Monthly Archives: November 2013

Shabbat Chanukah

The Haftarah of Shabbat Chanukah is the vision of the Menorah in Zechariah. (It is also read for the Parsha of Beha’alotcha.)

Linear Annotated Translation of the Haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah

What does it have to do with Chanukah? A Light in the Darkness

There are other connections – between Levi and Greece, Nature and Miracles, Yosef and Chanukah – that will have to wait for other years.

An interesting fact: The symbol of the State of Israel, the Menorah surrounded by two olive branches, was not actually inspired by the Haftarah of Chanukah:
??? ??????

This article (in Hebrew), “an interview with the designers of the symbol” from 1949, makes it clear that they had never read Zechariah.

Perhaps we no longer have prophecy, but the Children of Israel are descendants of prophets.

1 Comment

Filed under Shabbat Chanukah, Special Shabbatot

Shabbat Chanukah – A Light in the Darkness

The Haftarah describes the visions of the prophet Zechariah, encouraging the Jewish People who had returned to Jerusalem and began to rebuild the Temple. One of those visions was that of a Menorah surrounded by two olive trees. The Haftarah tells us that Zechariah did not understand the significance of this symbol:

(ד) וָאַעַן וָאֹמַר אֶל הַמַּלְאָךְ הַדֹּבֵר בִּי לֵאמֹר מָה אֵלֶּה אֲדֹנִי:
(ה) וַיַּעַן הַמַּלְאָךְ הַדֹּבֵר בִּי וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי הֲלוֹא יָדַעְתָּ מָה הֵמָּה אֵלֶּה וָאֹמַר לֹא אֲדֹנִי:
4) I spoke up and said to the angel that spoke with me, saying,
“What are these, my lord?”
5) The angel who spoke with me answered, and said to me,
“Don’t you know what these are?”
I said, “No, my lord.” (Zechariah 4)

The angel is surprised that Zechariah is unfamiliar with the Menorah’s message. Indeed, this is puzzling. How could Zecharia not know that the Menorah is the symbol of the Jewish People, of our perseverance and courage, of the light that we project to the world?

Zechariah was not aware of the Menorah’s symbolism because until that point in our history, the Jewish People did not use it as a symbol. During the times of the Judges, our symbol was the Altar with its unique shape; in the time of King David, our symbol was the Ark of the Covenant, with its distinctive Cherubim. The Menorah had no more nor less significance than any of the other holy objects in the Temple, such as the Table or the Copper Sink.

Zechariah lived during the rebuilding of the Second Temple. They did not have the original holy objects that Moshe had made. The famous Ark, the symbol of G-d’s direct prophetic connection with the Jewish People, was gone. Zechariah was one of the last prophets – the era of prophecy was drawing to a close and a new era was about to begin. In the Haftarah, Zechariah was told that the symbol of this new era will be the Menorah.

The Midrash describes the time period of the Second Temple in terms of the oppressors of the Jewish People.

ר”ש בן לקיש פתר קריא בגליות, והארץ היתה תהו זה גלות בבל …, ובהו זה גלות מדי …, וחושך זה גלות יון שהחשיכה עיניהם של ישראל בגזירותיהן שהיתה אומרת להם, כתבו על קרן השור שאין לכם חלק באלהי ישראל…
R’ Shimon ben Lakish explained the verse according to the four exiles: “The earth was null”, is the Babylonian Exile.. “void” is the Persian…, “darkness” is the Greek Exile, for it darkened the eyes of Israel with their decrees, and said to them: write on the horn of an ox that you have no portion in the G-d of Israel… (Midrash Breishit Rabba 2)

It parses the verse in Breishit 1:2, “The earth was null, and void, and darkness was over the abyss,” as referring to the Four Exiles: Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome. The Midrash associates Greece, the third in the list, with the third noun in the verse: darkness.

To Western Civilization, Ancient Greece represents the light of the intellect and the light of beauty. Indeed, the Talmud expresses appreciation for the beauty that Greece brought to the world, and even suggests that the Torah can benefit from contact with it. Why then, does the Midrash call Greece “darkness”?

Greek culture introduced a new mindset where people were aware of only their own individual consciousness and experience, of physical, visible beauty, of intellectual, personal accomplishment. They were neither interested, nor aware of, anything outside the five tangible senses.

This mindset destroyed the ability of human beings to experience an awareness of their Creator, which was a prerequisite for prophecy.

