> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

The Voice (and Hands) of Yaakov


Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn




And her days to bear are fulfilled, and lo, twins [are] in her womb; and the first came out all red as a hairy robe, and they called him Esav; and afterwards his brother came out, his hand taking hold of Esav's heel, and he called him Yaakov; and Yitzchak was sixty years old when they were born. (Bereishit 25:24-26)

Two children are born, twin boys, yet despite having the same parents, they seem so different from one another. Part of the difference is implied, some differences are explicitly mentioned, yet it may actually be their similarity which is being hidden. The first son born is described as "red and hairy." There is no physical description offered of the second son. The text says only that Yaakov's hand latched onto Esav's heel. Was Yaakov also redheaded? From the later narrative we may conclude that Yaakov was in fact less hairy, but the lack of symmetry seems strange. The text continues:

And the youths grew, and Esav became a man acquainted [with] hunting, a man of the field; and Yaakov [is] a plain man, inhabiting tents; and Yitzchak loves Esav, for [his] hunting [is] in his mouth; and Rebekah loves Yaakov. (Bereishit 25:27-28)

Again we note the lack of symmetry: Esav is a hunting man, while Yaakov is described as ish tam, which can be understood as a plain, simple, perfect or complete man. The verse continues: Esav was a man of the field while Yaakov inhabits tents - not a "man of the tents" as we would have expected. But the most serious lack of symmetry refers to the affection of their parents. Esav is loved for a reason, for utility - for he brings his father the hunt that he procures. Here the contrast is striking: Rivka (simply) loves Yaakov - no reason, no explanation, no utility.

How are we to understand Yitzchak's love for Esav? Why would a spiritual giant like Yitzchak be swayed by venison? Rashi understands Esav's hunting skills in a metaphorical sense, explaining that Esav possessed a gift of "hunting with words." He would capture his victims with impressive banter. Rashi says that Yitzchak was taken by Esav's feigned sincerity. Esav would ask his father questions that gave the impression that Esav, too, was steeped in spiritual and halachic inquiry. Rashi sees Esav the "hunter" as a sycophant, using his slick tongue to convince his father of his noble character.

He "hunted", and deceived his father. He asked, "Father, how does one take tithes from salt or straw?" His father believed that he (Esav) was scrupulous in his performance of commandments. (Rashi Bereishit 25:27)

There are two types of deceitful people. The first has a fairly accurate sense of self, and fools others by not allowing them to see his true identity. The second type may be much more dangerous, for he deceives not only others, he deceives himself. Which was Esav? The Midrash gives us a deeper acquaintance with Esav, by relating the events of his demise and his bizarre "burial". When Yaakov passed away, his children fulfilled his instructions and took his remains out of Egypt, back to the Land of Israel, to the Cave of Machepela, where Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, and Leah were all been buried. At the entrance to the cave they were accosted by Esav, who insisted that the Ma'arat HaMachpela is his burial ground, inherited by his right as the eldest son. A member of the funeral party is sent to bring the deed of sale in hopes of clarifying the issue. Meanwhile, one of Yaakov's grandchildren, Chushim2 the son of Dan, takes sword in hand, and with a mighty blow separates Esav from his head. The head rolls away, coming to a stop inside the cave, where it lands in the bosom of Yitzchak who tightly holds onto the head of his beloved son.3

Esav's head did have a place in the cave, it was his hands that could not quite make it inside. This would seem to indicate that Esav's words were sincere, but he failed miserably in the implementation of his words. Tragically, he was a man unable to live up to his own ideals. When he asked his father about tithes, he meant it. Presumably, Yitzchak was capable of spotting insincerity. His suspicions were not aroused because Esav was, in fact, quite sincere.


