Jacob (Yaakov in Hebrew) was the third and final of the Jewish Patriarchs. Jacob lived in the Land of Canaan, Haran, and Egypt. Unlike Abraham and Isaac, Jacob’s entire family remained righteous—his 12 sons became the 12 tribes of Israel, the Shevatim.

The Jewish Sages call Jacob the "favorite" of the Patriarchs.1 After Jacob successfully fought off an angel, G‑d named him Israel (Yisrael in Hebrew)—the name that the entire Jewish people became known by as “Bnei Yisrael,” the Nation of Israel.

Check out these in-depth summaries of Jacob’s life and times.

Esau and Jacob

When Jacob’s mother, Rebecca, finally conceived after 20 years of marriage,2 her pregnancy was abnormally difficult. She turned to the 550-year-old prophet Shem, Noah’s son, for guidance.

He told her that she was expecting twin boys, both destined for greatness. They would vie with each other for supremacy, but eventually, the elder would serve the younger.

The elder twin was reddish-skinned and covered with hair, just like a fully grown person. His parents called him Esau, from the Hebrew word asah, meaning “finished.”

The younger one followed close behind holding onto his brother’s heel. He was named Jacob, “one who takes by the heel.”

Growing up, Esau was cunning and a fierce hunter, a “man of the field.” Jacob was straightforward and innocent, a constant resident of the study hall.

Esau used to ask his father all types of religious questions, giving him the impression that he was a moral person. Isaac was convinced, but Rebecca saw through it, and loved Jacob all the more.

Read: Jacob and Esau

Read: The Cosmic Twins

Jacob Purchases the Birthright

When Jacob and Esau were 15 years old, Abraham passed away. Jacob was cooking a red lentil soup for his bereaved father when his brother Esau arrived. Esau was ravenously hungry—the Midrash explains that he had just committed his first murder—and he demanded that Jacob feed him the soup.3

Jacob insisted that Esau sell him the firstborn rights in exchange for the soup, and Esau happily agreed.

The Blessing

Isaac was getting old. He had just turned 123, his eyesight was suffering, and he felt that he may soon die. Isaac called Esau and told him to go catch wild animals and prepare a good meal for his father to eat. Afterwards, Isaac would bless Esau to fulfill Abraham’s destiny.4

Rebecca heard what was going on. She quickly called Jacob, made him disguise himself as Esau, and visit his father to get the blessings before Esau could.

When Esau came back from the hunt, he discovered what happened and told his father. Isaac declared that Jacob’s deception was divinely inspired and nothing more could be done, though he blessed Esau in other ways. Esau was furious and decided to kill Jacob when he got a chance.

Rebecca and Isaac commanded Jacob to travel to her brother Laban, in the ancient trading city of Haran (modern day Syria), to find himself a wife and wait for Esau’s anger to cool.

Read: Was Jacob right to steal the blessings?

Read: What was Isaac really thinking?

The Heavenly Ladder

Jacob set out for Haran all alone. After an attack by Esau’s grandson, he was left penniless too.5 He rested in a field for the night, placing 12 stones around his head for protection.6

Jacob dreamed of a ladder stretching from the ground to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending. As he watched, G‑d promised him three assurances:

  1. The land of Canaan would be given to Jacob’s descendants.
  2. Jacob’s descendants would be widespread, numerous, and a source of blessing for the whole world.
  3. G‑d would be with Jacob wherever he went and would guard him.

G‑d’s promise to Abraham for his children to become G‑d’s chosen nation would be fulfilled through Jacob, as well.

When Jacob awoke, the 12 stones around his head had fused into one. He took the stone, poured oil over it as an offering to G‑d, and swore to return to the same spot when he returned safely from Haran, naming the spot Beth E-l, “House of G‑d.”

This field would be the eventual location of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Read: Somewhere Between Spirituality and Religion

© Lesley Friedmann
© Lesley Friedmann

The Ladder’s Deeper Meaning

The rabbis explain that Jacob saw four angels ascending the ladder, each one falling to the earth after a specific number of rungs.

These angels each represent one of the four nations who subjected the Jews to exile. G‑d’s promise to Jacob to always protect him rings true for every Jew, no matter where we find ourselves.7

Read: The Four Exiles of the Jewish People

In Chassidic thought, the ladder represents prayer, which is our effort to connect ourselves, below, to G‑d above.

Just as a ladder has different rungs, so too prayer is made of four primary stages, each ascending ever higher. This ladder shows us how the most physical planes of existence can be connected with G‑d Himself.

