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10.11.2015 17:00    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  genesis  toldot  

"How old was Rebekah when she married Isaac?"

This week's reading begins by relaying brief details about the life of Isaac, all of which we know from preceding readings.  The only knew detail – his age when he married Rebekah – is surprising both because of the groom's advanced age and because of the absence of any reference to the bride's age.  What is lacking in the Torah's account was filled in by the legends of the Sages, discussing the groom's advanced age and the reasons for repeating previously known facts.  The prevalent view among many Sages regarding the bride's age is surprising.  For notwithstanding the detailed account inParashat Hayei Sarah, in which we meet Rebekah – "The maiden was very beautiful, a virgin" (Gen. 24:16) – a legend of the Sages suggests an interpretation inconsonant with this description, namely that Rebekah married Isaac at the age of three:

Isaac was thirty-seven years old at his binding…When Abraham returned from Mount Moriah, at that very moment the matriarch Sarah died, and Isaac was then thirty-seven; and at that very time Abraham was told of Rebekah's birth; thus we find that Rebekah was three years old when she married Isaac.[1]

This conclusion regarding Rebekah's age is suggested by Rashi as the ultimate view and has come to be broadly accepted, especially among those who study Torah.  Nevertheless, many biblical exegetes found it disquieting: 1) because of the improbability of describing Rebekah as performing household chores not easily performed by a child of a mere three years; 2) and because she is presented as a virgin.  Surprise at this interpretation is aptly expressed by R. Isaac Abarbanel:

The Sages have said that it was forestalled until Rebekah turned three years old, for she was born after the binding of Isaac and Isaac was then thirty-seven years old; but this is a homiletic interpretation, for how could she have been only three and yet have gone to the spring and drawn water for all the camels, and done all that Scripture tells of her doing?  Rather, in offering this interpretation they must have had something else in mind.[2]

His question remains valid, even though he was cognizant of the answer provided by the homily further on:

Should you say, a three-year-old is too young to go out to draw water, we answer that a three-year-old in days of yore was more mature than a ten-year-old in our times.

A halakhic discussion in the gemara[3] regarding the proper age for a woman whom the High Priest should marry, as implied by the verse, "He may marry only a woman who is a virgin" (Lev. 21:13), raises the question of the age span of permissible females who can be described as being both a "virgin" and a "woman."  On one hand, a "woman" implies someone who has reached maturity, while a "virgin" implies someone young.  The halakhic conclusion arrived at by the Sages was that he should marry a woman who was no longer a child but not yet fully mature; such a person would be someone termed a "maiden."  They based this conclusion on the verse in this week's reading:  "The maiden was very beautiful, a virgin whom no man had known."  On the basis of this halakhic observation, Rashba explained Rebekah's age (in his Novellae on Tractate Ketubbot):

A virgin means none other than a maiden, as it says, "The maiden [Heb. ne`arah] was very beautiful, a virgin whom no man had known."  That is to say, since Scripture uses the word "maiden" we may infer that she had not yet matured, for she did not grow at least two pubic hairs until the age of fourteen.[4]

This halakhic inference served Rashi in his interpretation of another verse dealing with Rebekah:  "'Let us call the girl [Heb. ne`arah] and ask for her reply' (Gen. 24:57) – from this we deduce that a woman is not to be married off without her consent."[5] Considering that here Rashi gives her the status of a woman, his interpretation that she was only three years old when she was wed is all the more surprising.

Many of the commentators who take issue with Rashi's interpretation (which, as we have said, was based on a homily) find support in other homilies[6]that propose an age more consonant with the Scriptural account, namely that Rebekah was fourteen when she wed.  The computation suggested by one such homily is based on another assumption:  that Rebekah lived the same number of years as Kohath, who died at age 133:

When he took to wife:  It is said that Rebekah was fourteen years old when she was married.  Realize that it was certainly so, for it is said that there were six pairs of people who lived the same number of years:  Rebekah and Kohath (…and on to the end of the baraitha).  That implies she lived to age 133.  She was barren for twenty years, Jacob was seventy-seven years old when he stood at the well, he lived with Laban for twenty years, and he was delayed two years on the way back to his father.[7]

The calculation goes as follows:  Rebekah died at age 133, was barren for 20 years,[8] and the year she died Jacob was 99 years old. From this we conclude that she was fourteen when she got married.

