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Esau and His Wives

Esau and His Wives


A key point in the life of a person is marriage. This applies to any human being in the world. For the Jewish people, marriage is also central to one’s identity as a Jew.

In this week’s Torah reading of Toldot, we read about the first intermarriage, which caused great grief to the parents of the Jewish partner. At the same time, we learn something about the beautifully positive dimension of a wedding.

Last week’s Torah reading made clear that Abraham was very concerned that his son Isaac should marry someone from Abraham’s own family, and certainly not a Canaanite.1 We thus see that even at this early stage of development of the Jewish people, there was a definite concern about who one should, or should not, marry.

In this week’s Parshah, we read about the two sons of Isaac, Jacob and Esau. Jacob was a spiritual person, while Esau, by contrast, was a man of violence.

Predictably, it was Esau who married out. The Torah tells us that when he was forty years old he married two women, both from the Canaanite tribe of the Hittites. Esau’s non-Abrahamic wives caused “bitterness of spirit to Isaac and Rebecca.”2 The sages comment that these women persisted in serving idols. It is interesting that Rebecca herself had been born into an idol-worshipping family. Yet as soon as she married Isaac, she dedicated herself to service of the One G‑d, Creator of heaven and earth. By contrast, Esau’s Hittite wives, although they were in Isaac’s home, offered incense to idols. Rashi says that the smoke of this incense caused Isaac’s blindness.3

Later in the Parshah, Rebecca tells her husband Isaac about how worried she feels that their son Jacob might end up marrying a Hittite girl, like Esau.4 There were no other young women in the vicinity. This was one of the reasons why Jacob was sent away from home, northeastwards, to find a wife from Rebecca’s family, as we see in next week’s Torah reading.

An intriguing point is that one of the Hittite wives of Esau is called Yehudit. It sounds just like a Jewish name, and indeed, the Talmud5 says that “anyone who denies idolatry is called Yehudi.” Rashi explains that really she had a different name, but Esau called her Yehudit in order to pretend to his father that she had truly adopted worship of the One G‑d.6

These events took place over three millennia ago, yet they sound quite familiar in terms of our own time. Yet it is also interesting that Esau married a third wife, who was quite different. She was a daughter of Ishmael, and thus a granddaughter of Abraham. Her name was Machalat, which means “forgiveness,” and Rashi comments7 that from her we learn that a bride and groom are forgiven all their sins on the day of their wedding.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe comments8 that the Torah is hinting that Machalat’s own actions reflected this idea. She was indeed a genuinely fine and spiritual person. So why did Esau marry her? On one level, only because he wanted to look good in his father’s eyes. On another level, comments the Rebbe, Esau too had a spark of good, which explains why his father Isaac loved him. Eventually, through the course of history, that spark of good in Esau and his descendants will be revealed.


Ibid. 26:35.


Rashi to Genesis 27:1.


Ibid. 27:46.


Talmud, Megillah 13a.


Rashi to Genesis 36:2.


Rashi, ibid. 36:3.


See Likkutei Sichot, vol. 5, pp. 163ff, and vol. 35, p. 118.

Dr. Tali Loewenthal is Lecturer in Jewish Spirituality at University College London, director of the Chabad Research Unit, author of Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School and a frequent contributor to the weekly Torah reading section.
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Mapk November 22, 2014

What makes you think Jacob was "spiritual"? There are no references in the Torah portion about him being spiritual are there? But rather that he was his mother's son... a son fulfilling his name and becoming quite deceptive. Reply

Sarah Masha W Bloomfield, MI, USA November 4, 2013

Joe G then Valerie The rest of the story is still developing. We hope radio, internet, newspapers, news magazines, etc, report without bias, and that the news they report is "good for the Jews"

Valerie - thanks! Reply

Joe Gorrie Seattle, Wa November 2, 2013

Esau's Spark of Good to be Revealed "Eventually, through the course of history, that spark of good in Esau and his descendants will be revealed....."

OK, this is like a sequel to a great story..... I honestly don't know the answer, so I'm hoping a hint will be put out so I can read the rest of the story..... Reply

valerie akron, oh November 29, 2011

to Sarah Masha that's very interesting! it's really very beautiful that Isaac's eyes could have been weak from angel's tears during the binding.
thank you SO much for writing. i've never questioned before, yet, you are all so pleasant and willing to listen and answer! it's appreciate very much. a long time ago, i was a wild rebel, running away from home; sneaking around seeing non-jewish guys, etc., of which my parents were clueless more or less -- BUT never in a million years would any step foot in their house, let alone with a non-jewish symbol of any kind. no matter how much it might have bothered me, my parents came first, and they knew it. i adored and respected them so much, no matter what . thank you very very much, again. Reply

Sarah Masha W Bloomfield, Mi/USA November 28, 2011

Terry & Valerie Why wasn't idol worship considered disrespect? Who said it wasn't?! While Esau was willing to honor his parents, nothing ever indicates that his wives were. Esau kept his most valuable outfit in his parents' home because he was afraid his wives would sell it. He knew who he married.

Some say that Isaac's eyes were weak from having angel's tears fall on them during the binding. Reply

Terry Feeney Tampa, FL/USA November 27, 2011

Idolatry in Isaac's home I do not understand how "Esau’s Hittite wives, although they were in Isaac’s home, offered incense to idols." Esau was known for honoring his parents, so why was not this activity considered extreme dishonor? Why did Isaac tolerate such behavior in his home for so long? This explanation is too problematic for me to consider it plausible. I expect that something vital is missing in this reference to Rashi. Reply

valerie akron, oh November 24, 2011

Isaac's blindness why did Isaac have to be the one to go blind from the incense of one of Esau's hittite wives? well, nothing has changed in all these years - evil is forgiven and the good ones go blind because of them!!?? Reply

Judith L Witten Brockton, USA November 24, 2011

Esau the violent one This I thought about for a very very long time and very deeply. Seeemed to me that G-d loved him and made sure he was with a woman Machalat who was of sound spiritually...This is so puzzling to me that he was forgiven for being a man of violence-and this did effect the family -Issac and Rebecca-caused alot of unrest especially since he married outside of the tribe. Reply

Garnepudi Houston, USA November 22, 2011

Esau and his wives. Very interesting, considering the nature of the marriage of Esau. if that is so , what about Joseph ,and the faithful servant of God, Moses? when Miriam , objected to his marriage the consequences were very bad. Please enlighten the difference in these instances, and thank you. Reply

Sarah Masha W Bloomfield, Mi/USA November 4, 2010

I have wondered (for years!) about one of Eisav's wives having the name Yehudit. Such a simple explanation, but nobody I asked could answer. Thank you for resolving a question that has jiggled inside my head for so long.

On a human level why was Mochlat not considered as a possible match for Yaakov? It has just been stated that she was a fine person, with high potential. Reply

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