Jacob’s Marriages

When Jacob first arrived in Haran, he met his cousin Rachel—one of Laban’s two daughters (the other being Leah),—at the well with her father’s flocks. Laban agreed to shelter him for a month, in exchange for Jacob tending to his flock.8

Jacob and Rachel loved each other, and after a month passed Jacob asked Laban for permission to marry her. Laban agreed, but he stipulated that the marriage take place after Jacob would tend his flocks for seven years.

Jacob put tremendous effort into his work, and through G‑d’s blessing, Laban’s flocks and family prospered and grew. Though seven years had gone by, Jacob felt like they were a mere few days—so great was his love for Rachel.

Unbeknownst to Jacob, however, Laban was secretly planning on switching Rachel with her sister Leah at the wedding so that Jacob would be forced into working longer for Rachel’s hand. The wedding took place at night, and Jacob could not see that it was Leah who was brought to him, not Rachel.

(Knowing Laban’s deceitful ways, Rachel and Jacob had prepared for this eventuality by agreeing on secret signs that would signify they were who they said they were. When Rachel realized how embarrassed Leah would be when Jacob discovered the deception, however, she told Leah the signs.)

When morning came, Jacob confronted Laban. Laban replied that in Haran, the eldest daughter must get married first. If Jacob still wanted to marry Rachel, he could do so in a week’s time—but he must then tend Laban’s flocks for another seven years.

Following the second round of seven years, Jacob and Laban agreed that Jacob would now work for a share of the newly born animals, with different agreements covering speckled, spotted, striped and brown sheep. This went on for six years, until G‑d told Jacob that it was time to return home.

Laban would routinely switch the agreement when he felt that Jacob was getting too many animals, but with G‑d’s help, Jacob became immensely wealthy.9

Read: How Could Jacob Marry Two Sisters?

The Handmaidens and the 12 Tribes

Jacob’s family became the nucleus of the Jewish nation. In all, Jacob had (at least) 12 sons and one daughter.10

Leah’s children were Reuben, Simon, Levi, Judah. After a pause, she also gave birth to Zebulun, Issachar, and her daughter Dinah.

For many years, Rachel did not get pregnant. She asked Jacob to marry her handmaiden, Bilhah, as a proxy for herself. Bilhah bore Jacob two sons, Dan and Naphtali.

After Judah was born, Leah too went for a period of time without getting pregnant. She asked Jacob to marry her handmaiden, Zilpah, who gave birth to Gad and Asher.

Following seven years of marriage, Rachel finally gave birth to a son, who she named Joseph—meaning “to give in addition”—as she prayed for yet another son. Some 8 years later, Rachel gave birth to the last of Jacob’s children, Benjamin (more on that later).11

Read: The Twelve Tribes—The Shevatim

Read: Twelve Tribes—Twelve Paths

Jacob’s Departure and the Covenant with Laban

After 20 years in Haran, G‑d told Jacob it was time to return home. Jacob consulted with his wives and received their unanimous consent to leave their inhospitable and thieving father. They secretly gathered the family and property and set out to the land of Canaan.12

Unbeknownst to anyone, Rachel had stolen her father’s collection of idols before their departure (she hoped to wean her father off idol worship).

When Laban realized, he gathered a posse and set off in hot pursuit. They soon caught up to Jacob’s slow-moving camp near Mount Gilead.

That night, G‑d appeared to Laban and warned him not to harm Jacob in any way.

When morning came, Laban confronted Jacob and his daughters, issuing a veiled threat that he would have caused Jacob grievous harm if not for G‑d appearing to him the night before. He then demanded to know why Jacob had stolen his idols.

Jacob had no idea that the idols were stolen, and he responded by reiterating how he had given 20 years of time to watch Laban’s flocks with total devotion, accepting responsibility for any losses incurred. How could he have stolen anything from Laban?!

Jacob even cursed the one who had stolen the idols with death—not knowing it was his own beloved wife. The Talmud says that this curse contributed to Rachel’s untimely death.

Before going their separate ways, Jacob and Laban made a covenant never to pass the spot they stood with intent to harm one another. They gathered a pile of stones as a symbol of the treaty, calling it gal eid, “the witness heap.”

Esau and Jacob Reunite

When Jacob neared the land of Canaan, he sent messengers of peace to Esau. The messengers returned with the news that Esau had gathered 400 fighters and was on his way to attack.13

Jacob was shaken. He prepared for Esau’s arrival in 3 ways:

  1. He prepared for battle, dividing his camp into two so that the one group would escape if the other was attacked.
  2. He sent a large amount of livestock and servants to Esau as tribute.
  3. He turned to G‑d with humble, heartfelt prayer.

Watch: How a Jew Confronts Threatening Circumstances

Read: Jacob’s Humility

Jacob Wrestles the Angel

That night, Jacob took his family across the Yabbok river. After everyone had passed, Jacob returned to the other side to collect a few small jugs that had been left behind. Suddenly, an unidentified man approached him and attacked him. They wrestled till daylight.14

Morning approached, and Jacob held his own. Seeing this, the stranger forcefully dislocated Jacob’s thigh from its socket, but Jacob continued to hold him down.

Eventually, the man identified himself as Esau’s guardian angel enclothed in human form. He begged Jacob to let him go, as his turn to sing praises to G‑d had come. Jacob refused until the angel acquiesced to the blessings Isaac had given him so many years before.

Since Jacob’s thigh had been dislocated, Jews do not eat the sciatic nerve and its surroundings until today.

As the sun rose in the sky, G‑d healed Jacob’s injury.

Read: Jacob Wrestles the Angel

Meeting Esau

The moment had finally come. Esau approached in the distance, and Jacob walked to the front of his camp and bowed to his brother seven times. Seeing this display of respect, Esau’s mercy was kindled. He ran forward, hugged and kissed Jacob, and wept.15

Jacob introduced his family to his brother, and they parted in peace.

Jacob brushed aside any talk of continued contact between the two, recognizing that Esau’s brotherhood was temporary in nature. He hinted to a future time—when the redemption would come and the world will be at peace—when he would visit Esau once more.

Read: Did Esau Really Forget His Hatred?

Shechem and the Attack on Dinah

Jacob took his time getting back to his parents. On the way, he spent a year and a half in a place called Sukkot before purchasing a field near the city of Shechem, modern day Nablus.16

The ruler of Shechem was named Chamor, and his favorite son was named Shechem too. One day, when Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, was out alone, the prince raped her and prevailed on his father to arrange their marriage.

Jacob’s sons, furious about what had happened, devised a cunning plan.

They told Chamor and his son that they would be honored for the prince to marry Dinah. There was one condition: the native Shechemites must circumcise themselves.

On the third day after the circumcision, Shimon and Levi took up their swords and attacked the city and put every adult male in town to death and rescued their sister.

Though he understood his sons’ actions, Jacob disagreed with what they had done and rebuked them.

Read: Dinah’s Potential

Read: Were Simon and Levi Justified?

Jacob Becomes Israel

Jacob gathered his family, bade them to cleanse themselves of any idolatrous items and thoughts, and traveled to the site of his vision of the heavenly ladder, where he offered sacrifices of thanks to G‑d for saving him from those who sought to destroy him.17

G‑d appeared to Jacob and told him, “From now on, you will be known as Israel [Yisrael].” Israel comes from the word 'Sar’, meaning ruler. Israel means, “One who rules over Angels and Men and overcomes them.”

Read: Jacob’s Double Identity

Read: Name Changes in the Bible

Rachel's Death and Benjamin's Birth

Rachel was in the final month of her second pregnancy, when, on the outskirts of the village of Beit Lechem, she went into labor.18

Rachel called her newborn son “Ben Oni”, the son of my pain, right before she died from the childbirth; but Jacob called him Benjamin, meaning “The son of my right.” The Holy Land is considered to be on the right, and Benjamin was the only son born in the Holy Land.

Jacob built a tomb for his beloved wife on the side of the road. He didn't bring her to the family tomb in Hebron, since he saw prophetically that the Jews would be exiled by the Babylonian empire in the future and would be able to pass by her grave and pray.

Kever Rachel as it appeared in 1912.
Kever Rachel as it appeared in 1912.

Read: Rachel’s Tomb

Joseph and his Brothers

Rachel’s older son, Joseph, was exceptionally bright and righteous, and Jacob loved him tremendously, even commissioning a multicolored coat for Joseph to wear.19

The brothers grew jealous of Joseph, and Joseph, in turn, suspected his brothers of disloyalty to the faith of Abraham.

When Joseph was in his late teens, he dreamed about the sun, moon, and stars, and his brothers’ wheat sheaves bowing to him. Joseph related the dreams to his family, and his brothers’ hatred grew.

One day, Jacob asked Joseph to check that his brothers, out shepherding the flocks, were alright.

The brothers sold him to a nearby trade caravan that was headed towards Egypt.

