What Is Isaac Doing in the Field When He Encounters Rebecca?
Rebecca and her maids traveling with Abraham’s servant approach on camelback, when Isaac encounters them in the field (Genesis 24:63):
וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה גְמַלִּים בָּאִים׃
And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching.
The Hebrew root שוח is a hapax, namely it appears only once in the Bible. The Brown Driver Briggs (BDB) lexicon assumes that that לָשׂוּחַ is a scribal error for לשוט, “to go about,” and this may be the basis of the NJPS translation as well. But it notes that the meaning of the term is uncertain.
Ancient Interpreters: לשוח from שיחה, “Conversation”
Most ancient translations relate לשוח to the noun שיחה, “conversation.” The Septuagint, for example, translates לשוח ἀδολεσχῆσαι, “to meditate,” and the Vulgate translates it in Latin asad meditandum, “in order to meditate.” The Aramaic Targumim are almost universal in translating it לצלאה, “to pray.”
The Talmud: Isaac’s Prayer
For the Rabbis, Isaac’s praying in the evening is the source of the afternoon Minhah service (B. Berakhot 26b; B. Avodah Zara 7b). This was the linchpin for assigning the MorningShaharit service to Abraham and the Evening Arvit service to Jacob. Almost all Medieval Jewish commentators, such as Rashi (1040-1105) and R. Obadiah Sforno (1475-1550), support this basic understanding of לשוח as “to pray.”
Ibn Ezra: “To Walk Among the Bushes”
Disagreeing with this midrashic explanation is the novel explanation proposed by Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1164):
לשוח- ללכת בין השיחים
Lasuaḥ: To walk among the bushes
It seems to me that Ibn Ezra recognized in the Hebrew verb לָשׂוּחַ a cognate of the Arabic saḥa ( ﺴﺎﺡ ﺴﻭﺡ saḥa u), “to travel about.” In the medieval context, this Arabic term was used to refer to a long distance spiritual journey. Ibn Ezra, who was fluent in Arabic, often referred to that language as leshon Yishmael or leshon Hagari in his commentary and his grammatical studies.
Ibn Ezra’s Likely Source: Rav Yehudah Ibn Bal`am
The likely source for this interpretation is the grammatical work of Rav Yehudah Ibn Bal`am (ca. 1000 – ca. 1070, Spain). In the preserved Hebrew translation of his treatise The Book of Denominative Verbs, Ibn Bal`am explains לשוח:
מן אחד השיחים. ועניינו יצא מתהלך בין האילנות וכן הוא בלשון ישמעאל
From one of the bushes (or shrubs), meaning: He went out walking among the trees; and so it is in the language of Ishmael (i.e., Arabic).
It would seem then that Ibn Ezra, as was his custom, paraphrased his unnamed source, which notes the Arabic derivation explicitly. Why then does Ibn Ezra not mention that the Hebrew verb is a cognate of the Arabic root, which also had a religious connotation? While knowing the Arabic noun/verb, Ibn Ezra the consummate Hebraist wanted most likely to emphasize a Hebrew derivation for לָשׂוּחַ, so he implies that the Hebrew verb comes from the Hebrew noun שיחים, creating the novel hybrid “to walk about in the bushes.”
Rashbam: To Plant Trees
Without entering into the scholarly discussion regarding the interdependence of Ibn Ezra and his contemporary Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, ca. 1080–ca. 1174) the other great literalist among Medieval biblical commentators, it is noteworthy that he presents a somewhat similar explanation breaking with tradition:
לשוח בשדה: כלומר לטעת אילנות ולראות ענייני פועליו .
Lasuach basadeh: He (Isaac) planted trees and looked and looked to the doings of his workers.
Rashbam and his audience did not know Arabic and could not have been influenced by the cognate. Thus, even if Rashbam did encounter Ibn Ezra's explanation, he took license to explain the context and not the etymology and so substituted “to plant trees” for Ibn Ezra’s “walking about the bushes.”
Perhaps there is even a hidden critique in Rashbam’s comment dismissing the implication that Isaac was a meditative mystic rather than a careful farmer inspecting his orchard. It is noteworthy that Rashbam goes one step further in avoiding the traditional interpretation. He now attributes to Isaac a purely secular motivation for going out to the field.
Chain of Tradition
It is of interest to note how Ibn Ezra’s explanation was received in the chain of Jewish Torah commentaries.
Ibn Ezra’s explanation was taken up by Rabbi David Kimhi (Radak) from Provence (1160–1235) in his commentary to this verse (but not in his lexicon, Book of Shorashim):
והוא יצא לשוח בשדה, כלומר לטייל בין השיחים
And he (Isaac) went out to walk (לשוח) in the field, in other words to walk about among the shrubbery.
Radak’s commentary was strongly influenced by Ibn Ezra’s rational exegetical method. He probably understood the Arabic basis for this interpretation and might even have had a copy of the original Ibn Bal`am thesis, since the Hebrew translation appeared after his time.
However when we look at later Ashkenazic commentaries who took this explanation into consideration we find some interesting developments. For one, Malbim (1809-1879) harmonizes the traditional one with that of Ibn Ezra and says:
בעת תפלת מנחה לשוח בשדה,היינו להתבודד שם ולשפוך שיחו לפני ה’. שהתבאר אצלי כי שיח הם הדיבוריים המתחשביים הנפלטים מן הרעיון בעת המחשב…
During the time for afternoon prayer he went out lasuah in the field, what this means is to be alone there and to pour out his speech before God. For it has become clear to me that siah refers to speech thoughts that shoot out from ones imagination while thinking…
Most probably, Malbim, who stressed the superiority of a literalist approach unknowingly echoed the Classical Arabic saḥa “to take a spiritual journey” that included meditation.
Torah Temimah: Rabbi Baruch Epstein
Finally, Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein (1860-1942), in his Torah Temimah, supporting the traditional interpretation dismissed the above explanation:
ולא מצאנו בשום מקום שיהיה מובנו “טיול” ולכן בהכרח אין הפירוש כאן כמו שרגילים לפרש “לטייל” בשדה, ופירוש חז”ל הוא עומק פירוש של הלשון ואמתתו.
“We have not found in any place that the [word lasuaḥ] means tiyul “to travel about”, therefore certainly there is no meaning here as many explain “letayel in the field”, the Rabbis’ explanation is the only true literal one.”
Almost all the commentaries have sought a spiritual meaning for the unusual term lasuaḥ. The Rabbis found it in connecting the term to prayer, and Ibn Ezra found it in connecting it to a meditative stroll in the shrubbery of the field. This new literal approach elicited various responses by subsequent biblical commentators. For one, Rashbam jettisoned the traditional interpretation having lasuaḥ refer to Isaac’s manorial related walk. It seems that he came to this interpretation in response to Ibn Ezra’s innovative approach that was based on an Arabic cognate, a language Rashbam did not know.
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November 23, 2016
January 19, 2021
Prof. Aaron Demsky is Professor (emeritus) of Biblical History at The Israel and Golda Koschitsky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, Bar Ilan University. He is also the founder and director of The Project for the Study of Jewish Names. Demsky received the Bialik Prize (2014) for his book, Literacy in Ancient Israel.
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