Many centuries have passed since prophecy disappeared, and now even the idea of prophecy is alien to us. There had been another sense that people could access, and that sense disappeared and cannot even be described. We are told that during the age of prophecy there had been a general awareness of G-d’s Presence of which we now feel only an echo. A full-strength connection like those experienced by our greater prophets was described as “sweeter than honey”. After the ascendance of Greek materialism, that connection was severed, forever. As the Midrash states, Greece, “darkened our eyes.”

Moreover, the Greeks resented the very suggestion of the existence of any other reality, any other sense. They denied any connection of the Jewish People to the G-d of Israel. They forbade all visible signs of that connection – Shabbat, Brit Mila, Jewish Holidays, and learning Torah. It was then that the Jewish People, led by the sons of Matityahu, rose up against them. And when that battle was won, they celebrated by lighting the Menorah, the symbol of the eternal connection of the Jewish People to G-d, the Torah.

We no longer know what it feels like to receive prophecy, but we still have the recorded prophetic experience of our people – the Tanach. We still have the Torah she’be’al Peh, the Oral Tradition, which gives us, among other things, the methodology for extracting unlimited levels of meaning from the Torah. The little bit of pure “oil” of the Torah has been giving off light for millennia.

We cannot compete with the might of the Greek Empire, or the strength of Western Civilization. But even without prophecy, the Menorah continues to be the symbol of the Jewish People, of our perseverance and courage, of the light of the Torah and of our unbreakable connection to its Giver.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Connections, Shabbat Chanukah, Special Shabbatot


The Haftarah of VaYeishev is from Amos, one of the smaller books in Trei Asar.

Often, VaYeishev comes out on Chanukah, and the special Chanukah Haftarah is read instead.

Linear Annotated Translation of the Haftarah of VaYeishev

The main connection to the Parsha is based on the first verse of the Haftarah, which Chazal interpret as referring to the sale of Yosef.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Sefer Breishit, VaYeishev

VaYeishev: For Profit

The Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni Vayeishev 142 says:

וימכרו את יוסף לישמעאלים בעשרים כסף כל אחד ואחד מהם נטל שני כספים לקנות מנעלים לרגליהם שנאמר על מכרם בכסף צדיק ואביון בעבור נעלים

“They sold Yosef to the Yishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver”. Each one of them took two pieces, to buy shoes for their feet, as it says (Amos 2), “For selling out the righteous for money, a pauper for a pair of shoes.”

According to this Midrash, Yosef’s brothers sold him for two pieces of silver each, and used the money to buy themselves shoes. The Midrash bases this on a verse in the Haftarah, which talks about the sin of selling a “Tzaddik,” a righteous person, for a pair of shoes. In our tradition, “the Tzaddik” is Yosef’s title; just as we say “Avraham Avinu” and “Moshe Rabbeinu”, Yosef is “Yosef HaTzaddik”. Therefore, “selling a Tzaddik” refers to the sale of Yosef.

However, this is very difficult to explain in the context of the Haftarah itself, which is not actually about Yosef and does not make any other references to his story. It also doesn’t make sense for the prophet Amos, who was addressing the Kingdom of Israel, to blame them, Yosef’s descendants, for the sale of Yosef. Therefore, the Midrash is not suggesting that Amos was actually referring to the sale of Yosef when he delivered his prophecy. Rather, the Midrash wants us to take what the Haftarah says about selling a Tzaddik for money, and use it to better understand the sale of Yosef.

Let us see what the Haftarah can tell us about that very difficult and painful topic.

In the original context of the Haftarah, the Jewish People are accused of having judges that were so corrupt and so easily bribed that they would take the price of a pair of shoes as their payoff. What kind of a person would falsely convict an innocent man for a pair of shoes?

In general, everybody has a price. Any human being can be made to betray his principles if the temptation is high enough, or if the cost is too great. But when a person accepts an inexpensive everyday object as a bribe, then perhaps the betrayal, too, is a minor everyday occurrence. If so, it can no longer even be called betrayal; it is simply a reflection of his actual value system. To such a person, money is far more important than justice.

According to the Midrash, this was also true for Yosef’s brothers. They were obsessed with money, and it was more important to them than anything else. We can see this from their reaction to Yosef’s first dream:

וְהִנֵּה אֲנַחְנו ּמְאַלְּמִים אֲלֻמִּים בְּתוֹךְ הַשָּׂדֶה וְהִנֵּה קָמָה אֲלֻמָּתִי וְגַם נִצָּבָה וְהִנֵּה תְסֻבֶּינָה אֲלֻמֹּתֵיכֶם וַתִּשְׁתַּחֲוֶיןָ לַאֲלֻמָּתִי.
Here we are making sheaves in the field; and my sheaf rose up and stood and your sheaves surrounded it and bowed down to my sheaf. (Bereishit 37:7)