* * *



There is, nonetheless, an aspect of deceit in the story of Yaakov and Esav - but the deceit is not perpetrated by Esav. The deception is in the hands of Yaakov, carried out at the request of his mother Rivka. When Yaakov stands before his dying father and receives the blessing Yitzchak intended for Esav, he dresses as Esav. He enters with the food that his father had requested of Esav, and when asked how he accomplished so much so quickly, Yaakov answers:

20And Yitzchak said to his son, 'What [is] this you have hastened to find, my son?' and he said, 'That which God thy Lord hath caused to come before me.' 21And Yitzchak said to Yaakov, 'Come nigh, I pray thee, and I will feel you, my son, whether you [are] he, my son Esav, or not.' 22And Yaakov came to Yitzchak his father, and he felt him, and said, 'The voice [is] the voice of Yaakov, and the hands are the hands of Esav.' (Bereishit 27:20-22)

In what way are these the words of Yaakov? Is it the mode of speaking, the inflection of his voice, or is it the content? Rashi4 believes it is the content: Giving God credit for having found his prey quickly would have been more characteristic of Yaakov. The Ramban5 reminds us that as twin brothers,6 their voices may have been more similar than we might care to imagine. There is, however, an oddity in Yitchak's behavior, for if he was truly troubled about the identity of the recipient of his blessing, when faced with conflicting evidence, he should have stopped until more conclusive information could be gathered.7


* * *



Perhaps to understand the underlying issue we need to learn more about the hands of Yaakov. When we first meet Yaakov, long before he finds his voice, we see him using his hands: "And afterwards his brother came out, his hand taking hold of Esav's heel." Perhaps this in utero scene foreshadows a later episode where again Yaakov uses his hands to wrestle a "man"8 identified as the heavenly protector of Esav.9 Ironically, this Sar shel Esav begs Yaakov to release him, for the time has come for him to use his voice - to pray.10 Here, then, is the paradigm, reversed: the hands of Yaakov and the voice of Esav! We may say that the voice of Yaakov and the hands of Esav have been established as theological concepts: the former represents prayer and Torah while the latter represent tyranny and idolatry - rebellion against God.11 To our dismay, the Biblical text does not conveniently align itself into these neat categories. In some instances, as we have seen, Yaakov uses his hands and the spiritual power of Esav's voice is revealed.

Let us examine these symbols more closely: Whereas the voice is an expression of something internal, hands are external. Hands are a symbol of force. The strength they represent is part of the commonalty that man shares with the animal kingdom, but the voice is ruach - air or spirit, emanating from within. Voice is what man has in common with God. It is the result of God's breath within us, which animates, gives existence and human identity.12 That the realm of Yaakov is primarily one of "voice" should not surprise us. That the realm of Esav is primarily "hands" should also not surprise us.13

From birth we see Esav as being more externally oriented. He is born covered with hair and he looks "complete", almost grown. He is therefore called "Esav", from the word asui - formed, "done". Of course even a completely formed infant has much emotional, physical and spiritual growth ahead of them.

Esav's outer - directed qualities may explain an obscure Midrash14 which says that of the non-kosher animals Esav resembles the pig: The pig15 has split hooves, so outwardly it looks kosher. Only when you look internally and see that it doesn't chew its cud do you realize that despite outward appearances it is a non-kosher animal.16

When Esav and Yaakov are alone, Esav lets his guard down, showing his internal makeup. When he comes in from the field famished and asks to be fed, the precise word that he uses is instructive: Haliteni "pour into my mouth".17 Rashi explains that this verb is used to describe the feeding of a camel.18 Like the pig, camels also possess only one of the two kosher symbols19 (camels ruminate but do not have split hooves). Esav's self - definition is that deep inside he is good - even though externally he makes mistakes.

Despite the identification of Esav with Rome and later Christendom, in Rabbinic literature Esav is seen as a Jew - a sinful, rebellious Jew, but a Jew nonetheless.20 He is portrayed as a person born into the best of families, who made his choices and eventually left the fold. Mystical writers draw a parallel to another character from Jewish history, a unique soul who makes the opposite journey, coming from a modest background and rising to the spiritual aristocracy of Judaism.

His name was Akiva. We are told that he didn't have ancestral merit "zchut avot" 21 - either he or his father converted to Judaism. The Arizal22 asserts that when Esav spoke to his father, it was Akiva's voice that Yitzchak heard: Deep within the recesses of Esav's soul was a Rabbi Akiva trying to get out. The name Akiva is a variant form of the name Yaakov. Similarly, this is the aspect of Yaakov within Esav, the voice of Yaakov within Esav struggling to express itself.

