Isaac (Yitzchak, in Hebrew) is the second of the patriarchs of the Jewish people. He is the son of Abraham and Sarah, husband of Rebecca, and father of Esau and Jacob. He is most famous for his central role in the Binding of Isaac, when he was almost offered up as a sacrifice to G‑d. He carried on his father’s work of spreading monotheism and knowledge of G‑d throughout Mesopotamia. He is commonly referred to as Yitzchak Avinu, “Isaac our Forefather.” His life story is told in the Book of Genesis, mostly in the portions of Vayeira and Toldot.1

Early Life

Isaac was born when his father, Abraham, was 100 years old and his mother, Sarah, was 90. A trio of angels came to tell Abraham of the coming birth of his child, and Isaac was born exactly a year later.2

Isaac was born on the first day of Passover.3 He became the first child to be circumcised at the proper time, on the eighth day after birth.4 In many ways, Isaac was the first person to be born Jewish. At his circumcision, Abraham named him Yitzchak (Isaac), which means “laughter” in Hebrew.5

Read More: Why Wait 8 Days for Circumcision?

After he was born, many skeptics were convinced that Isaac was the child of Abimelech, not of Abraham. They pointed to the fact that Abraham and Sarah had been married for many years without children, and Sarah only conceived after being abducted by Abimelech. In order to nip such thoughts in the bud, G‑d made Isaac the spitting image of Abraham, so much so that when Isaac grew older they became indistinguishable.

As is common with only children, especially those born in their parents’ old age, Isaac was loved dearly by his parents. When he was weaned at the age of two,6 they made a large party to celebrate, inviting many distinguished guests.

One day, Sarah saw her stepson, Ishmael, acting inappropriately.7 Fearing that he would become a negative influence to her son, she told Abraham to send him away. Abraham was reluctant to do so, but gave in after G‑d told him to listen to Sarah.

Read more: Ishmael: Abraham’s Other Son

The Akeida: The Binding of Isaac

In the Bible, the request from G‑d to Abraham to offer up his son on an altar comes out of nowhere. The Talmud gives us a little background to the events leading up to this command:

One day, Ishmael was boasting to Isaac that he was circumcised at the age of 13, and he did not protest. That was an advantage over Isaac, who had been too young to protest at the time of his circumcision. Isaac replied, “You think that sacrificing one organ makes you better than me? If G‑d said to me, ‘Sacrifice yourself before Me,’ I would not hold back.”8

G‑d made Isaac follow through on that promise. He told Abraham to sacrifice his son on a specific mountain that was a three-day journey away. Abraham agreed, rising early the next morning to saddle up for the journey, and taking Isaac with him. At this point, Isaac was 37 years old. He was a willing participant, just as eager as Abraham to fulfill G‑d’s will.

After they arrived at the mountain and Abraham tied Isaac to an altar, G‑d revealed that his plan was never actually to have Isaac offered up. It was just a test to ascertain the level of their commitment to Him. Extremely relieved, Abraham and Isaac returned home. To their dismay, Sarah, Isaac’s mother, had just passed away. The news that her only son was being offered up as a sacrifice was too much for her to bear.9 Sarah was buried in Hebron.

Read More: The Great Test: The Binding of Isaac

Isaac’s Marriage

Following the death of his wife, Abraham decided that it is time for Isaac to get married. He sent his trusted servant Eliezer to the far away land of Aram Naharayim to find a wife from among Abraham’s relatives who were living there. Eliezer succeeded in his mission and returned with Rebecca, the daughter of Abraham’s nephew, Bethuel.

Isaac was immediately taken with Rebecca, and they married. Their marriage helped him get over the tragic loss of his mother.

Read more: How Eliezer Knew She Was “The One”

Isaac’s Children

Isaac and Rebecca married when Isaac was 40. After 20 years of marriage, they remained childless. They prayed to G‑d, and Rebecca conceived and gave birth to twins. The first was a ruddy, hairy child. They named him Esau. As the second child exited the womb, they noticed that he was holding on to Esau’s heel. That prompted them to name him Yaakov (Jacob), which is connected to the Hebrew word for “heel.”

Esau and Jacob grew up and chose their own paths in life. Esau became a hunter and idol worshipper,10 while Jacob prefered sitting in tents (and studying the teachings of G‑d).11

Read more: Jacob and Esau: The Struggle for Power

The Famine

When Abraham came to Canaan, there was a famine that forced him to leave to Egypt. A very similar situation occurred with Isaac. A famine ravaged the land of Canaan, making living there impossible. Isaac considered leaving to Egypt, as his father had done, but G‑d told him not to. This is because when Isaac was placed on the altar during the Binding of Isaac, he acquired the holiness of a sacrificial offering. Therefore, he could no longer leave the holiness of the land of Canaan for a land of lesser holiness. With no other options, Isaac moved to Gerar, which was within the borders of Canaan.