In this dream, Yosef sees sheaves of grain that represent himself and his brothers. However, the family business was not farming; it was herding. As a lifestyle, herding is very different from agriculture. A shepherd is free to go wherever he wants and depends on no man. In contrast, a farmer is land-bound, and dependent on the civilization around him. Shepherds bow to no one; farmers bow to everyone. What infuriated Yosef’s brothers about the dream was not only that they would bow down to their arrogant younger brother. It was the implication that they would abandon their life style, become farmers, and as a result of that be forced to bow down to their arrogant younger brother. The dream implies the destruction of their livelihood, their “parnassa”. It is as much about money as it is about power.

The issue of money is mentioned explicitly when they decide to get rid of Yosef’s threat to their pocketbooks by getting rid of Yosef himself. As they contemplate how best to do so, Yehudah makes the following suggestion:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה אֶל אֶחָיו מַה בֶּצַע כִּי נַהֲרֹג אֶת אָחִינוּ וְכִסִּינוּ אֶת דָּמוֹ,לְכוּ וְנִמְכְּרֶנּוּ לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים.
Yehudah said to his brothers, “Where is the profit in killing our brother, and covering his blood? Let us sell him to the Yishmaelites.” (Bereishit 37:26)

When Yehudah says “where is the profit?” he shows very clearly what his priorities are. There must always be a profit; it doesn’t matter how much, as long as there’s a profit. So they sell him into slavery and almost certain death from malnutrition and abuse, for the grand sum of twenty pieces of silver, split ten ways.
As the Midrash points out, by accepting a minimal price for their brother’s life, they show that their obsession with money warped their sense of right and wrong. Ironically, it also blinded them to Yosef’s potential for contributing to the family’s financial well-being.

The brothers were sure that Yosef was ignorant of the power of money. However, the Torah goes out of its way to point out the key role that money played in Yosef’s life. It tells us many times that everything Yosef touched would prosper. He had a talent for managing resources; he could administer any economic system, and create new ones when needed. Ultimately, “Yosef collected all the money that was in Egypt” (Bereishit 47:14). What did he do with it? What was its importance to Yosef? The Torah tells us: “Yosef provided for his father and his brothers, food for the entire family” (Bereishit 47:12).

To Yosef, money was simply an effective tool to ensure that people have what they need. He never gave it power over himself, and never allowed it to cloud his sense of right and wrong. Throughout the many stories that the Torah records of Yosef, we see that he never compromised his principles under any circumstances. That is why he is called Yosef HaTzaddik.
To the brothers, who sold Yosef HaTzaddik for just enough silver to buy a pair of shoes, money had become a compulsion, a value in and of itself, an end that justified any means.

When they asked, “where is the profit”, they showed that they had neither principle nor profit.

Copyright © Kira Sirote 
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל

Leave a Comment

Filed under Connections, Sefer Breishit, VaYeishev


The Haftarah of VaYishlach is the entire book of Ovadiah . It is addressed to Edom, the nation founded by Esav.

Linear Annotated Translation of the Haftarah of VaYishlach

There are several connections where the Haftarah gives us additional perspective on the Parsha:

As a special bonus, the following shows how an understanding of the Haftarah can affect Jewish History itself:
The Haftarah says, in verse 17:

 וּבְהַר צִיּוֹן תִּהְיֶה פְלֵיטָה וְהָיָה קֹדֶשׁ

But in MountTzion there will be refuge, and it will be holy.

The somewhat unusual phrase “refuge” is also used in the Parsha:  as Yaakov prepares his family for a possible war with Esav, he splits them into two camps:

(ט) וַיֹּאמֶר אִם יָבוֹא עֵשָׂו אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה הָאַחַת וְהִכָּהוּ וְהָיָה הַמַּחֲנֶה הַנִּשְׁאָר לִפְלֵיטָה:

He said: “If Esav will come to one camp and destroy it; the remaining camp will be a refuge. (Breishit 32:9)

Yaakov’s actions have served as a paradigm in Jewish history. In every generation, the Jewish people are threatened.  Sometimes G-d saves us; at other times one of our camps is destroyed, and the other serves as a refuge. As Jerusalem was destroyed, there was Bavel, when Bavel faltered, there was Spain and France, as Spain was destroyed, there was North Africa and Eastern Europe.

Since the destruction of the First Temple, the surviving camp has never been in Jerusalem.  But this time, says the prophet, it will be Tzion that is the refuge – this time, G-d will not let anyone touch it. It will be “holy”, as in “kodesh LaHashem” – dedicated to G-d, set aside for Him, inviolate.

This verse from Ovadiah, “In Mount Tzion there will be refuge”, is inscribed on the building of the Ponevezher Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. The story is told[1] about Rav Yosef Kahaneman, whose huge Torah institution in the Lithuanian town of Ponevezh, was completely destroyed by the Nazis. Just before the war started, he managed to escape on a special visa, and made his way to Eretz Yisrael.  Despite having lost everything, his entire life’s work, in 1944 Rav Kahaneman purchased land in a barren lot near Tel Aviv, and excitedly told everyone there would be a Yeshiva there. People thought he was insane – German troops were heading for Palestine!  They were about to be occupied by the Nazis and destroyed! What Yeshiva?!

Yet, at that time, it was clear to Rav Kahaneman, that the time for the words of Ovadiah had come:  this time, the refuge, the surviving community, would be in Tzion, and it would need to be “kodesh”.



[1] See “Builders: R’ Kotler, R’ Kahaneman, and Sarah Schneirer”, by Hanoch Teller


Leave a Comment

Filed under Sefer Breishit, VaYishlach

VaYishlach: The Kings of Edom vs the Kingdom of Hashem

The Haftarah of VaYishlach tells us about G-d’s anger at Edom, the descendants of Esav. It ends with this famous verse:

וְעָלוּ מוֹשִׁעִים בְּהַר צִיּוֹן לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת הַר עֵשָׂו וְהָיְתָה לַה’ הַמְּלוּכָה:
The saviors of Mount Tzion will go up, to judge Mount Esav. And then the kingdom will be Hashem’s! (Ovadiah 1:21)

According to the Haftarah, kingdom will belong to G-d only after Esav is vanquished. What is it about Esav that stands in the way of G-d’s dominion over the world?
At the end of Parshat VaYishlach, the Torah lists the chieftains and the kings that were the descendants of Esav:

וְאֵלֶּה הַמְּלָכִים אֲשֶׁר מָלְכוּ בְּאֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם לִפְנֵי מְלָךְ מֶלֶךְ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
These are the kings that ruled in the land of Edom before there was ever a king of B’nei Yisrael. (Breishit 36:31)

It is interesting that the Torah finds it necessary to point out to us that Edom had kings long before Israel did. The Torah ends without there being a king in Israel, and even the commandment to appoint a king is phrased with a degree of ambivalence. Yet this verse makes it sound as though Edom is ahead of us in this, that they were established, organized, with a strong central government and a stable dynasty, while the Jewish People are to this day unsure whether a monarchy is a commandment or a concession. The Torah tells us: Israel will have kings, with greater or lesser success, but Esav is all about kingdom. Esav defines himself by his power and influence, and the wider it spreads, the better.

In order to appreciate some of the complexity of how the Torah views kingdom, we need to go back to the first person it describes as a king, Nimrod.

הוּא הָיָה גִבֹּר צַיִד לִפְנֵי ה’ עַל כֵּן יֵאָמַר כְּנִמְרֹד גִּבּוֹר צַיִד לִפְנֵי ה’: וַתְּהִי רֵאשִׁית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ בָּבֶל וְאֶרֶךְ וְאַכַּד וְכַלְנֵה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר:
He was a great hunter before Hashem; thus it would be said, “Like Nimrod, a great hunter before Hashem. The beginning of his kingdom was Bavel, Erech, Akkad and Kalna, in the land of Shin’ar. (Bereishit 10:9-10)

Rashi quotes Chazal’s opinion of “hunting”:

גבור ציד – צד דעתן של בריות בפיו ומטען למרוד במקום:
“Great hunter”: he would capture the opinions of people with his speech, and entice them to rebel against G-d. (Rashi, Bereishit 10:9)

Hunting animals would not be worth mentioning in the Torah. It has no interest in Nimrod’s trophy room. It must be that it was not only animals that Nimrod hunted, but also people. He found ways to trap their minds and thoughts and make them do his bidding. Until then, the only ruler in the world was the Creator. When Nimrod became “a great hunter before Hashem,” he introduced the concept of an earthly power that replaces G-d in the eyes of mankind.

Ramban presents the history of the origins of Nimrod’s empire, as the origins of the idea of kingdom in general:

והנכון בעיני, כי הוא החל להיות מושל בגבורתו על האנשים, והוא המולך תחלה, כי עד ימיו לא היו מלחמות ולא מלך מלך, וגבר תחלה על אנשי בבל עד שמלך עליהם, ואחר כן יצא אל אשור ועשה כרצונו והגדיל, ובנה שם ערים בצורות בתקפו ובגבורתו, וזהו שאמר ותהי ראשית ממלכתו בבל וארך ואכד וכלנה:
As I see it, [Nimrod] began to rule with his might over the people, and he was the first king, for until his era there were neither wars nor kings. First, he took over the people of Bavel until he became their king, then he went out towards Ashur and did as he wished there and expanded [his rule]; he built fortified cities in his power and might. This is what it means by “The beginning of his empire was Bavel and Erech and Akkad and Kalna”. (Ramban, Bereishit 10:9)

Nimrod was the first to force people to do his will; the first to fight a war of conquest, the first to conquer more territory than he could use, the first king and emperor.
Like Nimrod, Esav is introduced as a hunter. On that verse, Rashi interprets the term “hunting” the same way as he did for Nimrod:

יודע ציד – לצוד ולרמות את אביו בפיו
“Knows hunting”: to trap and trick his father with his speech (Rashi, Bereishit 25:27)

In Rashi’s eyes, manipulating people into doing what you want is a skill akin to hunting. There is a ruler and a subject, a hunter and its prey, traps and weapons. The human gift of speech is turned toward the purpose of exercising power over others, subverting their will. This is not leadership for the well-being of the people, nor is it the conquest of the Earth commanded to Adam. This is raw power for its own sake. Esav, like Nimrod, “hunts” people in order to own their allegiance.

According to Targum Yonatan (Bereishit 25:27), on the day that Esav came back weary from the field and sold his birthright to Yaakov, he had fought and defeated Nimrod. Esav becomes Nimrod’s spiritual heir: like Nimrod, Esav is born with the need for power, for controlling other people. Esav kills Nimrod not to destroy what he had been, but rather to possess it for himself. Esav’s path is the same as Nimrod’s strategy described by Ramban – conquer your neighbors, create an army, build an empire. Replace G-d.

Esav carries out this strategy. By the time Yaakov comes back from Aram at the beginning of our Parsha, Esav was living in Se’ir and it was already known as Edom.
Ramban explains (Bereishit 36:6) that Se’ir had been a tribe led by a clan chief; Esav moved in and took over. The country was renamed Edom, and after several generations of Esav’s rule, the descendants of Esav went from being chieftains to being full-fledged kings, a much higher level of organization and leadership. A chieftain has power over his clan by virtue of the loyalty sworn to him personally, while a king’s subjects owe him allegiance and are subject to his power and authority, even though they may never have direct contact with the king. His influence extends through his officers and ministers by virtue of his ability to “hunt people.”

If this ability is used for the sake of gathering as much power as possible, to replace G-d, then it is damaging to human society.

The Haftarah tell us that at the End of Days, Esav’s quest for power will no longer be tolerated. When Moshiach comes, one of his tasks will be to send a delegation to Esav and “judge” them. Esav’s descendants cannot be allowed to attempt to wrest power away from G-d, and replace His Will with their own. If people are to serve G-d, to do what is good and right, they must be free. They cannot be “hunted” by the likes of Esav.

Does that mean that Esav will need to be totally destroyed? The Ramban quotes a Midrash that suggests otherwise.

ר ‘ דרשו אלוף עירם, שהוא עתיד לערום תיסוריות למלך המשיח, במהרה יגלה:
And regarding Iram, the rabbis said: he is destined to gather treasures for the Moshiach, let him be revealed soon. (Ramban, Breishit 36)

Iram, the very last of the “chieftains” mentioned in the Parsha, refers to the final incarnation of Esav, during the days of Moshiach. Moshiach will find him a role that utilizes his powers and abilities for the good of mankind. In our society, “gathering treasures” requires the “hunting of minds.” Our entire economy is based on the ability of people to communicate and influence others, be it finance, sales, or the management of large corporations. This sphere can be viewed as yet another frontier to conquer, yet another way to amass power, yet another way to manipulate people. Or, it can be viewed as a way of “gathering treasures for Moshiach” – making the wealth of the entire world available to those who need it.

In the End of Days, Esav will be the financial arm, supporting the voice and vision of his brother Yaakov. The talents of Esav and the talents of Yaakov will be used together for the good of all. Esav will no longer compete for power, neither with Yaakov and nor with G-d. And then, “וְהָיְתָה לַה’ הַמְּלוּכָה” – all kingdom will be Hashem’s.

Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my parents, Peter & Nella Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ואמי מורתי חנה בת זעליג ז”ל

Leave a Comment

Filed under Connections, Sefer Breishit, VaYishlach

VaYishlach: The Potential for Brotherhood

Two weeks ago, in the Haftarah of Toldot, we read that Esav’s dismissive attitude to serving G-d is hateful in the eyes of the prophet. This week, the Haftarah of VaYishlach describes the retribution that will be meted out to the nation of Edom in the days of Moshiach. It states:

…וְדָלְקוּ בָהֶם וַאֲכָלוּם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה שָׂרִיד לְבֵית עֵשָׂו כִּי ה’ דִּבֵּר
They will set them afire and consume them, and there will be no survivor to the House of Esav, for Hashem has spoken. (Ovadiah 1:18)

It appears that the Haftarah is saying that Esav and all his descendants will be destroyed, and there is no possibility for redemption. The Midrash, however, presents a more nuanced interpretation of this verse:

לא יהיה שריד לבית עשו – יכול לכל? ת”ל: לבית עשו, בעושה מעשה עשו והכתיב: שמה אדום מלכיה וכל נשיאיה! א”ל: מלכיה ולא כל מלכיה, …מלכיה ולא כל מלכיה פרט לאנטונינוס בן אסוירוס
“There will be no survivor to the House of Esav”: Does the prophet really mean absolutely none? Rather, it says, “the House of Esav”, that is, whoever acts like Esav. But elsewhere, it says (Yechezkel 32): “Edom will be destroyed, its kings and all its princes!” He answered: It says “kings”, and not “all kings” – which king is the exception? Antoninus son of Aseurus. (Avodah Zara 10b)

The Midrash asserts that only those that continue to act like Esav and perpetuate his negative attitude toward serving G-d will be punished. There is, according to this Midrash, at least one of Esav’s descendants who did not follow that path – Antoninus, a Roman emperor who was a contemporary of R’ Yehudah HaNassi.

The relationship between R’ Yehudah HaNassi (also known as “Rebbe”) and Antoninus is mentioned in many stories throughout the Midrash and Gemara. Their first encounter was when Antoninus’ mother saved the life of the infant Yehudah, by allowing his mother to bring Antoninus as proof to the authorities that she did not violate the ban on circumcision. Ultimately, this became the foundation for a genuine and fruitful friendship. Antoninus showed great respect to Rebbe, not only as a person, but as the embodiment of the wisdom of Torah.

The Midrash sees their relationship as the fulfillment of the prophecy given to Rivka regarding Yaakov and Esav:

שני גוים בבטנך גיים כתיב, אלו אנטונינוס ורבי, שלא פסקו מעל שולחנם לא צנון ולא חזרת לא בימות החמה ולא בימות הגשמים:
“Two nations in your womb”: [The word “nations”] is spelled “proud ones”: referring to Antoninus and Rebbe (R’ Yehudah HaNassi), whose tables lacked neither radishes nor lettuce both in summer and in winter.
(Rashi on Breishit 25:23)

There were many kings before then, in both nations, who might have been called “proud ones” – Julius Caesar, King Solomon – but never in at the same time. Yitzchak’s blessing to Esav asserts: “When one is up, the other is down.” Indeed, when the Jewish People were at their zenith, Esav’s nation Edom was at their nadir, and when Esav’s descendants settled in Rome and launched the rise of the Roman Empire, the Jewish People suffered their greatest defeat.

The only case of Yaakov and Esav both being “proud ones” at the same time was Antoninus and Rebbe. Antoninus, as the Caesar of the Roman Empire, represented the Kingdom of Edom at its height. R’ Yehudah HaNassi, the political and spiritual leader of the Jewish People, represented the Kingdom of Israel, temporarily restored to glory. Their “pride” is illustrated in the Midrash by the wealth of their respective royal tables. Just as the infant Yaakov and Esav were nurtured together in Rivka’s womb, lacking nothing, so nature transcended its seasonal limitations to provide bounty for their royal descendants. This proves that Yaakov and Esav’s struggle had never been about resources. The potential for harmony had been present all along; the dissonance between them was caused by Esav’s dismissal of the spiritual destiny of his forefathers. Antoninus’ respect for the Torah of R’ Yehudah HaNassi cleared the way for this potential to be realized.

