֹ בָקִי בְכָל אֵלֶּה, כְּלִבּוֹ כֵּן פִּיו, מִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ חָרִיף לְרַמּוֹת קָרוּי תָּם.
A simple man — He is not expert in all these things[18]: [i.e., his heart is as his mouth [his thoughts and words correspond]. One who is not practiced in deceit is called simple.

This is Rashi’s own comment. Here, Rashi contrasts Jacob with Esau. The latter was set up earlier as a deceiver, so his brother is set up as an upright character, devoid of guile. This is rather ironic in light of Jacob’s acts of deception, first towards his brother, albeit instigated by his mother (Gen 27), and later with Laban (Gen 30:25-43).

ישב אהלים. אָהֳלוֹ שֶׁל שֵׁם וְאָהֳלוֹ שֶׁל עֵבֶר.
Dwelling in tents — The tent of Shem and the tent of Eber (BerRab 63:10).

The rabbis associated tents (in the plural) with houses of Torah study and Rashi follows their lead, as this comment portrays a studious Jacob, who compares favorably with the brutish outdoorsman, Esau.[19]

A Liar (25:28)—The text says Isaac loves Esau because “game (ציד) was in his mouth,” which is ambiguous. Rashi interprets:

בפיו. כְּתַרְגּוּמוֹ בְּפִיו שֶׁל יִצְחָק. וּמִדְרָשׁוֹ בְּפִיו שֶׁל עֵשָׂו, שֶׁהָיָה צָד אוֹתוֹ וּמְרַמֵּהוּ בִדְבָרָיו.
[For there was game] in his mouth — [This should be understood] as it is rendered in the Targum: in Isaac’s mouth [i.e., he put game in Isaac’s mouth]. But its midrashic explanation[20] is: [there was hunting] in Esau’s mouth, [meaning] that he used to entrap and deceive him [i.e., Isaac] with his words.

The second part of this comment continues the sentiment expressed in v. 27 that Esau was wont to deceive his father, acting with cunning, like a hunter. According to this reading, Isaac loved Esau because he fell for his deceptions and thought him to be righteous.[21]

Murderer (25:29)—The text describes Esau as being tired from hunting, but Rashi explains:

והוא עיף. בִּרְצִיחָה, כְּמָה דְּתֵימָא "כִּי עָיְפָה נַפְשִׁי לְהֹרְגִים" [יר' ד, לא].
And he was faint—From committing murder, as it is stated, ‘‘For I am fainting before killers” (Jer 4:31; cf. BerRab 63:12).

Here Rashi, following the midrash, on rather flimsy grounds,[22] accuses Esau of being a murderer. The peshat understanding would be that he was tired from a long day of hunting. Also, Rashi changes the wording of the midrash which says that he “killed a soul” (הרג את הנפש), which could be understood as having killed an animal in the course of hunting.

Fressen: Eating Like an Animal (25:30)—Esau is exhausted and expresses his exhaustion: “I’m so tired, just feed me some of that red stuff. I don’t have the strength to cook for myself or even to feed myself.” Rashi, basing his comment on Genesis Rabbah (63:12), which stresses the bestiality of Esau, writes:

הלעיטני. אֶפְתַּח פִּי וּשְׁפֹךְ הַרְבֵּה לְתוֹכָהּ, כְּמוֹ שֶׁשָּׁנִינוּ אֵין אוֹבְסִין אֶת הַגָּמָל [...] אֲבָל מַלְעִיטִין אוֹתוֹ.
Feed me — I will open my mouth and you pour a lot in, as we have learned [m. Shab 24:3] “One may not force-feed a camel [on the Sabbath] […] but one may put food (מלעיטין) into its mouth.”

The focus here is on the root לעט, which is a hapax legomenon—a unique word used only here in the Bible. Rashi explicates it with the help of later Rabbinic Hebrew,[23] where it is used in the Mishnah when speaking of feeding domestic animals, such as camels and calves. It also enables him to compare Esau to an animal.

Luckily Abraham Didn’t Live to See This (25:30)—commenting on the fact that Jacob was cooking a lentil stew, Rashi, following the rabbis, connects it with mourning:

מן האדם האדם הזה. עֲדָשִׁים אֲדֻמּוֹת, וְאוֹתוֹ הַיּוֹם מֵת אַבְרָהָם, שֶׁלֹּא יִרְאֶה אֶת עֵשָׂו בֶּן בְּנוֹ יוֹצֵא לְתַרְבּוּת רָעָה, וְאֵין זוֹ שֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה שֶׁהִבְטִיחוֹ הַקָּבָּ"ה; לְפִיכָךְ קִצֵּר הַקָּבָּ"ה ה' שָׁנִים מִשְּׁנוֹתָיו, שֶׁיִּצְחָק חַי ק"פ שָׁנָה וְזֶה קע"ה.
From this red, red stuff —Red lentils. On that day Abraham had died in order that he might not see his grandson Esau falling into degenerate ways. This would not have been the “good old age” [cf. Gen 25:8] which God had promised him; therefore the Blessed Holy One cut his life short by five years — for Isaac lived 180 years and he only 175 (cf. b. BB 16b; Tanḥuma, Ki Tetzei 4).

