By Israel Drazin
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), the author of a still-used and enjoyed Bible commentary, among other books, was a leading Orthodox rabbi in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. His Bible commentary was composed to clarify scripture, draw lessons from it, and show why Orthodox Judaism is superior to the more liberal elements of Judaism. He analyses biblical passages by an original method of examining the three-letter roots of significant Hebrew words in passages. Sometimes, he even sees significance in a two letter root or in a single letter; even though virtually all philologists argue that there is no two letter root in the Hebrew language. He admitted that his approach of deriving biblical lessons from three letter roots of significant words is “totally unscientific,” yet even his detractors agree that the lessons he derives from perhaps baseless premises are enlightening and interesting.
While being a strong advocate for Orthodox Judaism, most scholars agree that he urged the synthesis of Torah and secular knowledge; however, there are ultra-Orthodox Jews who admire him but dislike secular studies who argue that he never advocated the study of secular subjects. The following are some examples of his comments in Genesis 25 and 26:
1. Why does 25:20 emphasize that Rebecca, the wife of the patriarch Isaac, was related to Laban the Aramite? It tells us that although Isaac was a mature 40-years old and came from good stock, Abraham being his father, “still in spite of her undeniable good qualities, [Rebecca was] the daughter of an Aramite, born and brought up in Aram, and was the sister of the most pronounced Aramite,” and the sages taught that boys take after their maternal uncles, therefore “we are prepared beforehand for the discord which arose later on.”
2. 25:21 relates that Isaac “entreated God concerning his wife, for she was barren.” How hard did he pray? The root of the Hebrew word for entreated are the Hebrew letters ayin-tet-reish, which is related to hay-tet-reish, which means “bore into.” Thus Isaac made a deep penetrating request.
3. When Rebecca became pregnant, 25:22 indicates that twins moved in her body. How much did they move? The root for move is reish-vav-tzadi meaning “run,” “hasten,” indicating that even in Rebecca’s womb “each would not let the other rest.” Hence she must have been in great pain.
4. Esau was given this name in 25:25 because the Hebrew ayin-sin-vav is derived from ayin-sin-hay, which means “done,” “finished.” Esau was born fully made with red cheeks indicating a healthy child with strength shown by his hairiness.
5. Scripture states in 25:27 that Esau was a hunter. What does this signify? The root for hunter tzadi-vav-daled is related to samech-vav-daled, which means “secret.” Esau was like a hunter who “stalks,” externally appearing quite innocent but still having thoughts of killing.
6. The event where Jacob seems to take advantage of Esau to acquire the birthright is in 25:34. Yet Jacob did no wrong. He didn’t exploit Esau’s hunger. The text states natan, a past tense, that he gave Esau the lentils before he requested the birthright. The two were children and this was just child-play. Furthermore, it is clear that Jacob received no benefit from the transaction. Yet the tale foretells the characteristics of each.
7. Hirsch tells readers in 26:5 that the words mitzvah and torah, usually translated “commandments” and “teachings,” are derived from tzadi-vav-hay and het-reish-hay and mean “to carry out orders (for justice and benevolence)” and “to receive a seed” of truth and goodness, spirituality, and morality.