Weekly Letter: Selling of the Birthright By Esav to Yaakov

This weeks letter is a summary of an exchange of letters – which Rabbi Mindel had in the early 1960’s with a team of reform “scholars” who translated the Bible to English. He took particular issue with their gross mis-translation and false implications of the verses referring to the selling of the birthright by Esav to Yaakov. The exchange of letters is from Rabbi Mindel’s archives. The attached is but a summary of those letters. These letters, articles and talks which Rabbi Mindel wrote and gave – were often reviewed by the Rebbe, who would sometimes make oral comments to him.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF THE BIBLE in 1963 by the JPS (reform) sparked strong criticism from traditional scholars of the time, whose articles in numerous Jewish publications described this “translation” as a mere “paraphrasing of the King James’ translation of the Bible.” 

Rabbi Nissan MIndel carried on a fascinating exchange of letters with those who participated in this translation, in which he takes issue, specifically with the:

SELLING OF THE FIRST BORN RIGHTS BY ESAV TO YAAKOV.

It is this section of the Bible, says Mindel, that stands out it its notorious mis-translation and mis-interpretation by the non Jews over the millennia – depicting the Jew as conniving and dishonest. He makes a strong case – using the rules of Hebrew grammar to point out gross mistranslations and misleading connotations of the translators. 

The passages in Gen. 25:27-34 in the translation, he finds disappointing because…

  • It does violence to both the spirit and letter of the text
  • It further defames the much-maligned (by the Christian translations)) character of Yaakov/Yisrael, our “favorite patriarch”, whose name is that of our people.
  • The translation implies that the food (beans) was “legal consideration” for sale
  • It further implies that Yaakov took advantage of his famished brother
  • that he “forced” him to sell the birthright
  • and that he was “crafty” and a cunning cheat (no wonder the prototype of the Jewish Shylock is still promoted as fact).

R’ Mindel  goes on to point out how the translation is incorrect…

  • Esav is described in the translation as “a skillful hunter” and Yaakov as “a mild (tam) man who stayed in camp” (nowhere in the Bible is tam referred to as wishy washy mildness, as your translation implies). Eisav’s character comes across quite eloquently, Yaakov’s not so.
  • Your translation assumes that Yaakov, the younger brother, was in a bargaining position with his older brother. This is certainly not the case, as is well known in the prevailing society and in halacha. The older brother had almost the same authority as a parent, as he relates to his younger brothers (as we see in the case of Reuven who overruled his brothers and Yehudah could only suggest …).Given this status, Eisav could have easily ordered Yaakov to feed him and Yaakov would comply. To suggest Yaakov bargaining with his older brother is absurd.
  • Where does the “oath” come in to the sale of the birthright? Of all the sales mentioned in the Bible, this is the only case where an oath was involved with the sale. If, as your translation implies, the food was the legal tender to the sale, why the need for the oath? It becomes clear that the food did not legalize the sale – being that Yaakov was obligated, as the younger brother, to give the food to his older brother – but rather, it was the oath and only the oath that made it legal.
  • There are also grammatical inaccuracies: in Biblical Hebrew, a sequence of actions is expressed with vav consecutive (which, in conjunction with the verb in the imperfect, indicates a series of consecutive actions in the past). Note – that in the section we are discussing (verses 27-34) – all the verses but the last follow this construction. Verse 34, however, breaks this continuity and the simple perfect tense is used here – V’Yaakov nossan, instead of Va’yiten Yaakov (as should have been expected if it were a continuation as are the others, “Then Yaakov gave”). This can only mean that v’Yaakov nossan/Yaakov had given – the past perfect – is not a consequent action, not a continuation of the action before it. It merely states that “Yaakov had given”. Had it been written va’yiten Yaakov /then Yaakov gave, where the vav consecutive is used, it would have indicated that the giving (of the stew) is a consequent and continuation of the act before.
  • An additional error, which amplifies the grammatical one just stated, you insert the word “first” (verses 31 and 33), which is not in the text! (nor implied therein). This word “first” gives the false impression that the food is a prerequisite to the sale.  
  • Once this is clarified – we see a clear picture of what happened that day: 
  1. Eisav  comes in hungry, finds his younger brother stewing lentils and  asks to be fed
  2.  Yaakov gives him a complete meal – bread, lentils, water
  3. While Eisav is gulping down his food, Yaakov asks him to sell him his birthright (“ka’yom/in earnest).
  4. Eisav, as hunter, knows that his life is precarious and is ready to give the birthright away for the asking
  5. Yaakov wants to legalize the transaction and so asks Eisav to swear to him – ka’yom/earnestly. 
  6. Eisav swears and the deal is complete – verse 34 is a fitting epilogue to this episode.

Contrast of the two brothers:

One is a hairy man, the other smooth-skinned.

One is a cunning (not skillful) hunter and the other is a sincere man (ish tam – any adjective the opposite of “cunning” , but nowhere is it translated as “mild”). 

One is a man of the field and the other, a dweller of tents.

Eisav sold, or gave away his birthright; it was certainly not coerced out of him. The birthright is a privilege and a responsibility, which Eisav was anxious to shed. He later (verse 27) changes his mind and claims that Yaakov “took away” his birthright. This only proves Eisav’s inconsistency and fickleness of character.  The legality of the transaction of the birthright from Eisav to Yaakov is eventually vindicated (36:6).

(granted, some commentaries, like the RASHBAM, connect the food with the sale, but what right have you to translate the word ”ka’yom” as “first”, implying it to be a prerequisite?)

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