This raises two questions:  how are we to cope with two homilies that present opposing views, when neither of them stems directly from the text? And more importantly, what prompted the homilists and Rashi to arrive at a conclusion that is not consonant with the Scriptural account?

The first question was addressed by Nahmanides in his Novellae on TractateYevamot:

Virgin means none other than a maiden, as it says, "The maiden was very beautiful, a virgin."  This is but an interpretation, and legends do not need to be rebutted..., hence the version of the legend is changed, and she is held to have been fourteen when she wed; for it is not proper to emend Scripture.[9]

Others have seen the difficulty in determining Rebekah's age as stemming from the age set for Isaac at the time of his binding.  Their interpretations are indeed based on assuming a different age for Isaac.

An answer to the second question was hinted at in the remarks of Abarbanel, cited at the beginning of this article, namely that the Sages and Rashi had a different purpose in mind, and that the age given Rebekah expresses the message they wished to convey to the reader:

For the woman that a man takes as a wife when he is young will capture his heart and subdue him too much.  Learn a lesson from Samson and his wives, for they proved his downfall, and from Solomon, whose wives turned his heart; and why seek further, for our very first ancestor said The woman You put at my side – she gave me of the tree, and I ate.

According to this interpretation, Isaac did not marry until he was forty years old so that he would be past his youth, the age when a man tends to fall prey to woman's temptations.  Further protection against temptation is assured by marrying a girl of three, who does not present such dangers because of her young age.  She has not yet acquired a woman's wile and has no experience in making suggestions that lead the husband astray.  The exegetical determination of Rebekah's age is to be taken metaphorically, as emphasizing her pristine character, untainted by the inclination of all women to turn the will of their husbands in the wrong direction, as in the examples provided by Abarbanel:  King Solomon, Samson, and Adam.

I would like to suggest an explanation deduced from Rashi's approach as an educator who anticipated the character of coming generations of Torah scholars and who sought to defend the patriarchs against interpretations that might impugn their integrity.[10] Rashi, who lived in the time of the Crusades, in an atmosphere of Christian defamation of the Jews, came to the aid of readers faced with difficult ethical issues, such as Jacob stealing the birthright from his brother Esau.  Rashi explains there: "I [am] Esau, your firstborn(Gen. 27:19) – I brought you [this], and Esau is your firstborn."  We would certainly not suspect Rashi of actually thinking this to be the explanation that follows from the verse; for no one questions that Jacob deceived his father; that was also felt by the victim of the deception, who said to the disappointed Esau:  "Your brother came with guile and took away your blessing" (Gen. 27:34).  Moreover, the Sages teach us that Jacob paid for his actions, even though he had been passive throughout:  he left for a protracted period of exile that involved parting from his father for many years, and thereby lost the privilege of caring for and honoring his father in his old age.

It appears that Rashi chose a similar homiletic approach in the case of Rebekah, to avoid her being seen as even the least bit tainted by the cheats in her father's and brother's house.  The legend that says she married at fourteen opens the way for all those who would disparage her, saying that by that an age she had already absorbed the atmosphere at home and had learned from the devious ways that were the daily fare of the household.  Little wonder that she advised her son Jacob to deceive his father!  Rashi sought to avoid such a response to the text.  The interpretation that Rebekah was only three years old exonerated her of any suspicion of having been corrupted by the house in which she had been born.  At such a young age she could not have absorbed anything of their ways, so that she would have come to Abraham pristine pure.  Advising Jacob to obtain the blessing before Esau was not something that she herself dreamed up, nor was it taken from the ways of the place where she was born.  She apparently deduced the idea from the words of the Lord to her:  "Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger" (Gen. 25:23).

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