A Random Walk With Rashi –What Hammurabi Says, And All The More So

Hammurabi's Code

As we finish Verse 21:9 of Genesis, and move on, I’ve come to a conclusion. Forget Sandusky. These verses are far less about Ishmael “mocking” Isaac and far more about Sarah using this as the opportunity and time to assert Isaac’s right to inherit, over the right of Ishmael.

It’s starting to make more sense.

To this point, Ishmael has been a legitimate son to Abraham, but little more than an insurance policy for Sarah, serving to provide them both with at least one son that could inherit from Abraham, even if that son were born to a servant, Hagar (literally, the stranger).

Now we are at the point where Sarah has given birth to Isaac, who in fact has survived infancy (not a given back then), and has just reached the point of being weaned, which is being celebrated in the form of a great feast. To assert Isaac’s right to inherit any sooner may have been premature. To wait could be problematic, particularly if Abraham were to die in the interim, or Ishmael were to gain even more in the way of position or stature. It seems entirely possible, as well, that under the laws or mores of their time, a son was not able to inherit until he was weaned. For Sarah to make her move now has the added benefit of having Abraham either distracted by the feast, or perhaps even feeling a bit ‘under the gun’ because of it – and all at an ideal point in time, with their “A list” of visitors there to take note.

For a while it seemed strange that commentators could be so split as to whether the term “mitzachek” (“mocking”, in our translation) actually suggests that anything sinister went on between the two boys, or was anything more than just playful. And there seem to be few positions in between. On balance, most commentators seemed to favor the less severe translation, in spite of Rashi’s onerous comments to the contrary (comparing the use of mitzachek here with such things as idolatry and murder when used elsewhere).

But as one commentator suggests, even playfulness, at the moment of the feast, might have gone to the heart of why Sarah felt compelled to take action. Another commentator (Alter) went even further, to suggest that there is far more than coincidence and clear similarity between the words Yitzchak and mitzachek, which end adjacent verses – to the point where the “mitzachek” suggests that Sarah saw Ishmael “Isaac-ing”, or presuming to play the role of Isaac, and in turn, presuming to be the legitimate heir.

Lets take a look at the text. Rashi’s take on the verse is confusing, and convoluted – if he is trying to give us the pshat, or straight-reading interpretation, he’s doing a very un-Rashi-like job of it.

Genesis 21:10: So she said to Abraham, “Drive out this slavewoman and her son, for the son of that slavewoman shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac!”

Since he is my son, Ishmael should not inherit with him, even if he were not as upright as Isaac actually is, or if he were only as upright as Isaac, even if he were not my son, this one, Ishmael, would not be worthy to inherit with him. All the more so that Ishmael should not inherit “with my son, with Isaac” for he has both [qualities]; he is my son, and he is upright”.

Before trying to unravel this, we began our study group with Rabbi reviewing the actual text of the Hammurabi/Lipit Ishtar laws that existed at the time of Abraham, from his book Law Collections from Mesopatamia and Asia Minor. It is important to remember that these laws provide a context and backdrop to our current story, and one that certainly impacted, if not controlled what occurred.

These laws, in turn, preceded our own Torah. Among the many differences between them, it may be most telling to realize that these ancient laws tended to treat people according to strict social strata – the penalty for a slave doing something to a working class person, for instance, would likely be much more severe that the penalty for royalty doing that same thing, to the same working class person. Our Torah, by contrast, began to drop those distinctions, and level the playing field as between social strata. Facebook, of course, brings it all back in again. Not really, just a light hearted jab at Facebook. Then again ….

But turning back to the ancient laws, at para. 26 of Lipit Ishtar (I could be wrong in that cite, but how are you going to know), we learn:

“If a man’s first ranking wife bears him children, and his slave woman bears him children, and the father during his lifetime then declares to the children who the slave woman bore to him, and he reckons them with the children of the first ranking wife after the father goes to his fate, the children of the first ranking wife and the children of the slave woman shall equally divide the property of the paternal estate.”

Pretty modern sounding stuff, all things considered. And imagine this all, and more, written down 4000 years ago in the form of scratches on a stone tablet. I can barely get it all right with Word and spell check.

No doubt these very laws provided the backdrop for the two-part test that Sarah now poses to Abraham, namely, that preference should be given to the son that is more “upright” and to the son of the higher ranking wife (i.e., her). And it just so happens that Isaac meets both tests, while Ishmael meets neither.

So enough already with mocking. We are now into “upright”.

The Hebrew word for upright (hagun) is not a particularly common or insightful one. It is not, for instance, the same as the word we might expect here – righteousness.

