Rebecca (also Rebekah, also Rivkah, Hebrew: רִבְקָה, Modern Rivqa Tiberian Riḇqāh, "to tie; to bind; captivating, beautiful) appears in the Hebrew Bible as a prophet and the second matriarch of the four matriarchs of the Jewish people. She was the wife of Isaac and the mother of Jacob and Esau. Rebecca and Isaac were one of the three "pairs" buried in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, together with Abraham and Sarah and Jacob and Leah.
According to the account in the Book of Genesis, Rebekah was the wife of Isaac and the sister of Laban, who would later become the father of Rachel and Leah, two of the wives of Rebekah's son Jacob. Rebekah means "beautiful and to tie or bind".
The news of her birth was told to her great-uncle Abraham after the latter returned from Akeidat Yitzchak (the Binding of Isaac), the episode in which Abraham was told by God to bring Isaac as a sacrifice on a mountain.
After the Binding of Isaac, Sarah, Abraham's wife, died. After taking care of her burial, Abraham went about finding a wife for his son Isaac, who was already 37 years old. He commanded his servant (whom the Torah commentators identify as Eliezer of Damascus) to journey to his birthplace of Aram Naharaim to select a bride from his own family, rather than engage Isaac to a local Canaanite girl. Abraham sent along expensive jewelry, clothing and dainties as gifts to the bride and her family. If the girl had refused to follow him, Abraham stated that Eliezer would be absolved of his responsibility.
Eliezer devised a test in order to find the right wife for Isaac. As he stood at the central well in Abraham's birthplace with his men and ten camels laden with goods, he prayed to God:
"Let it be the the maiden to whom I shall say, 'Please tip over your jug so I may drink,' and who replies, 'Drink, and I will even water your camels,' her will You have designated for Your servant, for Isaac" (Genesis 24:14).
To his surprise, a young girl immediately came out and offered to draw water for him to drink, as well as water to fill the troughs for all his camels. Rebekah continued to draw water until all the camels were sated, proving her kind and generous nature and her suitability for entering Abraham's household.
Eliezer immediately gave her a golden nose ring and two golden bracelets (Genesis 24:22), which Rebekah hurried to show her mother. Seeing the jewelry, her brother Laban ran out to greet the guest and bring him inside. Eliezer recounted the oath he made to Abraham and all the details of his trip to and meeting with Rebekah in fine detail, after which Laban and Bethuel agreed that she could return with him. After hosting Eliezer and his men overnight, however, the family tried to keep Rebekah with them longer. Eliezer insisted that they ask the girl herself, and she agreed to go immediately. Her family sent her off with her nurse, Deborah (according to Rashi), and blessed her, "Our sister, may you come to be thousands of myriads, and may your offspring inherit the gate of its foes."
As Rebekah and her entourage approached Abraham's home, they spied Isaac from a distance in the fields of Beer-lahai-roi. The Talmud and the Midrash explain that Isaac was praying, as he instituted Mincha, the afternoon prayer. Seeing such a spiritually exalted man, Rebekah immediately dismounted from her camel and asked Eliezer who he was. When she heard that he was her future husband, she modestly covered herself with a veil. Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, married her, and loved her.
According to Rashi, the three miracles that characterized Sarah's tent while she was alive, and that disappeared with her death, reappeared when Rebekah entered the tent. These were: A lamp burned in her tent from Shabbat eve to Shabbat eve, there was a blessing in her dough, and a cloud hovered over her tent (symbolizing the Divine Presence.)
Some of the events leading up to the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah have been institutionalized in the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony. Before the bride and bridegroom stand under the chuppah, they participate in a special ceremony called badeken (veiling). The bridegroom is led to the bride by two escorts and, seeing her, covers her face with a veil, similar to the way Rebecca covered her face before marrying Isaac. Then the bridegroom (or the father of the bride, or the officiating rabbi) recites the same blessing over the bride that Rebekah's family recited over her, "Our sister, may you come to be thousands of myriads, and may your offspring inherit the gate of its foes."
Marriage and motherhood
There are two opinions in the Midrash as to how old Rebecca was at the time of her marriage. According to the traditional counting cited by Rashi, Isaac was 37 years old at the time of the Binding of Isaac, and news of Rebecca's birth reached Abraham immediately after that event (see Rashi on Gen. 22:20). Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebecca (Gen. 25:20), making Rebecca 3 years old at the time of her marriage. According to the second opinion, Isaac was 29 years old and Rebecca was 14 years old at the time of their marriage. Another view is that Rebecca was 10 years old at the time. In any case, 20 years elapsed before they had children. Throughout that time, both Isaac and Rebecca prayed fervently to God for offspring. God eventually answered Isaac's prayers and Rebecca conceived.