Rashi suggests that Abraham had died that very day and Jacob was cooking a seʿudat havraʾah, or a meal for comforting the mourners. Esau was so wicked that God had shortened Abraham’s life by five years so that he would not see Esau’s degeneration.

Torah Law Is Too Hard (25:32)—Esau appears to exaggerate his need for the food, saying he is going to die (ostensibly of hunger).[24] Rashi offers a different reading:

הנה אנכי הולך למות. אָמַר עֵשָׂו: מַה טִּיבָהּ שֶׁל עֲבוֹדָה זוֹ? אָמַר לוֹ: כַּמָּה אַזְהָרוֹת וָעֳנָשִׁין וּמִיתוֹת תְּלוּיִין בָּהּ כְּאוֹתָהּ שֶׁשָּׁנִינוּ, "אֵלּוּ הֵן שֶׁבְּמִיתָה: שְׁתוּיֵי יַיִן וּפְרוּעֵי רֹאשׁ"; אָמַר: אֲנִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת עַל יָדָהּ, אִם כֵּן מַה חֵפֶץ לִי בָהּ?
Behold I am going to die —Esau said: What is the nature of this service?[25] He [Jacob] replied, “Many prohibitions and punishments and many acts involving even the punishment of death are associated with it, as we have learned [b. Sanh 22b, 36b]: “The following priests are liable to death: those who carry out their duties after having drunk too much wine and those who officiate long-haired.” He said: “I am going to die through it; if so, why should I desire it?”

This comment takes the text off in an entirely new direction. Since Jacob raised the topic of the birthright, Esau, who doesn’t seem to know much about it, asks him what it entails. Jacob explains to him about the obligations the firstborn would have in the temple. Hearing the penalties involved in being a priest of YHWH, which he would inherit as the firstborn, Esau is happy to give up the position, knowing that he is too sinful to keep the rules in any case, and it would probably kill him.

Spurning God (25:34)—Continuing with this theme, while the text says that Esau spurned the birthright, Rashi reads:

ויבז עשו. הֵעִיד הַכָּתוּב עַל רִשְׁעוֹ שֶׁבִּזָּה עֲבוֹדָתוֹ שֶׁל מָקוֹם.
Thus Esau spurned—Scripture testifies to his wickedness: that he despised the service of the Omnipresent![26]

These last two comments are Rashi’s own and make a connection between the birthright, which is really a matter of the right to a larger inheritance, and the divine service in the temple, which had originally been designated for the firstborn. Rashi claims that Esau, in his wickedness, is spurning God and his service for selfish, utilitarian reasons. There is no obvious connection between Esau’s birthright and the temple service. This comment was introduced to denigrate Esau and, along with him, Christianity, implying that only Jacob and his offspring are suited for the divine service.

Responding to Christianity

One can track Rashi’s exegesis of Esau’s actions through the chapter on the blessings of the brothers (Gen 27), and the final encounters when they kiss and make up[27] and then part (Gen 32–33, 36), with similar results. In almost every case, Rashi’s comments are very far from the peshat, and are all negative, seeking to put Esau in as poor a light as possible and portray Jacob as righteous and blameless.[28]

This consistent approach of Rashi would seem to be a clear example of his use of midreshei aggadah (midrashic commentaries) and his own ideas to drive his agenda, without consideration of their relation to peshat. From his commentaries on Psalms and Isaiah it is clear that Rashi accepts the identification of Esau with Christianity/The Church, and seeks to give his readers encouragement by showing that in the end Israel will prevail, and the Christians, symbolized by Esau/Edom, will lose their advantage and their dominion will in the end be terminated.

Shaye J. D. Cohen, in his article “Does Rashi’s Torah Commentary Respond to Christianity?”[29] answers this question, for the most part, in the negative, because he finds no evidence of explicit engagement with Christian doctrines and exegesis, nor uses of the expression li-teshuvat ha-minim (as an answer to heretics), as we find in Rashi’s other commentaries and in those of his Northern French successors, Rashbam and Bekhor Shor.

Nevertheless, while it is true that Rashi does not respond directly to Christian theology and exegesis, he does respond indirectly. I see no other way to explain Rashi’s unusual and consistently negative treatment of Esau throughout his exegetical oeuvre, other than to see it as an expression of disdain for European Judaism’s archrival in the Middle Ages—the Christian Church.[30]

The Esau/Edom/Seir = Rome = Christianity/the Church typology governs Rashi’s treatment of every mention of these three elements in the Hebrew Bible, and in this he is following the sages, though they were more concerned with the Romans. Rashi treats these entities as part of the divine economy governing the course of history.

In order for this typological schema to work, Rashi must apply it consistently throughout, to every occurrence of these names. If the people Edom = Rome = Christianity/the Church, the enemies of the Jews, are wicked and depraved, then so must be their progenitor Esau. And so, we end up with Jacob’s twin brother becoming “Esau the wicked.”[31]


November 18, 2020


Last Updated

June 14, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Barry Dov Walfish was the Judaica Bibliographer and Curator at the University of Toronto Libraries until his retirement in 2017. He holds a Ph.D. in Medieval Jewish Intellectual History from the University of Toronto. He is the author of Esther in Medieval Garb,  Bibliographia Karaitica, and The Way of Lovers (with Sara Japhet) and is the main Judaism editor for De Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception.