Talmudic Lesson: God’s Smile


There is one story that has always held a strange allure for me. It appears in Genesis 25:19 to 28:9 and is about Jacob’s theft of Esau’s birthright. Every time I read it, I feel haunted. In old age, a blind Isaac asks Esau, his oldest son, to visit him. He makes it understood that the end is near and asks Esau to gather food from the field and bring it back so he might be able to bless him. The unsuspecting Esau does as he is asked, but Rebekah, Esau’s mother, eavesdrops on the conversation. While Esau is away, she briefs Jacob, Esau’s twin, about Isaac’s requests. Her advice has tragic consequences.

To a modern sensibility, the story seems like sheer melodrama, of the type one comes across in Mexican telenovelas. Melodrama, of course, is a genre marked by an overabundance of emotion, and this family is caught in a power struggle. To achieve what each wants, they engage in deceit, blackmail, and sabotage. What are we to learn from these characters? I’m especially attracted to Rebekah. She is such a conniving heroine that every time I reread what she does, I cringe.

Since Jacob is Rebekah’s favorite, she pushes him to become an impostor, to pretend to be his brother, the firstborn twin, in front of his blind father. Jacob (who later will be renamed Israel) does as his mother says. A while back, unbeknownst to his parents, he had already bought Esau’s birthright, meaning he had paid him—in labor—for the right to inherit from their father what, at the time, was due to any firstborn: the family’s leadership role. Now Jacob is simply executing his plan. This is the passage from Genesis 27 in the New King James Version where Isaac speaks to Jacob, who is passing for Esau. In typical fashion, the passage combines descriptive action with a beautiful poetic monologue, in which Isaac blesses Jacob:

18 So he went to his father and said, “My father.” And he said, “Here I am. Who are you, my son?”19 Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn; I have done just as you told me; please arise, sit and eat of my game, that your soul may bless me.” 20 But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” And he said, “Because the LORD your God brought it to me.” 21 Isaac said to Jacob, “Please come near, that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esau or not.” 22 So Jacob went near to Isaac his father, and he felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23 And he did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him. 24 Then he said, “Are you really my son Esau?” He said, “I am.” 25 He said, “Bring it near to me, and I will eat of my son’s game, so that my soul may bless you.” So he brought it near to him, and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank. 26 Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near now and kiss me, my son.” 27 And he came near and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his clothing, and blessed him and said:

“Surely, the smell of my son
Is like the smell of a field
Which the LORD has blessed.
28 Therefore may God give you
Of the dew of heaven,
Of the fatness of the earth,
And plenty of grain and wine.
29 Let peoples serve you,
And nations bow down to you.
Be master over your brethren,
And let your mother’s sons bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
And blessed be those who bless you!”

I am a father of two boys, ages seventeen and twenty-one. I love them to pieces and have raised them with a principle: neither of them is my favorite. Ours is a democratic age, or so it seems. Different as they are, the two receive the same love and shall receive the same inheritance. So I want to reflect on Rebekah’s role. I leave Jacob’s behavior for another time. (Isaac and Esau seem to me lesser characters in the story.) Why does Rebekah interfere with the family relations? Is she to blame for the feud that eventually takes place between her two sons, Esau and Jacob, which will make this (along with Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel) one of the first dysfunctional families? I’m interested in the motive and consequences of her intervention.

As a parent, I have sought neutrality when relating to my children: as they find their own path in life, my role is that of a mentor. The last I would wantis to intercede between them, to endorse one at the expense of the other. This is why Rebekah’s conduct infuriates me. Giving birth in the Bible is a traumatic experience. Earlier the reader is told that Rebekah’s pregnancy is miserable. At one point, we are told that she felt the rivalry between her twins in the womb. God said to her:

“Two nations are in your womb,
Two peoples shall be separated from your body;
One people shall be stronger than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:22–23)

Even before the twins become people, their differences are tangible. At birth, “his brother came out, and his hand took hold of Esau’s heel; so his name was called Jacob.” Their birth gives rise to conflicting feelings in Rebekah. Why does she love one more than the other? Is she simply a puppet of God, pushing the siblings to conflict because that is what they have been orchestrated to do? Twins in literature are often presented as rivals: Romulus and Remus, Artemis and Apollo, Castor and Pollux…. InOne Hundred Years of Solitude, Aureliano Segundo and José Arcadio Segundo, representing the second wave of the Buendía family in Macondo, are twins whose true identities—who is who?—are a mystery to everyone, to the point that when the twins die in Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, it isn’t clear if they are buried in the right tombs. Yet the Bible makes no mistake: one twin, Jacob, is blessed by God and his mother’s love; the other is rejected by the divine, in that he doesn’t become a protagonist in the history of the people of Israel. According to the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sotah 13b, Esau is eventually killed by Hushim, who is a descendant of Jacob, because Esau, in revenge for his brother’s earlier treachery, is said to have obstructed Jacob’s burial in the cave of Machpelah. It seems to me that Rebekah, intruding in the relationship between her husband, Isaac, and her son Esau, gives way to a wave of enormous suffering, one that—because the Bible is the preeminent moral code of the three major prophetic religions of Western civilization: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—has endless consequences, all of which could have been avoided.




I now want to switch gears by reflecting on another disturbing story, also about an intervention. It is far less known, although in Jewish rabbinical circles it is considered a primer. It belongs to the Babylonian Talmud I was referring to, in this case to tractate Bava Metzia, chapter four, 59a–59b. This tractate deals with issues governing the acquisition of movable property, and it contains an emblematic episode that offers some insight into the way that rabbis engaged in exegetical, and in this case hermeneutical, discussion. That is, into the way they squeezed meaning out of a debate. The episode goes by the name of “The Oven of Akhnai.”

An impure oven is found in Masada, Israel. Two rabbinical authorities strongly disagree about what to do. On one side is Rabbi Eliezer, a conservative thinker who argues that the oven will be considered pure if it is cut into horizontal pieces, even if the pieces are later brought back together with the help of cement. His argument is that the reconstitution of the oven makes it immune to impurity. On the other side is a liberal, even democratic thinker, Rabbi Yehoshua, whose view in this Talmudic section is more liberal than that of most of the Sages. He believes the reconstruction of the oven doesn’t preclude it from being impure.

At first sight, the debate between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua doesn’t involve heavy intellectual weaponry and, therefore, it doesn’t appear to be of consequence. However, the tension between the two authorities escalates as their intellectual engagement develops, until it reaches a breaking point. As it turns out, Rabbi Eliezer is both the protagonist and the antihero of the story. He argues in front of his opponents—Rabbi Yehoshua as well as the Sages—that his position is the right one, even though he can’t get them to endorse it.So he gets frustrated. To achieve his objective, he seeks supernatural proof of his opinion. “If the Halakhah [the Jewish Code of Law] is in accordance to me,” Rabbi Eliezer states at one point, “let this carob tree prove it.” To which the Talmud states: “The carob tree immediately uprooted itself and moved one hundred cubits—and some say four hundred cubits—from its original place.” To makes his argument effective, Rabbi Eliezer performs a miracle. Is his strategy valid?

In Jewish lore, there is the belief that an example is no proof for an argument. How about a miracle? In this case, the Sages are undeterred. They say, “Proof cannot be brought from a carob tree.” Yet the determined Rabbi Eliezer tells the Sages, “If the Halakhah is in accordance with me, let the channel of water prove it.” And once again the Talmud affirms: “[T]he channel of water immediately flowed backwards,” against the direction in which it usually flowed. Yet Rabbi Yehoshua and the Sages don’t change their minds. They respond that the channel of water—meaning a rivulet—cannot be used as proof either.

By this point the rabbinical exchange is rather heated. Before I go on to its denouement, I should say a few more words about Rabbi Eliezer. His full name is Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, and he is also known as Rabbi Eliezer the Great. A leader of the rabbinic generation immediately after the destruction to the Second Temple in Jerusalem (70 CE), he was, according to the English Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud, the owner of a magisterial memory and a pupil of the celebrated Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, known for his staunch and unflinching adherence to tradition. More significantly, Rabbi Eliezer was known to be always capable of making a decision “without transgressing against the sources,” although apparently not on this occasion of the oven recounted in Bava Metzia. In fact, the discussion around the oven of Akhnai makes Rabbi Eliezer look like a zealot. I might go even further, describing him as a nativist, perhaps even an essentialist, a thinker convinced that evolution in thought is suspect and that origins should always be kept pure and untouched. In the Mishna, the rabbinical codification of oral Jewish tradition, written between 180 and 220 CE, his principal opponent among the Sages is frequently Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananyah. The disputes are often surveyed in careful detail.

The next step taken by Rabbi Eliezer in the polarized conversation with Rabbi Yehoshua and the Sages is, in my view, the most paradigmatic. Rather than acquiesce, maybe even recognize defeat, Rabbi Eliezer goes a step further. He states that to prove him right, the walls of the House of Study will lean in one direction, as if to fall. And they do lean. Again, the Sages aren’t satisfied. They will accept evidence not from the carob tree, not from the channel of water, and not from the House of Study, whose name in Hebrew is a reference to a temple, maybe even to the Sacred Temple in Jerusalem. One might see a progression among these proofs presented by Rabbi Eliezer: the first symbolizes tradition, the second the fluidity of time, and the third the everlasting power of knowledge.

Intriguingly, Rabbi Yehoshua now takes the lead in the exchange. He does so by directly addressing the walls of the House of Study, saying to them, “[I]f Talmudic scholars argue with one another in their discussions about the Halakhah, what affair is it of yours?” In other words: he talks with an inanimate object—that is, with the physical world—asking for the epic debate among rabbis to be left alone, to be resolved between men. This is significant because Rabbi Yehoshua asks the world, nature as a whole, to remain impartial, not to intercede in a rabbinical debate. The Talmudic chapter states that, out of respect for the two rabbis, the walls neither fell down nor were straightened, and that to this day they are still inclined.

This statement is of enormous significance. Might a Talmudic debate have cosmic proportions; might it affect the universe per se? Or are these back-and-forths between authorities just the ruffling of feathers of religious titans, who in true life were isolated and, thus, their performance didn’t have larger implications? To make a larger point, let me extrapolate from the astonishing line “[W]hat affair is it of yours?”: ideas might matter, but they aren’t matter. The exchange among rabbis illustrates the human mental process, which is irrelevant to the natural order of things in which it is staged. But in “The Oven of Akhnai” this impression is not the case.

To understand the consequence of the opposition between Rabbi Eliezer’s nativist views and Rabbi Yehoshua’s liberal position, let me return to their argument. What is there next up Rabbi Eliezer’s sleeve? He emphatically tells Rabbi Yehoshua and the Sages, “If the Halakhah is in accordance with me, let it be proved directly from heaven.” And here something extraordinary takes place: a voice from above comes down saying, “Why are you disputing with Rabbi Eliezer? The Halakhah is in accordance with him in all circumstances.” It might be useful to add at this point that Rabbi Eliezer was said to be, by one great rabbi, wise to such a degree that “if all the Sages of Israel were on one side of the scale and he were on the other, he would outweigh them all.” The episode of “The Oven of Akhnai” refutes this statement.

(By the way, Akhnai is an Aramaic word that means “snake” or “viper.” In relation to this passage, the Gemara, which is a component of the Talmud, asks why the oven is named after a snake. In response, a Mishna, which is a narrative within the Talmud, suggests this clash of views replicates the way a snake entwines Rabbi Eliezer in words as he refuses to recognize the implications of his argument.)

Back to the rabbinical dispute. The high point is clearly the moment when Rabbi Eliezer asks God himself to intercede. And Bat Kol, the voice from heaven—i.e., God’s enunciations—described as “the still small voice that spoke in the wilderness,” says: “Why are you disputing with Rabbi Eliezer? For the Halakhah is in accordance with him everywhere.” The Sages, annoyed by the heavenly voice, cry foul. Rabbi Yehoshua quotes from Deuteronomy 30:12: “The Torah is not in heaven.” In Hebrew, the sentence reads, “Loh ba-shamayim hi.” The Talmud, self-referentially, wonders what the meaning of such a quotation is, to which it responds, in the view of Rabbi Yirmeyah, that since God already gave the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, we no longer listen to heavenly voices. That is, disputes about the meaning of any passage are left to humans to decide. God is irrelevant.

I find this turn of events nothing short of stunning. The task of the Jewish people is hermeneutical in nature: to interpret the Torah. Indeed, the exegetical tradition that spans over two millennia is founded on interpretation: we are who we are because we argue. Who is God to come down in favor of one rabbi against another? That question, it strikes me, is what is at the heart of this Talmudic segment: Can God resolve a human dispute? The answer is No: it is stated that Halakhic disputes must be solved democratically, by a majority of votes. But the tractate Baba Metzia, with this story of the oven, offers an extraordinary twist. It states that generations later, Rabbi Natan, intrigued by the altercation between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, had a vision. In the vision he asked Elijah the Prophet what the Almighty did when Rabbi Yehoshua refused to heed the heavenly voice. Elijah the Prophet responded, “God smiled and said, ‘My sons have defeated me! My sons have defeated me!’” In Hebrew, the echoing sentence is “Nitzjuni banai! Nitzjuni banai!

Like that of Rebekah, this intervention is a parental one: in the Bible (and especially in the King James Version, produced in Elizabethan times), God is portrayed as a fatherly figure. He is also seen, influenced by economic structures, as the Lord. Here the lordly role is that of an interfering parent. But unlike the mess Rebekah makes, God’s intervention in this rabbinical dispute leads nowhere: he isn’t able to affect the choices of his children. Why does the Bat Kol announce its choice if God has already established that his creatures must resolve their differences on their own? God acts irrationally, siding with one child at the expense of the others. And His impulse ends up diminishing His power, because his preference doesn’t help Rabbi Eliezer win the contest.

Why does God smile? How to interpret that smile? Is it the gesture of a father who looks with satisfaction at his children’s education? That, at first sight, appears to be the common interpretation. Yet the text requires a deeper reading. The God of the Hebrew Bible isn’t given to irony. Whenever He utters a word, whenever He performs an act, he does it with a straight face. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” There is no distance between his performance and the affirmation of it.

Nevertheless, in this Talmudic episode, God’s position is more complex. He first smiles, then says his children have defeated him. By “defeated,” does He mean that his position as ruler of meaning is no longer tenable? Why “defeated” and not “outdone”? After all, it seems as if humans learned the lesson God taught us, a lesson that makes Him redundant.†[1]

The narrative of “The Oven of Akhnai” continues. As a result of Rabbi Eliezer’s daring, uncompromising position, the Sages take a vote and opt to excommunicate him. Interestingly, the word in this section for “excommunication” is “blessed.” But first, they bring all the foodstuffs connected with the oven of Akhnai and burn them. No one wants to convey the news to Rabbi Eliezer. The task is left to his pupil, Rabbi Akivah. Rabbi Akivah dresses in black garments and sits before Rabbi Eliezer at a distance of four cubits. Rabbi Eliezer asks Rabbi Akivah: “What is the difference between yesterday and today?”To which Rabbi Akivah responds, “It seems to me that your colleagues are staying away from you.” Rabbi Eliezer understands the message. He rends his garments and takes off his shoes as he sits on the floor, in a sign of mourning. And he cries “of shame and anguish.”

And the Talmud says that as a sign of heaven’s empathy for earth, “the world was smitten. One-third of the olives, one-third of the wheat, and one-third of the barley were destroyed.” It adds that “indeed, some say that even the dough in women’s kitchens swelled and spoiled.” The Gemara says that “there was great divine wrath on the day that Rabbi Eliezer was excommunicated and a great calamity befell the world, for whatever Rabbi Eliezer laid his eyes upon was burnt.” A vendetta even took place against the leader of the Sages, Rabban Gamaliel: “He was traveling on a ship, and a huge wave rose over him to drown him.”

As he is contemplating death, Rabban Gamaliel realizes his fate is connected to the excommunication of Rabbi Eliezer. He rises to his feet, saying, “Master of the Universe, you know full well that I did not excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer for my own personal honor, for the honor of my father’s house. Rather, Rabbi Eliezer was excommunicated for Your honor, because it is essential that no individual, great as he may be, should reject a decision reached by the majority, so that controversies will not multiply in Israel.” The denouement arrives as the reader is finally told, “Swayed by Rabban Gamaliel’s explanation, the sea then rested from its wrath.” The statement implies that human debates are God’s entertainment, and that He enjoys them as a pendulum, swinging from one end to another. In other words: Extremism is unadvisable. In spite of His divine intervention, God doesn’t endorse intolerant, intransigent attitudes among His creatures.




Why are the two stories of Rebekah and Rabbi Eliezer so devastating? And why can’t I get over them? Because they tell us that no matter how humble or how dignified we pretend to be, it is impossible—even for God—not to get enmeshed in the dirty business of life. And life is indeed dirty, made of an infinite number of occasions on which, no matter how objective, how impartial we want to be, our actions will have reverberations—they will affect others in unforeseen ways. Because, in essence, avoiding taking sides is an ideal repeatedly betrayed. The act of living is, in and of itself, a way of taking sides. Because Rebekah, one of the four biblical matriarchs, is shameful in her action. But so is God. And if God isn’t above the fray, who will be?

I am flabbergasted by these episodes because they showcase behavior—taking sides—that I have found myself either avoiding or repeating. And I smile. What does that smile mean? That I’m fallible, that I’m human. Nitzjuni banai!


Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the publisher of Restless Books. His latest books are Borges, the Jew (SUNY), Quixote: The Novel and the World (Norton), and Words in Transit: Stories of Immigrants (Massachusetts). He is the editor of All the Odes of Pablo Neruda (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), due out in October.

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[1] As an aside, I can’t help wonder: Isn’t this the opposite reaction to the furor God emits when, in the episode of the Tower of Babel, he expresses displeasure at the human attempt to usurp his role as supreme ruler? Why doesn’t he smile there?

Megan DoTalmudic Lesson: God’s Smile

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