A Random Walk With Rashi: Gnomons R Us

We are now at the point where G-d finally “remembered” Sarah, with this presumably referring to her conception, rather than eventual birth, of Isaac.

But more to the point, to ‘remember’ implies an earlier event – one that is now being now recalled by the Torah text. What might that event have been? Seems simple enough (whoever said all meaning in Torah had to be found in an errant vov or a missing pasuq?). We recall Chapter 18:10, in which G-d appeared to Abraham, in the form of the angels that approached his tent, and confirmed that “within a year” and at the “appointed time” Sarah would have their son. Voila! Next chapter.

Were it so simple. Lets take a look.

Genesis 21:2
Sarah conceived and bore a son unto Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time of which G-d had spoken with him.

AT THE APPOINTED TIME OF WHICH G-D HAD SPOKEN Targum Onkelos renders this as literally “which He spoke it.” He stated and fixed an appointed time when He said to Abraham “At the appointed time I will return to you.” [The angel] made a scratch for [Abraham] in the wall. He said to [Abraham] “When the rays of the sun will reach this scratch next year, she will give birth.”


So Rashi seems concerned with the phrase “appointed time”, presumably wondering why or how this particular time came to be. In his present comments, Rashi agrees with Onkelos (seems you can pretty much flip a coin on that score), by interpreting the verse as telling us that the particular angel (recalling our one angel/one task rule), that had informed Abraham one year ago, had also made a mark – presumably at the very place on the wall of the tent where the sun’s shadow then stood, and in an orientation that would correspond with an annual cycle.

The concept makes sense, as somewhat analogous to a sundial, the tent could itself be considered the “gnomon”, which is defined as the part of a sundial that casts a shadow. In turn, Rashi’s conclusion seems to make considerable sense, in terms of understanding how a year might have been measured in Abraham’s time. What better way to establish the year that would unfold?

On the other hand, it seems somewhat inconsistent with our story, including the fact that in the year just past, we’ve seen the angels approach Abraham, his negotiation with G-d followed by the destruction of Sodom, Lot’s escape and escapade with his daughters, Abraham traveling to Gerar and playing hot potato with his wife, followed by Abimelech offering Abraham his choice of places to stay in the land.

Though we don’t hear (yet at least) just what location Abraham chose, after all this, are we to expect that he would have ended up right back where he began, in his tent, in order to preserve – and observe – the marking on his wall? Or instead, did he simply return to the spot, or send observers to relay the information. Or maybe the mark on the wall was just a symbolic gesture after all, and Abraham either knew, didn’t care, or had forgotten how to tell when a full year had passed. We’ll never know.

But alas, we concluded our study group by taking a peek at the next verse, prior to taking a one week break for Thanksgiving.

Genesis 21:3
Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him – whom Sarah had borne him – Isaac.


What’s bothering Rashi with this verse? Where to begin. Perhaps the fact that the verse is superfluous in part, redundant in others, or could be inconsistent with previous verses … or perhaps, all of the above ?

The answer – nada, nyet, nein.

In fact, nothing seems to bother Rashi about this particular verse – or for that matter, peeking ahead again, for several verses to come. It seems I’ll have some creative writing assignments coming up.

So we look ahead by looking back ourselves, to our own thoughts and comments upon studying Genesis 18:10. We have now arrived at the point of Isaac’s birth – but did we see it coming as clearly then, as it appears to us now?

In our summary from the time, we read:

But still, the essence of our current verse (Genesis 18:10) seems to be the angel telling Abraham that Sarah will indeed conceive, and within a year. But then again, Abraham knew this, since he has already been told (in Gen. 17:19) that Sarah will have a son named Isaac. So why is Abraham told this again, and yet again, the disclosure seems to be to Abraham alone, even though this time, we find that Sarah overhears?

Based on Sarah’s surprise it would appear that Abraham never mentioned this minor fact to her the first time he heard it. If not, why not? Could it have been 1) the inevitable paternal control in the society of his time, or 2) Abraham kept it from her for her own good, particularly with respect to her relationship with him, Hagar, Ishmael, and others, or perhaps 3) the fear that she would not believe him, or even 4) his concern that if it did not come to pass, Sarah’s psyche would be ruined, to say nothing of their faith in G-d.

So it seems that, yet again, both the questions we ask, and answers we provide, revolve around Sarah as much or more than they do Abraham. In today’s terms, what did she know, and when did she know it?

I’m going out on a terebinth limb here, but I will see if I can combine and make sense out of two interesting thoughts we’ve considered in the past.

One theory tells us that Torah was handed down in its entirety, in the beginning, and was in fact, or at least in essence, known to those who’s stories it tells. Don’t ask me how. Chalk it up to faith.

Another theory, and one I kind of like, says that we all know Torah while in the womb, but that we forget it at birth, and spend the rest of our lives trying to recover what we’ve lost.

Both interesting in their own right, but how, if at all, do these two concepts come together, particularly at this moment of the birth of Isaac?

We were introduced to Abraham well after his birth, if fact well into his life. Isaac is the first in our lineage that we can see coming. Yet in our current verses, there is not even a momentary pause between Sarah having “conceived and bore” – might Isaac too have been imbued with Torah, only to lose it again upon taking his first breath?

And if that were the case, then even Isaac didn’t know what the future would hold for him.

Or did he?

The plot thickens. Yet Rashi will leave us to our own devices for several verses to come. Where is that gnomon now that we gneed it?

(Photo: Khirol Amir)