Rebecca was extremely uncomfortable during her pregnancy and went to inquire of God why she was suffering so. According to the Midrash, whenever she would pass a house of Torah study, Jacob would struggle to come out; whenever she would pass a house of idolatry, Esau would agitate to come out. She received the prophecy that twins were fighting in her womb and would continue to fight all their lives, and after they became two separate nations. The prophecy also said that the older would serve the younger; its statement, "One people will be stronger than the other" has been taken to mean that the two nations will never gain power simultaneously — when one falls, the other will rise, and vice versa. According to tradition, Rebecca did not share the prophecy with her husband.
When the time came for Rebecca to give birth, the first to come out emerged red and hairy all over, with his heel grasped by the hand of the second to come out. Onlookers named the first עשו, Esau (`Esav or `Esaw, meaning either "rough", "sensibly felt", "handled", from Hebrew: עשה, `asah, "do" or "make"; or "completely developed", from Hebrew: עשוי, `assui, since Esau had as much hair as a child who was much older) The second was named יעקב, Jacob (Ya`aqob or Ya`aqov, meaning "heel-catcher", "supplanter", "leg-puller", "he who follows upon the heels of one", from Hebrew: עקב, `aqab or `aqav, "seize by the heel", "circumvent", "restrain", a wordplay upon Hebrew: עקבה, `iqqebah or `iqqbah, "heel"). The Torah states that Isaac was 60 years old when the twins were born.
The boys displayed very different natures as they matured. "Esau became a hunter, a man of the field, but Jacob was a simple man, a dweller in tents" (25:28).). Moreover, the attitudes of their parents toward them also differed: "Isaac loved Esau because game was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob" (ibid.,
According to the Talmud, immediately after Abraham died, Jacob prepared a lentil stew as a traditional mourner's meal for his father, Isaac. The Hebrew Bible states that Esau, returning famished from the fields, begged Jacob to give him some of the stew. (Esau referred to the dish as "that red, red stuff", giving rise to his nickname, Hebrew: אדום (`Edom, meaning "Red").) Jacob offered to give Esau a bowl of stew in exchange for his birthright (the right to be recognized as firstborn), and Esau agreed; the Talmudic dating indicates both men were 15 years old at the time.
At a later time, a famine struck the land of Israel and Isaac moved his family, upon God's command, to Gerar, which was ruled by Abimelech, king of the Philistines. Like Abraham before him, who called Sarah his "sister" rather than his "wife" so that the Egyptians would not kill him and take his wife, Isaac told the people of Gerar that Rebecca was his sister. She was not molested, but one day Abimelech looked through the window and saw Isaac "sporting" (a euphemism for sexual play) with her. Abimelech called Isaac on his lie, and then warned others not to touch Rebecca. Eventually Isaac parts from Abimelech in peace.
At the age of 40 (the same age his father had been when he married), Esau took two Hittite wives — Judith the daughter of Beeri and Basemath the daughter of Elon — who vexed Isaac and Rebecca no end, as these women were idol worshippers. According to Rashi, one reason why Isaac became blind in his old age was due to the smoke of the incense that these women offered to their idols.
Rebecca and Jacob's deception of Isaac
Isaac became blind in his old age and decided to bestow the blessing of the firstborn upon Esau. According to the Midrash, Isaac had reached the age of 123, five years shy of the age his mother, Sarah, had been at her death. At this time, the Sages state that one should begin to think he might not exceed the age of whichever parent died first. Isaac therefore sent Esau out to the fields to trap and cook a piece of savory game for him, so that he could eat it and bless Esau before he died.
Rebecca overheard this conversation and realized that Isaac's blessings should go to Jacob, since she was told before the twins' birth that the older son would serve the younger. She therefore ordered Jacob to bring her two goats from the flock, which she cooked in the way Isaac loved, and had him bring them to his father in place of Esau.
When Jacob protested that his father would recognize the deception and curse him as soon as he felt him, since Esau was hairy and Jacob smooth-skinned, Rebecca said that the curse would be on her instead. Before she sent Jacob to his father, she dressed him in Esau's garments and laid goatskins on his arms and neck to simulate hairy skin.
Thus disguised, Jacob entered his father's room. Surprised to perceive that Esau was back so soon, Isaac asked how it could be that the hunt went so quickly. Jacob responded, "Because the LORD your God arranged it for me"; Rashi (on) says Isaac's suspicions were aroused because Esau never used the personal name of God. Isaac demanded that Jacob come close so he could feel him, but the goatskins felt just like Esau's hairy skin. Confused, Isaac exclaimed, "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau!" (27:22). Still trying to get at the truth, Isaac asked him point-blank, "Are you really my son Esau?" and Jacob answered simply, "I am" (which can be taken as "I am me", not "I am Esau"). Isaac proceeded to eat the food and to drink the wine that Jacob gave him, and then he blessed him with the dew of the heavens, the fatness of the earth, and rulership over many nations as well as his own brother.
