Friday, October 15, 2010

Clever Jew

There’s a very, very lot of treachery and trickery in the Torah, especially in Genesis. And it usually pays off! One type of deceit occurs in three episodes – two with Avraham, and one with Yitzchak. It is the “passing off the wife as the sister” routine.
"And there was a famine in the land; and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was severe in the land. It came to pass, when he came near to enter to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, Behold now, I know that you are a pretty woman to look upon; Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see you, that they shall say, This is his wife; and they will kill me, but you they will keep alive. Say, I beg you, that you are my sister; that it may be well with me for your sake; and my soul shall live because of you." (Genesis 12:10-13)

Avraham’s strategy works as planned. Instead of killing him, the Egyptians shower him with gifts while taking his wife for Pharaoh.

Abarbanel pulls no punches in his formulation of the question. “What kind of noble person chooses to live via such a terrible disgrace, seeking advantage and benefit from his wife being taken by others?! It is more befitting to choose death rather than committing such a disgrace!” Cassuto notes that the approach of some Christian scholars was that Avraham did indeed commit a repulsive act. Avraham was the prototypical Jew, engaging in sneaky maneuvers for personal profit, at the cost of others. Christians saw this episode as providing a Biblical justification for the antisemitic stereotype of the “clever Jew.”

These are disturbing questions. The answer to them is in an essay that you can freely download (and distribute) at this link.


  1. This is fascinating! I didn’t realize that this was the view of the Ramban. I would have thought this kind of approach would be kabbalistic.

    Speaking of Kabbalah, I am still looking for a book in English from an Orthodox standpoint, which explains the history of Kabbalah, including the controversy, the opinions expressed by the different rabbanim of that time, and how rabbanim through the ages viewed and approached it. I looked through R' Areyeh Kaplan’s books but they give only one perspective (that Kabbalah was written by R’ Shimon bar Yochai, hidden, etc.). If there is no such book in English, may I ask when one of you illustrious scholars will be writing it?

  2. For a good version of the "standard" view based on ANE evidence, see Barry Eichler's article in the Moshe Greenberg (z"l) Festschrift. I found it on Google books here:

  3. Baruch, great reference, thanks! The pages where he develops this approach are 33-37.

  4. Very interesting article. However, I find it surprising that in ancient society they would rather take a married woman by force than a single one. Do you have any sources for this?

  5. "Ramban takes the remarkable view that ideally, people who are sick should not go to doctors; they should trust in God for miraculous healing."

    I'm curious if there are there any rabbis considered rationalists who would agree with that statement? Maybe some would, but wouldn't even write it because they feel that such an "ideal" situation is too hypothetical. (?)

  6. Anonymous - the sources are in the book linked in Baruch Alster's comment above. And please use your name/ pseudonym in future.

  7. In LePrakim, the Sreidei Eish discusses a conversation he had with some professor on this point. I don't remember the pg. number off hand but I can look it up later if you like.

  8. You might find my post on this topic interesting, it intersects with your observations in several respects:

  9. Do you have any sources on the commonality of killing the husband to take the wife?

    Do you understand his becoming wealthy as an unitended consequence and his fear of being killed enough to overcome the concern that people would say Pharoh made him wealthy?
    Joel Rich

  10. Phil,

    I believe the Ibn Ezra comments on the phrase "yerapo yerape" (Shemos 21:19) that one only has permission to treat external wounds, and internal maladies are left to God to heal (I don't have his commentary in front of me, so I can't vouch for the exact lashon that he uses).

  11. Er, I think the "There's a very, very lot of treachery" opening sentence needs some grammar adjustment...

  12. Simple answer: At the time, it wasn't such a disgrace and people did what they had to do to remain alive.

    Complex answer: Avraham has nevuah and knew he would bring monotheism to the world and start a new nation, so he did what he had to do to enable all that to occur.

  13. Nice article. I have some qs. After the first time the strategy failed and sara was taken, why did Avraham repeat the ploy. Why did Yitchak repeat the ploy after Avraham's two failures?

    Why was this not considered setting sara up to engage in adultery? Would a jew today be required to give up his life rather than set up his wife to commit adultery?

    I don't understand your proof from Avrahams words that the ploy worked in the past. All he seems to be saying is that he told his wife that if anyone in the future asks you who I am , say I am your brother. How does this prove that the ploy worked in the past?

    Given the requirement to stay away from untruths, should he not have instead chosen to either stay at home or travel only to places where wife snatching was prevalent.

    What is your source that in those days, people would snatch married women but not single women. Such a custom sounds extremely unlikely.

    If the Ramban believes that people on the right level can expect divine intervention, why was Avraham not entitled to believe that divine intervention would prevent anyone having relations with sara after she was snatched, and therefore why does Ramban think Avraham did anything wrong?

    Isn't relations with your half sister forbidden by the tora? if yes, why did Avraham marry his half sister?

  14. Just read the referenced section of the Barry Eichler article. Fascinating!!!

    "a woman can always find another husband but a maternal brother is considered to be a divine gift from Allah, for which there is no substitute"

    Looking forward to reading the article!

  15. It just occurred to me (and in this I am likely very slow): Avram and Sari where childless, and at this point Sari was Avram's only wife. These factors may have contributed to the ruse.

    If I am not mistaken, it seems very unlikely at the time that a man would keep a childless wife for any length of time.

  16. Chizki: the text of the Ibn Ezra is here:

    My survey of attitudes toward Ramban's position:

    An excellent survey of sources on the general topic of traditional Jewish attitudes toward the medical profession:

  17. Rabbi Slifkin,

    I think you are misrepresenting Ramban somewhat. If I recall correctly, he refers specifically to tzaddikim as people who in ancient times when to prophets rather than to doctors for a cure.

    I don't believe he refers to regular people or contemporary times.

    (Incidentally, is it possible that Ramban might have had a different opinion had he lived in 2010 when medicine is much more-fact based and less hocus pocus?)

  18. Since others are promoting their thoughts, here's what I wrote on the topic a couple of years ago:

    (Yes, Rabbi Slifkin, I printed your essay to read later; I also have your book/pamphlet "Lying for Truth," which I purchased years ago, before I knew of your other interests.)

  19. >Anonymous - the sources are in the book linked in Baruch Alster's comment above.

    All I could see was the Hugh C. White holds that Avram's action "assumes societal behavior that condemns the more public act of seizing a married woman, while condoning the more covert act of killing her husband." I guess that's reasonable to conclude from the narrative, but that's not exactly the same as "In ancient times, killing a man in order to take his wife was an acceptable and honorable course of action for many people," etc.?

  20. Rashi does mention the gifts that he would receive for Sarai going down to Egypt. In a Shiur yesterday from our Rabbi Yaakov Tannenbaum here in Dallas, he explained that the gifts would afford them more protection.
    If women are going to be treated as chattel, it might as well be expensive chattel.
    This way they are protected from all others by the gift giver who does not want his expensive acquisition tampered with. Avram would then negotiate a 10 month (Genesis 24:55)engagement period to protect her from the gift giver.
    Yehoshua Mandelcorn

  21. r' slifkin

    i am surprised you dont mention the sforno's pshat. he follows your aproach but is even better since he explains avrahams getting presents as a crucial part of the plan so that evrything comes together rather neatly. look it up.

  22. From the context of Ramban's comment, I believe it is clear that Ramban believed that Abraham's error was not based on normative standards of bitachon/hishtadlus but on a higher standard that applied uniquely to Abraham because his life was a foreshadowing of the future history of the Jewish people.

  23. The link to the essay seems to broken. Do you have a new link for it?
    Vaughn Seward


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