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[Esau would ask his father:] “How does one tithe straw?”

Genesis Rabbah 63:15

The house of Jacob shall be fire . . . and the house of Esau, straw

Obadiah 1:18

Straw, being animal fodder, is exempted from the obligation of tithing, which applies only to produce grown for human consumption. Esau inquired of Isaac as to how to tithe straw, wishing to impress his father with a demonstration of copious piety. In doing so, he also demonstrated a fatal flaw in his approach to life.

Man, the Kabbalists tell us, is vitalized by no less than two souls: we each possess both an “animal soul” and a “G‑dly soul.” The animal soul is the motor of physical life, incorporating the instincts, drives, desires and faculties that serve the survival and perpetuation of the physical self. In this the human being is another animal, however intelligent and sensitive an animal. What distinguishes him from the animal world is his G‑dly soul, which embodies his striving to transcend the animal state and relate to the divine.

All endeavors of man are either “human food” that fuels the spiritual life of the G‑dly soul, or “animal fodder” that nourishes the material life of the animal soul. Both are indispensable to our purpose in life, for the soul can operate and achieve only via a physical self; but one must take care not to confuse the means with the end. One must always know to distinguish between the sacred and the mundane in one’s life, and remember which exists to serve which.

Esau wished to “tithe the straw,” to attribute spiritual worth to animal fodder. Instead of exploiting the material to serve the spiritual, he wished to invest the material with a significance and value of its own.

The end, of course, was that the “dew of the heavens and the fat of the land” intended for Esau was given to Jacob, who could be trusted to “tithe” or idealize only what nurtures the man in man—the G‑dly drives and aspirations that distinguish the human from the animal.

Unfit Fodder

In the end of days, prophesies the prophet Obadiah, when the purpose of creation will reach its fulfillment, “the house of Jacob shall be fire . . . and the house of Esau, straw.”

This is not the same straw of which Esau spoke to Isaac. The Hebrew word used in that connection by the Midrash is teven, while the prophet describes the house of Esau as kash. While both words loosely translate as “straw,” teven is more precisely the chaff that is harvested together with the grain and is subsequently fed to the livestock, while kash is the stubble that remains in the field and is too coarse even for animal consumption.

Esau was initially entrusted with the teven, the straw with lifegiving value to man—the straw that feeds the animal that serves man. But when he sought to reverse this relationship—to make straw the focus and object of life—his teven turned to kash, into a hollow husk depleted of all nutritive potential.

In the perfect world of Moshiach, such empty materialism will cease to be; the kash of Esau will be utterly consumed by the spiritual fire of Jacob. Teven, on the other hand, will become the staple of the animal kingdom, as “the lion, like the ox, shall eat teven” (Isaiah 11:7).

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
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Anonymous Orlando, FL. November 9, 2015

Animal fodder or human food, the true spiritual nature never hides itself. It always amazes me when people elevate their consciousness to such heights that it (or G-d) affords them such luminous clear perception that they are able to see profound reality in what the rest of us might only see or perceive as simple meanings i.e. text, from the natural occurrences of common everyday human experiences and interaction. Everything in Torah(s) has a greater spiritual significance and value, a true reward, sometimes I think to myself what did I ever do to deserve it, being exposed to it, being connected to it, the Torah(s) -it's always something more than I ever deserve. Reply

Anonymous brooklyn, NY November 24, 2011

mercy while we are on the subject of caring for and not hurting animals, we must also remember to be kind to the fruit and vegetable kingdom. It has been scientifically proven that they too feel pain.

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero writes that human beings are obligated to have mercy on all creatures and not harm them other than when he elevates them from level to level, from mineral to plant to animal to human.

Only then is it permitted to uproot plants and kill animals, to cause a lack of life in order to bestow a higher level of conciousness.

The way to elevate food is by making sure the food is kosher, saying the proper blessing and the Grace After Meals. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma November 22, 2011

The Book of Ruth the Laws of Kashrut: mercy could be straw, the fodder for those animals we keep, that we eat, that we are supposed to care for, and if we must slaughter them, to do it with proper sanctity and in ways that do not hurt them, that are not cruel.

all that IS is holy, including straw, including Hay, and in fact, life is, in part, a Hay ride, and Hei itself a very important Hebrew letter. Also my diary is at The Hay Library and so I know I have a "role" in the Hay, and in Israel, on the kibbutz, where I worked, I took many a fun roll in the hay.

I am saying it's all of it, SACRED. meaning ALL creation, and I will also say, the profane and the sacred do a profound dance, and as all is ONE so it is, they fold, into each other. Look at life, and see this. LIFE is essentially in all respects bipolar, and this is deeply reflected in language itself. ALONE/ALL ONE. APART/ A PART.

Maybe soon, people will listen to the alchemy of the letters, and the words, that do so sing to me. Reply

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