To make sure their father wouldn’t suspect anything, they ripped off Joseph's colored cloak, dipped it in goat blood, and told their father that they had found Joseph’s bloodstained cloak on the roadside. Assuming that that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal, Jacob mourned his son for the next 22 years.

13 years passed. Joseph’s journey had been tumultuous, from prize slave in an Egyptian ministerial household to long-term prisoner in Pharaoh's dungeons under false charges.

In a dramatic turn of events, Joseph successfully interpreted Pharaoh's dreams as portending seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.

Pharaoh was so impressed by Joseph and his faith in G‑d that he appointed Joseph viceroy of Egypt. Joseph proceeded to use the years of plenty to prepare for the upcoming famine.

Illustration by Sefira Ross.
Illustration by Sefira Ross.

Read: Why didn’t Joseph Let His Father Know He Was Alive?

Descent to Egypt

The years of plenty ended, and the famine began. Desperate people from across the region traveled to Egypt to buy food. Eventually, Jacob sent his 10 older sons to buy food in Egypt too.20

Upon arriving in Egypt, the brothers were brought to the viceroy, Joseph. He recognized them, but they did not recognize him.

He proceeded to test their resolve and brotherhood, to see if they hated his younger brother Benjamin as they had hated him and whether they regretted their actions.

His brothers’ sincere regret was clear. Joseph revealed himself to them, sent gifts back to Jacob, and bade Jacob to come to Egypt as quickly as possible.

Jacob stopped on the way in Be’er Sheba, ancestral home of his grandfather Abraham, where he prayed to G‑d.

G‑d told Jacob, “Do not be afraid, for I am going down with you to Egypt, and I will bring you back here one day.”

Before arriving in Egypt, Jacob sent his son Judah to establish a place to learn Torah, ensuring that the future Jewish nation would retain its identity and faith.

Jacob, his sons, and their families—67 individuals—soon arrived in Egypt. With Joseph and his own two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, they totaled 70 people. These 70 people are the ancestors of the Jewish Nation.

Read: Did Jacob Ever Find Out What Happened To Joseph?

Jacob’s Final 17 Years

Jacob lived in Egypt for his last 17 years.21 The Rabbis describe this time as the best period of Jacob's life, noting that the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “good,” tov, is 17.22

He was cared for and surrounded by his entire family, finally at peace. All his children stayed faithful to the faith—including Joseph, who lived in the throbbing heart of Egyptian culture.

When Jacob first arrived in Egypt, he blessed Pharaoh that Egypt should be prosperous. From that point on, the Nile River would once again flood its banks, bringing the famine to an end.

Before Jacob passed away, he made Joseph swear to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, the location where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca were all buried, and where Jacob himself had buried his wife Leah.

Jacob gathered his 12 sons and addressed them with his final words of blessing, advice and prophecy. He lay back and passed away.

Joseph had his physicians embalm Jacob, a 40-day process; The entire country then mourned Jacob's death for another 30 days.

Following the mourning period, Joseph and his brothers, along with Egyptian ministers, courtiers, and an honor guard carried Jacob's casket to the land of Canaan, where they buried him in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron.

Read: The Cave of the Patriarchs

The Talmud states that Jacob never died. As his children live and continue his achievements, so he lives too.

Read: Life, Death, and Reality

Three Periods of Jacob’s Life

The Lubavitcher Rebbe noted that Jacob’s life can be broken down into three main periods:23

  1. In the Holy Land, sheltered from the entanglements of material life—a period of sovereignty.
  2. In Haran, during which Jacob married, fathered 12 of his 13 children, amassed great wealth, and struggled with Esau and Laban—a period of struggle.
  3. His descent to Egypt—though he was cared for by his beloved son, he was subject to the control of the demigod Pharaoh and the idolatrous Egyptian environment—a period of subjugation.

We, too, experience these three states of being: sovereignty, struggle, and subjugation.

We each have a divine, transcendent soul, pure and inviolable, at the core of our being. Often, though, we struggle—with our environment, our habits, and the passions of our divided hearts.

Though we don’t have full mastery over our existence, we are also free people. We can successfully resist that which seeks to sway us from our internal truth.

But we also know times of powerlessness—times when it seems that life has been stopped dead in its tracks, arrested by an impregnable wall of helplessness and despair.

Jacob’s life inspires our own. Jacob capitalized on his years of tranquility, used his struggles to create a new nation, and even turned his years under external control into the best years of his life.

We can do this too.