Jacob had scarcely left the room when Esau returned from the hunt to receive the blessing. The realization that he has been deceived shocks Isaac, yet he acknowledged that Jacob received the blessings as sworn, by adding, "Indeed, he will be [or remain] blessed!" (27:33). Rashi explains that Isaac smelled the heavenly scent of Gan Eden (Paradise) when Jacob entered his room and, in contrast, perceived Gehenna opening beneath Esau when the latter entered the room, showing him that he had been deceived all along by Esau's show of piety.
Esau was heartbroken by the deception, and begged for his own blessing. Having made Jacob a ruler over his brothers, Isaac could only promise, "By your sword you shall live, but your brother you shall serve; yet it shall be that when you are aggrieved, you may cast off his yoke from upon your neck" (27:39-40).
Esau was filled with hatred toward Jacob for taking away both his birthright and his blessing. He vowed to himself to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac died. Here again, Rebecca prophetically perceived his murderous intentions and ordered Jacob to travel to her brother Laban's house in Haran, until Esau's anger subsided. She then convinced Isaac to send Jacob away by telling him that she despaired of him marrying a local girl from the idol-worshipping families of Canaan (as Esau had done). After Isaac sent Jacob away to find a wife, Esau realized that his own Canaanite wives were evil in his father's eyes, and he took a daughter of Isaac's half-brother Ishmael as another wife.
Death and burial
Jacob lived with Laban for 20 years (Gen. 31:41), marrying Laban's two daughters and two maidservants. As he returned to Canaan with his large family, servants, and possessions, Deborah, Rebecca's nurse, died and was buried at a place that Jacob calls Alon Bachuth (אלון בכות), "Tree of Weepings" (Genesis 35:8). According to the Midrash, the plural form of the word "weeping" indicates a double sorrow, implying that Rebecca also died at this time. Her death was not mentioned explicitly for several reasons:
- She needed to be buried secretly. Had she had the type of burial she deserved, Esau would probably have attended, and there was risk of Rebecca being treated disrespectfully as the one who gave birth to such a wicked son.
- She was buried in tragic circumstances: Isaac was blind and could not come to honor her properly; Jacob was away; and Esau refused to come because he still hated her for taking away his blessings.
According to the Talmud, the Torah's explicit dating of the life of Ishmael helps to date various events in Jacob's life and, by implication, the age of Rebecca at her death. Ishmael was born when Abraham was 86 years old (Gen. 16:16) and died at the age of 137 (25:17). Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 (21:5); at that time Ishmael was 14. Jacob and Esau were born when Isaac was 60 (25:26); at that time Ishmael was 74. Right after Jacob receives the blessings and flees to Laban, the Torah states that Esau married "Mahalat, the daughter of Ishmael, son of Abraham, sister of Nebaiot" (28:9), on which Rashi, quoting Megillah 17a, notes that Ishmael died between the engagement and wedding, so the girl's brother gave her away. If Ishmael was 137 at the time of his death, this means that Jacob and Esau were 63 at the time of the blessings. The Talmud adds that Jacob spent 14 years in the yeshiva of Shem and Eber before proceeding to Laban, arriving when he was 77. Rebecca's death after Jacob's 20 years with Laban indicates that Jacob was 97 when his mother died and Rebecca was either 120 or 134 (based on different Midrashim mentioned earlier about her age at marriage).
The name 'Rebekah' comes from the word bound. She is kind and respectful and will do very well in life.
Other interpretations of the translation include: voluptuous, captivating, or beautiful, derived from the definition of "to tie or to bind" referring to the preparation of fattened cows for slaughter.
- Scherman, Rabbi Nosson (1993). The Chumash. Brooklyn, New York: Mesorah Publications, pp. 109-121.
- Berachot 26b.
- Jewish Wedding Ceremony Explained.
- Torah Insights: Parshat Toldot.
- Strong's Concordance 6215, 6213.
- Rashi on Genesis 25:25.
- Strong's Concordance 3290, 6117.
- Bava Batra 16b.
- Scherman, Rabbi Nosson (1993). The Chumash. Brooklyn, New York: Mesorah Publications, p. 135.
- Pirkei d'Rav Kahana, quoted in Scherman, p. 139.
- Bereshit Rabbah 81:5.
- Rashi, quoting Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Teitzei 4.
- Yevamot 6a.
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