Like Yaakov, Rabbi Akiva is impoverished. After having great difficulty with his father in-law, he marries a woman named Rachel, and her father disinherits them.23 The Gemara describes the scene with great tenderness: Destitute, they have nothing but the straw on which they sleep. Akiva lovingly picks a piece of straw from Rachel's hair and says that one day he will buy her a beautiful piece of jewelry - Jerusalem of Gold. Just then, a poor man comes to the door and says he needs straw for his wife who has just given birth. Akiva and Rachel then share their one and only possession. They give Tzedaka - charity. Rabbi Akiva gives tithes even from straw, providing an answer to the cynical question Esav posed to deceive his doting father. In fact, Esav's question was actually Akiva's question, or Akiva's confirmation that acts of charity are always possible, regardless of financial status or social station.24


* * *



When Esav comes in from the field, hungry and tired, he approaches Yaakov and offers to trade responsibilities. Esav is willing to sell the birthright for bowl of porridge. This is not a case of someone bartering something which they regard as valueless; on the contrary, a strong emotional response is evoked: "Esav disdains the birthright". (Bereishit 25:34)

But what did the birthright mean to him? What were the privileges? What were the responsibilities? Why did he shirk this responsibility? There was not yet any religious or ritual distinction for the first born, no Beit Hamikdash or requirement of service. There is only one thing that Esav would have been aware of: the covenant God made with Avraham. Avraham's descendents are chosen, to be blessed above all others. But with these great blessings comes an extended period of slavery, namely the 400 years of subjugation to be endured before the blessings come to fruition. The path to Mount Sinai travels through Egypt, and the long detour will bring with it blood, sweat and tears - and a lot of hard work. That is what intimidated Esav. The man of great physical strength is out of his depth, subdued. He may well use his hands, but he does not relish hard work. Esav would not willingly submit to subjugation, would not willingly accept a role of weakness. But Yaakov's children are ready and willing to do so. They go into exile. They accept their own enslavement. The hard work does not intimidate them, and they are released when they find their voices and scream to God in prayer.

Eventually, when the Jews leave Egypt and approach Mount Sinai, they are accosted by Amalek, the descendants of Esav, who are unhappy with the change in fortunes and destinies.25 Their military attack on the Children of Israel would have made Esav proud. But things have changed: Yehoshua26 is sent to fight back with a sword. The children of Yaakov literally fight fire with fire, taking up arms in a manner more similar with Esav than with Yaakov. And while this scene unfolds on the battlefield, up on the mountain Moshe prays for victory. But it is how he prays that is striking. He lifts his hands in prayer. "And it came to pass, when Moshe held up his hands, Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hands, Amalek prevailed." (Shmot 17:11) When the voice and the hands are completely united, Esav/Amalek can be defeated.27

Only then can the Jews can continue to Mount Sinai.28 Only then will they "see the sounds" of the greatest Revelation mankind has ever known. Once they have elevated their hands, the sounds, too, can be elevated.

Esav was willing to take the shortcut to Hevron, and the shortcut to Horev.29 But the long, hard work that is necessary for real spiritual growth was foreign to him, even disdained by him. This is the true difference between the two brothers, and the greatness of Yaakov and his descendents.

The ultimate merger of lifting hands and prayer is the blessing of the Kohanim. Hands are lifted in peace, not in war; not in anger but in love. Ironically, the name Esav has the same numerical value as shalom (376). While Esav may have the voice of Yaakov within him, his hands are the hands of Esav. Esav could ask questions that would convince even Yitzchak of his sincerity. He knew how to talk, but not how to unite his speech with his actions. He was only "kosher" on the outside. In the end, his head - and only his head - gains entry to the Ma'arat Hamachepela. The rest of Esav is excluded.



1. A version of this essay with Hebrew sources and footnotes can be found at

2. Chushim is in a sense the inverse of Yitzchak: His sense of sight is intact but he is deaf, making him impervious to Esav's deceit. I hope to return to this episode in depth at a later date.