As soon as he arrived and met the people there, he realized that the inhabitants of Gerar were not the most savory people. The first question they asked him was, “Who is that woman there?” referring to Rebecca. Fearing for his life, Isaac did exactly as his father Abraham had done with Sarah in Egypt. He claimed that Rebecca was his sister.

Some time passed, and the inevitable occurred. The king, Abimelech, discovered that Isaac and Rebecca were not siblings after all, but husband and wife. He rebuked Isaac for pretending to be Rebecca’s brother and issued an edict that no one should harm Isaac or Rebecca. Reassured, Isaac settled in Gerar.

Read more: Abductions in the Torah

Life in Gerar: Isaac’s Wells

Life in Gerar was good for Isaac. He prospered there. Perhaps too much. As the inhabitants of Gerar became increasingly jealous of Isaac’s fortune, the situation became untenable. Abimelech told Isaac that he should find a better locale to live in. Isaac moved to the valley of Gerar.

But that was not far enough. Success breeds envy. Envy breeds enmity. Enmity leads to fights breaking out. In Isaac’s case, the fights revolved around wells.

First, Isaac’s servants dug a well in the valley of Gerar and the Philistines fought over who had the rights to it. Isaac named the well “Esek,” which means “conflict.” So Isaac dug another well. Lo and behold, the Philistines claimed ownership of that one as well. Isaac named it “Sitnah,” which means “enmity.” Showing extraordinary patience, Isaac moved on and dug a third well. And they did not fight over this one. In order to commemorate that, Isaac named it “Rechovot,” which means “abundant space.” Isaac then moved to Be’er Sheva.

Once sufficient distance was established between Isaac and the inhabitants of Gerar, and his spectacular financial success was no longer being rubbed in their faces, King Abimelech approached Isaac and asked him to make a covenant. Isaac agreed, and they made a feast to celebrate their newfound civil relationship.12

Read more: Isaac’s Wells

The Birthright

Isaac began to get old, and his vision failed him. Some say that the reason G‑d made him blind was specifically so that the rest of the story could play out the way it did. Other explanations point to the smoke of the idolatrous incense of Esau’s wives, or to the tears of the angels falling into his eyes during the Akeida.13 The Midrash14 also quotes the opinion that Isaac himself wished for his blindness. He wanted to make sure that the suffering he experienced in his lifetime would atone for his sins. G‑d granted his wish and made him blind.

Isaac decided that it was time to bless his eldest son and officially bestow upon him the benefits of the firstborn birthright. Unfortunately, the flaw with this plan was that Esau, the eldest, had already sold the birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew.15 (No, seriously!)

Read more: Esau Sells the Birthright

Jacob’s mother concocted a plan to make sure that the right man got the blessings. She took advantage of Isaac’s blindness and dressed Jacob up as Esau. Isaac was fooled, and gave the blessings to Jacob.

When Esau found out, he was devastated. He begged Isaac for a blessing as well, and Isaac acquiesced.

Esau was murderously furious at Jacob for “stealing” the blessings. He planned to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac passed away. Realizing the peril, Jacob’s parents sent him to Padan Aram, far away from the wrath of Esau. Isaac would not see his son for more than 22 years.16

Read More: The Stolen Blessings

Isaac’s Death

The Cave of the Patriarchs as it appeared in 1906.
The Cave of the Patriarchs as it appeared in 1906.

After reuniting with Jacob after his return from Aram, Isaac lived on for many more years. He passed away at the ripe old age of 180. He was buried with his parents in the Cave of Machpela, in Hebron.

Isaac and the Afternoon Prayer

Isaac is attributed with originating Minchah, the afternoon prayer.17 This is because Isaac is mentioned in the Torah as praying in the afternoon: “And Isaac went forth to pray in the field towards evening.”18

Isaac in Kabbalah

Very little of Isaac’s nearly two-century-long life is written in the Torah. That reflects that spirit with which Isaac lived his life. Isaac embodied the idea of gevurah, the kabbalistic notion of discipline or restraint. The character trait associated with gevurah is yira’ah, awe. Isaac served G‑d with a sense of awe and wonderment. He constantly felt that he was standing in the presence of the Almighty. This caused him to act with restraint and modesty. While his father Abraham was an outgoing, traveling activist, Isaac was more reserved. He stayed in the land of Canaan all his life, working on himself and others in a quieter fashion.

Isaac passed on the positive character traits of restraint, modesty and introspection to his progeny, the Jewish people.

Read more: The Resemblance

Isaac the Well Digger

Isaac’s episode with digging wells is one of the few aspects of his life that the Torah describes in detail. The reason for this is because digging wells was reflective of Isaac’s personality. He was not one to go out and find oases of water in other places. He was meditative and settled. Rather than searching for solutions from other sources, he would search deep inside for the life-giving water within.

Read more: To Dig a Well