A Random Walk With Rashi: Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!

The reference to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in last week’s column prompted our Rabbi to begin study group this week with even more words of wisdom from the teacher – as found in the compilation of his works by Heschel’s daughter Susannah in “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity”.  I’ve since ordered and received my own copy, and you might too.  If Arizona’s Governor can experience a belated spike in her book sales, all the more so Heschel. 

Little did I know, but it seems you can throw a dart at Heschel’s work and find something profound to dwell on.   We heard snippets from a speech by Heschel to the national Jewish Federation’s 34th General Assembly in 1965:

Being a Jew makes anonymity impossible.  A Jew represents, stands for, proclaims – even in spite of himself.  The world never sees the Jew as an individual but rather as a representative of a whole tradition, of a whole people.  A Jew is never alone…. Who is a Jew?  A person in travail with G-d’s dreams and designs; a person to whom G-d is a challenge, not an abstraction.

Later he goes on …

There are two words I should like to strike from our vocabulary – ‘surveys’ and ‘survival’ …. Our community is in spiritual distress, and some of our organizations are too often concerned with digits … The significance of Judaism does not lie in its being conducive to the mere survival of a particular people but rather in its being a source of spiritual wealth, a source of meaning relevant to all people. 

I could continue, but trying to summarize Heschel’s thoughts on even a single subject seems a bit like trying to summarize all of Genesis through a single verse. 

Speaking of which.


Genesis 21:8

The child grew and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned.


We ramped up by reading verses 21:1-8 together, which drives home the odd and disjointed nature of these verses, taking us quickly from the prior scene with Abimelech, through the birth, bris, joy, laughter, and now celebration associated with Isaac’s early years.   It seems all the more strange when you consider that these events occurred over a mere handful of verses and relative few weeks, in our time, yet probably took place over the course of several years in the life of Isaac.  Yet these few verses are all we know of Isaac’s earliest years, to this point at least.

All the more reason that our curiosity abounds.  First, we are wondering why there would have been a feast in honor of Isaac’s weaning, but apparently not for his birth, or bris.  Certainly it must have been a ritual or standard practice at the time, but if so, why?  As we have learned before, one answer may be due to the reality of their times, corresponding in part to the question of when a child would be considered old enough to say Kaddish and sit Shiva for them in the event of their death.  It seems to have been an unfortunate reality that with the increased rate of infant mortality, it would have been a relative frequent occurrence, and so an undue burden to expect families to sit Shiva regardless of the age.  Traditional Jewish practice therefore taught that one would sit Shiva only when the child that died had been at least 40 days old. Perhaps all the more reason to celebrate when a child would reach the ripe old age of being weaned. 

Second, in this case at least, we wonder if Isaac’s weaning was largely his decision, or Sarah’s, or perhaps simply a biological necessity.

And finally, what importance or impact might the feast have had, to the point where this would have been an aspect of his life worthy of discussion in Torah?

On this final note, interestingly, though perhaps not unexpectedly, we will find in coming weeks that this feast plays into a later discussion that will occur between Satan and G-d, just prior to the binding of Isaac, beginning with Genesis 22:2, which tells us that “And it happened after these words (of Chapter 21), that G-d tested Abraham.”

Rashi’s commentary regarding AFTER THESE WORDS begins with “There are those among our Rabbis who say this means ‘after the words’ of Satan who was accusing Abraham and saying out of the entire banquet that Abraham made, he did not offer before You even one bull or one ram.  G-d said to Satan, “Did he make the banquet for any reason at all other than his son?”

In other words, while we have looked backward to the birth and bris, Satan will look forward from the weaning, by asking G-d why Abraham would provide a feast to celebrate Isaac’s weaning, but not his binding. 

So whether it’s about the birth or bris before, or the binding and potential sacrifice to come, it seems nobody can throw a good weaner roast without someone complaining.

