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For a Mess of Pottage

For a Mess of Pottage

Why and how Esau sold his birthright to Jacob

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I trust that I shall never thus sell my birthright for a mess of pottage.

Henry David Thoreau, Life Without Principle

Selling something for “a mess1 of pottage” isn’t as common an expression as it used to be, but it is still used to mean giving away something valuable, though perhaps intangible, in exchange for immediate physical gratification.

The original “seller for a mess of pottage” was Esau, whose story appears in the Torah portion of Toldot. Let’s see what the Torah and the Midrash tell us about this momentous sale.

The biblical account

Esau and Jacob were twins. Esau, the firstborn, was a hunter and an outdoorsman; Jacob was “a wholesome man who dwelled in tents.”

One day Esau returns fatigued from the hunt, and finds Jacob cooking a lentil stew (“pottage,” in older English).

“Give me some of this red, red stuff to swallow, because I am exhausted!” Esau demands. Jacob agrees to give him the stew on condition that Esau sells him his birthright.

Without hesitation, Esau agrees: “Here I am going to die, so why do I need the birthright?”

Esau swears to fulfill his word, and Jacob duly gives his brother bread and the stew. “He ate and drank, got up and left, and Esau mocked the birthright.”2

The commentaries

The rich traditions and explanations of rabbinic literature fill in some gaps in this sparsely worded story, and address the obvious question of why the birthright was so important to Jacob, while Esau thought so little of it that he sold it for a pot of lentils.3

  • “I am exhausted!” Esau says. The term “exhausted” (ayef in Hebrew) appears elsewhere in the Bible in the context of murder: “My soul is exhausted from the killers.”4 We thus infer that Esau was “exhausted” because he had just killed someone.
  • Why was Jacob cooking the stew? Because his father, Isaac, was in mourning after the passing of his father, Abraham. It is customary that mourners are given round foods, such as lentils, because: (a) they reflect the fact that death is part of the natural order, and like a wheel it eventually rolls around to everyone; and (b) a round shape has no “mouth” (opening), and in the same way a mourner also has—so to speak—no “mouth” to speak, consumed as he is with his grief.
  • Why did Jacob want the birthright? Originally, the firstborn were intended to serve G‑d in the Tabernacle and later in the Holy Temple,5 so Jacob wanted to gain that privilege, feeling that Esau’s wickedness made him unworthy of performing this service.
    Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra offers another explanation: since by Torah law the firstborn inherits a double portion of his father’s estate,6 Jacob wished to purchase his brother’s rights and thereby eventually receive that greater portion.
  • “Here I am going to die, so why do I need the birthright?” What makes Esau think that he’s about to die?
    The two answers to the previous question address this one as well. If Jacob wanted the birthright because of the attendant privilege of serving in the Temple, then Esau was observing that failure to perform this service properly is punishable by immediate death,7 and that therefore he’d prefer to forgo it. According to Ibn Ezra’s approach, Esau was the type of person who expected to “live fast and die young,” since he was constantly exposing himself to danger in his hunting activities. Therefore he assumed his father’s estate was no concern of his.
  • How much did Jacob pay for the birthright? The plain text seems to indicate that all Jacob gave Esau was bread and lentil stew. But Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam) states that Jacob paid for the birthright in full, and that afterwards they shared a meal celebrating the completion of the deal. Other commentaries explain that the birthright was actually not worth much in monetary terms, so that bread and lentil stew was a fair exchange for it.
  • “He got up and left, and Esau mocked the birthright.” With this phrase the Torah disabuses us of any notion that poor Esau had been forced into selling a prized possession for some food to still his hunger. We see that that he entered into the deal wholeheartedly, and that he treated his birthright with contempt. In keeping with the explanation above that the birthright meant the right to serve G‑d in the Holy Temple, this mockery amounted to rejection of the Creator and disdain for serving Him.

Later on, Isaac, who wasn’t aware of the sale, planned to bless his firstborn son, Esau, but ended up giving the blessings to Jacob (who had impersonated his brother) instead. In retrospect, it all made sense: Jacob deserved these blessings, having purchased the birthright from his indifferent brother for a mess of pottage.

Footnotes
1.
Not as in “This room is a mess,” but as in “mess hall” or “officer’s mess.”
3.
Unless otherwise specified, these explanations are based on Rashi’s commentary to the Torah.
5.
In later times, after the sin of the golden calf (Exodus 32), this privilege was taken away from the firstborn and given to the tribe of Levi.
7.
As in Exodus 30:20–21, Leviticus 10:1–2, et al.
Rabbi Mendy Kaminker is the editor of Beit Chabad, the Hebrew edition of Chabad.org.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Discussion (5)
December 26, 2016
Further more ,,
"And Jacob gave Esau bread and a pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank and arose and left "
Clearly after the "deal" was struck = Why do the commentaries say the opposite ?
Avram J
London
December 26, 2016
Spin
<< The rabbis only fleshed out what the Torah already suggests.>>
Just as Tony Blair "fleshed out" the intelligence he received .We call that spin . The Rabbi hasn't answered my question as to why
G-d chose to instigate such a devious and immoral plot .We have only Rebecca's word that G-od had intervened- a cover story ?
After all if G-d had selected Jacob as destined for greatness and had Jacob been born first - no problem. I repeat what lesson is to be learned from these events other than cheating is OK if the end is desirable. White lies are still lies.I believe that Torah gave the world an eternal moral standard - and this story just doesn't fit.
My own sister z"l was guilty of such favouritism in her will as a result of which her two sons are totally estranged.Incidentally the younger brother was the beneficiary.
AvramJ
London
December 26, 2016
Re: Toldot
The "spin" you refer to would have to be the Torah's own spin. It is the Torah that says that "Esau despised the birthright," and this, after he had already eaten and drank his fill. It is the Torah that tells us about Isaac's blindness, portraying him as someone whose love for Esau was a result of an inability to see who he truly was, while Rebecca is the one who sees. Rebecca only helps (instigates) Jacob in a deception once it is a matter of ensuring that justice is done, Jacob being the rightful recipient of the blessings. Isaac, too, never holds it against Jacob that he deceived him, once he knows how matters stand. It is interesting that it is only at this point, after so many years have elapsed, the Esau suddenly cares that Jacob "bought my birthright," since "now he has also taken my blessing." It is clear from later passages in the Tanach that Esau was in the wrong. The rabbis only fleshed out what the Torah already suggests.
Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
For Chabad.org
December 6, 2016
Toldot
I have always been unhappy about the bizarre morality issue in this story.
To take direct advantage of another's distress as Jacob undoubtedly did is without doubt totally immoral that the gain was at a twin brothers expense is truly shocking.
It is a tale of deception and cheating. The commentaries would today be called spin.The incidence of a mother favoring one son to the exclusion of another is not rare (the lawyers love it) - If Rebecca was guided by G-d
directly - we may ask why G-d chose to instigate such a devious plan. The only lesson to be drawn is - you may cheat and get away with it. Whether Esau did not want the responsibility does not excuse his mother and Jacob's plotting -Esau was entitled to a fair price.
Avram J
London
November 19, 2015
Well, now I understand why is Essau always been referred to as "wicked". I always felt bitter about Jacob for being unkind toward his hungry brother and tricking him out of his birthright. Now I've seen the light. Thanks!
Maria
New York, NY