3. See Pirkei D'Rebbi Eliezer, Chapter 38.

4. Rashi Bereishit 27:22.

5. Ramban Bereishit 27:12.

6. Rashbam 27:22 says as twins they would have sounded the same or similar.

7. See the remarkable explanation of the Beit Halevi, (Bereishit 27:22) who suggests that Esav, knowing that Yaakov might "try something", devised a plan: Esav told his father that he, Esav, will come and speak like Yaakov. Esav reasoned that if Yaakov came dressed as Esav, he would surely speak like Esav. Yaakov did, indeed, come dressed as Esav, but he spoke in his own voice. He spoke as Yaakov.

8. Bereishit 32:25.

9. Rashi Bereishit 32:25.

10. Rashi Bereishit 32:27.

11. See Talmud Bavli Gittin 57b: 'The voice of Yaakov': this is the cry caused by the Emperor Vespasian who killed in the city of Betar four hundred thousand myriads, or as some say, four thousand myriads. 'The hands are the hands of Esav': this is the Government of Rome which has destroyed our House and burnt our Temple and driven us out of our land. Another explanation is [as follows]: 'The voice is the voice of Yaakov': no prayer is effective unless the seed of Yaakov has a part in it. 'The hands are the hands of Esav:' no war is successful unless the seed of Esav has a share in it. This is what R. Eleazar said: Thou shalt be hid from the scourge of the tongue; this means, thou shalt be protected from the heated contests of the tongue.

12. See Bereishit 2:7 and the translation of Onkelos: God breathes life into Man, and Man becomes a "living being." Unkolus renders this phrase as "speaking being."

13. When Chushim kills Esav he does so with a sword. When Yitzchak refers to the hands of Esav he describes them as having a sword in them. See Bereishit 27:40: 'And by your sword shall you live, and your brother will you serve; and when it comes to pass when you rule, that you have broken his yoke from off your neck.'

14. See Bereishit Rabbah 65:1.

15. The Shela Hakadosh sees Yaakov and Esav in one womb as representing the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He continues to say that according to some Midrashim the pig will one day repent (the word chazir - Hebrew for pig - shares the root chazar, which means 'return'). The ultimate messianic vision is for evil to be elevated into good. For more on the pig's return, see my article "When Pigs Fly." An electronic copy can be found at

16. See Rav Tzadok Hakohen in Kometz Mincha, Chelek Bet section 62 for an expansion of this idea.

17. Bereishit 25:30.

18. Rashi Bereishit 25:30.

19. When Rivka arrives she falls off her camel "And Rivka lifted up her eyes, and saw Yitzchak, she fell from the camel" (Bereishit 24:64) Rashi explains that she then senses that as the camel has one kosher sign and one non-kosher sign, she to will have one kosher son and one non-kosher one.

20. See Talmud Bavli Kidushin 18a.

21. See Talmud Bavli Brachot 27b, Rashbets in Magen Avot Avot 3:13 says that Akiva's father Yosef was a convert.

22. See for example Meor Eynayim Parshat Toldot.

23. See Nedarim 50a: The daughter of Kalba Savu'a betrothed herself to R. Akiva. When her father heard thereof, he vowed that she was not to benefit from aught of his property. Then she went and married him in winter. They slept on straw, and he had to pick out the straw from her hair. 'If only I could afford it,' said he to her, 'I would present you with a golden Jerusalem.' [Later] Elijah came to them in the guise of a mortal, and cried out at the door. 'Give me some straw, for my wife is in confinement and I have nothing for her to lie on.' 'See!' R. Akiva observed to his wife, 'there is a man who lacks even straw.' [Subsequently] she counselled him, 'Go, and become a scholar.'

24. See Meor Eynayim Parshat Toldot.

25. When Esav came to stop the burial of Yaakov we are told he came from Horev - Sinai. Apparently, Hevron was not the only inheritance Esav wanted. He dreamed of the Torah from Sinai as well. See Pirkei D'rebbi Eliezer chapter 38.

26. Yehoshua is a man of the tent.

27. This idea can be found in the Mabit Beit Elokim Shaar Tefila chapter 18.

28. See Rav Zadok Hakohen, Divrei Sofrim section 36.


29. The name Hevron has as its root the letters chet bet resh - which spells haver, friend. Chorev has as its root chet resh bet, which spells herev - sword.


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