Considerable insight is provided in the article entitled “Hogen”, by Rabbi Julian Sinclair, February 4, 2010, which provides in part:

“While many Israelis will grumble against an injustice with the words, “lo fair” (“It’s not fair”), there is an authentic Hebrew word for fair or appropriate: hogen.

Maimonidies writes in his “Laws of Torah Study” (4:1): “We teach Torah only to a student who is hagun and pleasant in his deeds.”

Upright behaviour is a prerequisite for Torah scholarship. When discussing the meaning of the prohibition of placing a stumbling block before a blind man (Leviticus 19:14), the Safra states, “Do not give someone advice that is not hogenet to him” — appropriate to his situation. Higayon means logic.

Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, the biblical commentator who also wrote on grammar and mathematics, declares: “An educated person must know the wisdom of higayon for the sake of his Torah study.” He was referring to the Greek system of logic that was popular in Muslim Spain and could be a useful hermeneutic tool.

The Talmud (Ta’anit 7a) mentions three people who spoke shelo kahogen, inappropriately. The worst example was Jephthah (Judges 11:31) who promised to sacrifice to God the first thing that came forth from his house — and his daughter was to pay the price.”

And backing up a step, just what is it that Ishmael and/or Isaac stand to inherit? Certainly money and wealth, which Abraham had plenty of, but in this case far more than that. Abraham’s own use of the term inherit (yerash/yerusha) goes back, at least, to his conversation with G-d at Genesis 15:7-8, in which HASHEM tells Abraham that he will be able to “inherit” the land, to which Abraham replies “Whereby shall I know that I am to inherit it?” This leads to instructions for a scene that will include sacrifice and a great darkness, in what is known as the ‘covenant of the pieces’. It was curious to Rashi at the time, that Abraham needed a sign to confirm he would inherit the land, but asked for no such sign to confirm G-d’s other promise, that of a son to be born to Sarah.

Finally, regarding Verse 21:10, we learn that the key words in Rashi’s commentary are “all the more so,” reflecting one of the thirteen rules of Rabbi Ishmael b. Elisha, for use in studying and understanding Torah. The particular rule invoked here provides that “if the smaller situation is true, all the more so would the larger be true as well.”

This leads us, of course, to Shabbat (we are the Random study group after all). According to halachah, the bracha over the bread takes precedence over the blessing over the wine, yet the blessing over the wine is said first. In turn, the challah is covered during the blessing over the wine, to prevent it from being humiliated during the wine’s blessing. (And you call us random?) Obviously, the inanimate challah cannot really suffer humiliation. Instead, the practice of covering the challah is symbolic, for various reasons, including to impress upon us how, if we are concerned with the bread’s feelings – all the more so – we should be sensitive to the feelings of those around us.

We could consider this a full session, to be sure, but all the more so if we peek ahead to the next verse.

Genesis 21:11: The matter greatly distressed Abraham regarding his son.

For he heard that he had gone forth to, i.e., adopted, evil behavior. And its simple meaning is, regarding her telling him to send him away.

From this we conclude, for the moment, that Abraham really does love Ishmael as a son, and it is this love that leads to his current distress. As if we needed reassurance, we are reminded of Midrash Tanhuma for Genesis 22:2 (the Akedah), which suggests that the discussion between G-d and Abraham went something like this:

He [Abraham] said to him “which son?”
He said to him “This one [Isaac] is the only son of his mother, and that other one [Ishmael] is the only son of his mother.
He said to him “Sovereign of the World, is there a limit to the affections [i.e., I love them both] He said to him

This, in turn, reminds us of the similar dialogue two millenia later, in the scene with Cary Grant in the movie “The Bachelor and the Bobby-soxer”:

You remind me of a man.
What man?
A man with a power.
What power?
The power of Hoodo.
Who do?
You do.
Do what?
Remind me of a man.
What man?
[and so it goes]


Enough for one week.

But we close with a suggestion to listen in on the recent NPR interview with Nathan Englander, in connection with his “New American Haggadah” which is about to be published, and in turn, his thoughts regarding the power and importance of translation and the the translator.

By way of example, Englander points to the phrase “bein kodesh l’kodesh,” as said on Pesach, which is often translated as distinguishing “between Shabbat and the holiday”. Englander suggests that this misses the poetry and meaning in the original Hebrew – which he instead translates as “between the holy and holy”. Considerably different, far more intriguing, and likely to be lost, or at least changed somewhat, in whatever translation – English or otherwise – you may opt to rely upon.

(Photo: Gabriele B)