The Talmud recounts many philosophical discussions between Antoninus and Rebbe. These discussions were quite different from other debates in our history, whose object was to humiliate us by “proving” that the Jewish outlook on life is false and our mission obsolete. In contrast, Antoninus had no agenda other than the pursuit of truth. Like all genuine discussions between people who respect each other, the insights flowed both ways:
ואמר לו אנטונינוס לרבי: מאימתי יצר הרע שולט באדם, משעת יצירה או משעת יציאה? אמר לו: משעת יצירה. אמר לו: אם כן בועט במעי אמו ויוצא! אלא: משעת יציאה. אמר רבי: דבר זה למדני אנטונינוס, ומקרא מסייעו שנאמר לפתח חטאת רבץ
Antoninus said to Rebbe: “From what point does the Evil Inclination begin to rule over a person, from conception or from birth?” He said, “From conception.” He answered, “If so, a baby would kick his way out of the womb! It must be from birth.” Rebbe said, “This idea was taught to me by Antoninus, and it has a verse to support it, as it says (Bereishit 4:7) ‘sin bides by the opening’.” (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 91b)

Not only does Rebbe accede to Antoninus’ reasoning, he finds textual support for it, and quotes this newly acquired idea in his name.

The subject of this particular debate is relevant to the question of whether or not “there will be a survivor to the house of Esav”. Esav was born with a set of inclinations which tend toward violence, yet he was born into a family of righteous people. Did his Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) “kick in”, so to speak, even before he was born? According to his descendant Antoninus, the Yetzer Hara only takes effect when a person comes out into the world. It was Esav’s choice whether he would use his abilities and inclinations for good or for evil. It is the choice of each of his descendants whether or not they follow in Esav’s footsteps or forge their own path in harmony with Yaakov. Antoninus himself chose to use his power for good. According to the Midrash on the Haftarah, Antoninus is more than a private individual who happened to be a nice guy, more than a foreign ruler who happened to be “good for the Jews.” Antoninus is the alternative to the total destruction of Esav, showing that it is possible for Esav to live with Yaakov in mutual respect, prosperity, and brotherhood.

Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל

Leave a Comment

Filed under Connections, Sefer Breishit, VaYishlach


The Book of Ovadiah is the smallest book in the Tanach. It consists of a single chapter of 21 verses, making it the perfect length for a Haftarah[1]. It is one of the books of the Trei Assar, the twelve prophets whose short books were collected into a single compilation precisely because small scrolls such as Ovadiah would otherwise have gotten lost.

Ovadiah’s prophecy is not addressed to the Jewish People, but rather to the nation of Edom. This is not unusual; there are many examples of prophecy directed at other nations, such as Egypt[2], Assyria[3], and Aram[4]. The purpose of such prophecies is two-fold. First, the nations also need to know how they fare in the eyes of G-d. The second purpose is for us, so that we should know that G-d judges other nations, and that He has plans for all of humanity.

Some prophets are introduced with their name, their father’s name, their city, and the kings to whom their prophecy was directed[5]; some give only their name; and some[6], not even that.

When it comes to Ovadiah, we are given his name, but not his era:

(א) חֲזוֹן עֹבַדְיָה כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי ה’ לֶאֱדוֹם

1) The vision of Ovadiah: This is what the Lord Hashem says to Edom…

There’s no “who prophesied during the reign of King So-and-So” to pin him down, and there are no references to current historical events to give us a hint. Chazal, who always try fill in gaps left by the Mikra (“Text”), provide several options for this prophet’s origins based on his name and his topic.

Radak presents two distinct opinions in his introduction to Ovadiah:

חזון עובדיה זה הנביא לא ידענו באיזה דור התנבא ודעת רז”ל שזהו עובדיה שהיה עם אחאב ועוד אמרו כי עובדיה גר אדומי היה והתנבא רע על אדום היינו דאמרי אינשי כפא דחק נגרא בגויה נשרוף חרדלא אמר בו בעל הערוך האומן שחק הכף אותו הכף עצמו שורף פיו בחרדל חזק

1) The vision of Ovadiah: We don’t know in which generation he prophesied. The opinion of our rabbis was that it’s the same Ovadiah who worked for Ahav; and they also said that he was a convert from Edom and prophesied evil that would come to Edom. As people say, the tree itself provides the handle for the axe that chops it down.  (Radak on Ovadiah 1:1)

One opinion is that Ovadiah was a convert from Edom. Since there is no reference to Ovadiah being a convert from Edom in the text of his book, it must therefore be Mesorah, a tradition that the rabbis received from their teachers.

As an Edomite convert, Ovadiah would carry greater moral weight: the prophet who is descended from Edom is uniquely qualified to prophesy against it. One might imagine a contemporary case: if a Catholic priest would convert to Judaism, and be sent as an ambassador to the Vatican with a harsh message from the government of Israel. Someone who had been there, and chose a different path, is in the position to say to the rest of the nation: “You, too, could have acted differently”.

The second opinion that Radak quotes is that Ovadiah the prophet is the same person as Ovadiahu the servant of King Ahav, who rescued one hundred prophets from Queen Izevel’s (“Jezebel”) purges (Melachim I 18).