Since our Rashi group has dealt relatively little with Satan over the years (thank goodness), it seems we will be hitting the topic hard over the next several weeks.  For the moment, a bit more insight can be gleaned from Louis Ginzberg’s “The Legends of the Jews,” (1909) which is a classic work that combined hundreds of legends and parables from a lifetime of midrash research, and which summarizes the scene as follows, starting with Satan saying to G-d:

“And now his son Isaac is born to him, he has forsaken Thee. He made a great feast for all the inhabitants of the land, and the Lord he has forgotten. For amidst all that he has done, he brought Thee no offering, neither burnt offering nor peace offering, neither one lamb nor goat of all that he had killed in the day that his son was weaned. Even from the time of his son’s birth till now, being thirty-seven years, he built no altar before Thee, nor brought up any offering to Thee, for he saw that Thou didst give what he requested before Thee, and he therefore forsook Thee.”

And the Lord said to Satan: “Hast thou considered My servant Abraham? For there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man before Me for a burnt offering, and that feareth God and escheweth evil. As I live, were I to say unto him, Bring up Isaac thy son before Me, he would not withhold him from Me, much less if I told him to bring up a burnt offering before Me from his flocks or herds.”

Suffice it to say, there may be much more to learn about the weaning of Isaac.

Nor is Rashi done with our current verse, since it includes seemingly redundant references to the word for weaning, though using slight variations for the word in Hebrew – as transliterated and italicized below.

Vayigdal ha-yeled vayigamal vaya’as Avraham mishteh gadol b’yom higamel et Yitzhak.

What does Rashi take from this? 


AND WAS WEANED – at the end of twenty-four months, i.e., when he was twenty-four months old.


Somewhat abruptly, Rashi concludes that Isaac was weaned at the age of 24 months.  The footnote provides only a bit more explanation, in that “Beresheis Rabbah tells us that the use of “and he was weaned” rather than “and she weaned him” indicates that he was weaned at the age at which children naturally reject breast-feeding, at twenty-four months. “

Even the Rabbi seems content with the difference in words being due as much to grammar as with hidden meaning, based on the presence of ‘etnachta’ trope in this verse, leading to a pausal mid-verse change between the “a” and “ah” pronunciations.  Similar to the trope, and corresponding result, that is used to distinguish between min haaretz and min haeretz, or hagofen and hagefen, or potatoe and potatoe (thought I might slip that one by you).

Interesting, but all a bit underwhelming for us, so we dug deeper.

Our Rashi guest Jim astutely pointed out that the different words also remind us of the slight difference in words such as migdal and migdol in birkat hamazon – corresponding in turn to the weekday version (referring to when things will happen) and to the Shabbat version (referring to things that are happening).  Could it be that in our verse the first occurrence of weaning refers to its ongoing, or imminent, nature, while the second, a moment later, refers to the deed as done?  

Finally, Rashi hones in on one more phrase:


A GREAT FEAST – It was “great” in the sense that the great people of the generation were there: Shem and Eber and Abimelech.


Here Rashi’s concern is with the pshat, or straight-meaning reading of the term ‘great feast’, telling us that it was great in that the guests included the “A List”, or perhaps more accurately, the “Aleph List”, of its time. This confirms that Abraham, Sarah, and now Isaac were prominent people in the land, having gained the recognition and respect of others.   

Rashi suggests that three particular people (three wise men?) were in attendance – Shem, Eber and Abimelech – though we went around a bit trying to determine why these three, and how they relate to the scene, or to each other.  All the more confusing since it seems that at various times in our teachings, Abimelech might be replaced as a character by Og, or Og by Nimrod.

They do all seem related, and for present purposes, perhaps somewhat interchangeable. See for instance a recent book entitled, of all things “Torah Monarchs, including: Abimelech, Pharaoh, Amraphel, Sihon, Balak, Nimrod, Og, Arioch, Zur, Tidal (bible), Bera (bible), Melchizedek, Quando El Rey Nimrod, Pharaohs In The Hebrew Bible”. 

We never did resolve the question of why Rashi identified these three, but since we opened with a quote from Heschel, I will close with another Rabbinic quote from our study group.  

Nimrod never really goes away in the story, he has real cool clothes that allow him to talk with animals.” Rabbi A. Spilker, 2012 CE

Now you see what I have to work with. 

(Photo: anoldent)