This identification is perplexing for several reasons. First, if Ovadiahu was himself a prophet, he would have been in as much danger from Izevel as the prophets he was harboring. Secondly, the time period does not work out – if the prophecy was given during the SecondTemple, as Radak maintains elsewhere in his commentary, or even near the end of the First, then the prophet lived several hundred years after Ahav. Therefore, when Chazal say that Ovadiah the prophet is Ovadiahu the chamberlain, it is not meant to be taken as historical fact. There must be more to it than the similarity in names; we need to look deeper to find their real meaning and purpose.

The Radak continues, quoting the Midrash:

אמר הקב”ה יבא עובדיה שדר בין שני רשעים אחאב ואיזבל ולא למד ממעשיהם ויפרע מעשו הרשע שדר בין שני צדיקים יצחק ורבקה ולא למד ממעשיהם

G-d said, Ovadiah who lived with two such villains as Ahav and Izevel, and didn’t learn from their deeds, let him settle scores with Esav the villain, who lived among two such righteous people as Yitzchak and Rivka, and didn’t learn from their deeds.

This Midrash frames both Esav and Ovadiahu against the backdrop of their environment. If we take it as a given that a person is influenced by the company he keeps, then Ovadiahu should have been as evil as Ahav and Izevel and Esav should have been as good as Yitzchak and Rivka.  Neither of these were true. That means that the original supposition is false – while a person may be influenced by his environment, for good or for evil, the outcome is far from inevitable. Just as Ovadiahu was able to choose not emulate the deeds of Ahav and Izevel, so, too, Esav could have chosen to emulate the deeds of Yitzchak and Rivka.

If Ovadiahu, who was in the worst possible company, and had the best possible excuses to turn away from G-d, instead became the “Servant of G-d” (“oved Y-ah”) his name implies, then Esav, who was in the best possible company and had no reason to turn away from G-d, must have made the choice to leave deliberately.  Ovadiah then becomes the ideal person to send as a messenger to Esav’s descendents, then nation of Edom.

And if it is not the actual person from the time of Ahav, but rather another one of the same name, he would be carrying the same message: serving Hashem is a choice that one can make, regardless of where you were born.


[1] Ideally, a Haftarah is made up of 21 verses – 3 verses for each of the 7 Aliyot of Shabbat. Most are longer, and a few are shorter, but this one is just right.

[2] Yechezkel 29

[3] Yeshayahu 11, Yonah 1

[4] Amos 1

[5] Hoshea 1:1, Yeshayahu 1:1

[6] Malachi – it is not clear if it is a name, a pseudonym, or a title

Copyright © Kira Sirote 
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל

Leave a Comment

Filed under Neviim (prophets), VaYishlach


The Haftarah of VaYeitzei is from Hoshea, who is by far the hardest prophet to translate of them all. Not only does he twist syntax to his own poetic and stylistic needs, but he also uses phrases and idioms whose meanings have been lost.

For example, in our Haftarah it says, “הם אומרים זובחי אדם עגלים ישקו” (they say, “those who kill men, kiss calves”). Hoshea uses a popular expression that “people say”. What did that expression mean at the time? The calves that are being kissed, were those the golden calves that they worshiped? A metaphor similar to “politicians who kiss babies”? A reference to kindness to animals at the expense of humans? And what about “killing men”: literally, it says “sacrifice”, as in “sacrificing humans”. Perhaps it’s referring to actual human sacrifice? Or metaphorical human sacrifice to match the metaphorical calves?

Whatever it is, it’s not a compliment; regardless of the exact root of that expression, the gist of it is that the society is being accused of hypocrisy.

Being that in a translation one has to pick just one interpretation, the main approach for this week’s Haftarah is that of the Malbim, in case you want to see for yourself how to get from the original text to the translation.

Linear Annotated Translation of the Haftarah of VaYeitzei

In terms of the connection to the Parsha, this week I tried to weave it into the introduction, which includes a summary of the history of the Kingdom of Israel, highlighting their connection with Yaakov Avinu, who is the subject of this week’s Parsha. See also here: Man of Truth

Another thought: how does the arrogance of the Kingdom of Israel compare with Yaakov’s statement (at the beginning of next week’s Parsha, but referring to events of VaYeitzei) – קטונתי מכל החסדים ומכל האמת שעשית את עבדיך – “I am humbled by all the goodness and truth that You have done for Your servant”?

To make up for the very difficult Haftarah, here’s a beautiful song that uses this verse as its lyrics:

Shabbat Shalom



Filed under Sefer Breishit, VaYeitzei