Who Were Esau and Jacob?

Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca, were engaged in a power struggle before they were even born. The younger son, Jacob, was an obedient, perfect Torah scholar, while his older brother Esau was a wild, aggressive hunter. The tension between them grew after Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a pot of lentil soup, and culminated when Jacob disguised himself as his hairy brother, Jacob disguised himself as his hairy brother, and convinced his father that he was Esauconvinced his father that he was Esau, and earned his father’s blessings. Jacob went on to father the Jewish nation, and Esau became the progenitor of Se’ir, the forerunner of Rome.

Trouble From the Start

Isaac and his wife Rebecca were childless for many years. Finally, Rebecca conceived and suffered a difficult and painful pregnancy. Every time she would walk past a place of G‑d’s worship, her child would kick and try to get out, yet at the same time, every time she passed a place of idol worship, her child also tried to jump out. Fearing that there was something wrong with her or her child, she sought the advice of Shem, Noah’s son and prophet of G‑d, who informed her of the great news:

And the L‑rd said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from your innards, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the elder will serve the younger.”1

Rebecca was carrying twins. One had a righteous disposition while the other had an evil, idolatrous one. Each would father a great nation, a world superpower. They would fight tooth and nail, but ultimately, Shem prophesied, the younger son would triumph.

Finally, after nine difficult months, Rebecca gave birth. The first child that came out was red, hairy and fully developed. They named him Esau, which means “made” or “complete.”2 Gripping his older brother’s ankle in a bid to emerge first, the other, fair-skinned baby appeared shortly after. He was thus named Jacob, meaning “ankle.”

Jacob would later argue that he was the firstborn, because he was conceived first, making him the true first child. The Midrash gives the analogy that when one puts two balls in a narrow tube, the ball that goes in first comes out last. So, too, Jacob was “placed first in the tube,” i.e., conceived first, so he came out last.

Esau’s skin was so red that Isaac was afraid to circumcise him, deciding to wait until he was older and his complexion improved.3

Esau Was Not Born Evil

The Talmud writes that G‑d does not create anyone wicked or righteous; we all have the free choice to do good or the opposite.4 In Esau’s case, G‑d did not create him wicked, nor predetermine his life course. Yes, G‑d created him with a tendency toward idolatry and evil, but this challenge was entirely in his power to overcome. In fact, the Midrash tells us that at the beginning of his life, under the tutelage of his grandfather Abraham, Esau was actually righteous.5 As he grew older, however, he succumbed to his impulses and became a wild hunter. As we shall delve into later, Esau was given this difficult mission because he had a tremendously lofty soul, which had the power to illuminate even terrible darkness.

The Twins Grow Up

And the youths grew up, and Esau was a man who understood trapping and hunting, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents. And Isaac loved Esau because [his] game was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob.6

Two polar opposites, one favored by their father and one by their mother, the boys matured into young adults. Jacob spent his time in the yeshivah of Shem and Ever, studying Torah, while Esau spent his time in the fields, hunting animals, women and gold.

Rashi explains the words “who knew trapping and hunting” to mean that Esau knew how to trap and deceive his father into believing he was righteous. He would ask him convoluted halachic question about taking tithes from salt and straw, items which by law are exempt from tithing, to give the appearance that he was going beyond the letter of the law in his observance.7

The Birthright Sale

Now, Jacob cooked a lentil soup, and Esau came from the field, and he was faint. And Esau said to Jacob, "Pour into [me] some of this red, red [pottage], for I am faint"; he was therefore named Edom. And Jacob said, "Sell me as of this day your birthright." Esau replied, "Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?" And Jacob said, "Swear to me as of this day"; so he swore to him, and he sold his birthright to Jacob. And Jacob gave Esau bread and a pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank and arose and left, and Esau disdained the birthright.8

The Talmud teaches that on that day, Abraham, the twins’ grandfather, passed away. Jacob was in the kitchen, preparing a lentil soup, the customary mourner’s food, for his father.9 The custom was that other people would prepare a meal for the mourners after the burial, and lentil soup was the dish served. Lentils are round, like the circle of life, a message to the mourners that death is natural and inevitable. Additionally, the lentils, which are closed on all sides, are like a mourner whose mouth is closed and cannot speak due to his grief.10

Esau was faint with hunger because he had been very busy that day. The Talmud learns that the day of Abraham’s death was the same day Esau violated a young bride and committed his first murder, in addition to other sins. When Esau was younger, he was taught and inspired by his grandfather to be righteous and G‑d fearing. On that day though, Esau threw away any last vestiges of morality he retained and succumbed entirely to his evil inclination.11 That is why G‑d made Abraham pass away on that day, before he discovered what his grandson did, because his pain would have been unbearable. Abraham’s allotted years were 180, but G‑d ended his life five years early, at 175, to spare him the agony of watching his grandson go astray.12

The birthright meant the opportunity to serve as a priest for G‑d, and also to be the progenitor of their father’s legacy. Before G‑d chose the tribe of Levi to be the priests, working in G‑d’s service was the privilege of the firstborn of every family.13 Esau did not care to work for this privilege, nor to continue his father’s legacy. And even if he had cared for these things before, on that day, when he sank to the depths of depravity, he stopped caring at all. Even the extra portion of inheritance due a firstborn did not interest him, for he knew that with the type of lifestyle he led, on the edge, he would most likely be murdered before his father died.

Where Esau Went Wrong

In the teachings of chassidus it is explained Esau and Jacob were supposed to personify two types of perfection one can achieve in this worldthat Esau and Jacob were supposed to personify two types of perfection one can achieve in this world. Jacob was the ascetic Torah scholar, removed from the world and impervious to its goings-on. His focus was on learning Torah, contemplating G‑dliness and connecting to Him. Esau, on the other hand, was supposed to be a down-to-earth man of the world, involved in the physical world and the negativities contained within, yet remain steadfast in his commitment to G‑d. He would utilize his physical surroundings in his G‑dly service, and thereby influence and elevate the world around him.

Esau’s mission was more difficult than Jacob’s, and therefore he was given a more powerful soul, with the capabilities to overcome the challenges and obstacles he would face.14 He was also older because he had this greater soul, greater potential, and greater capacity to refine the world.

However, he did not succeed. Although in his adolescence he was righteous, the task eventually proved too difficult and he succumbed. Instead of elevating the world, he was sucked into it. He started out on a mission to refine the world, but ended up getting trapped by it, unable to break free.

This is the deeper meaning behind Isaac’s love for his older son. Isaac looked at his son’s soul, viewed him in his spiritual source, and was awed by the potential. He knew that if only Esau would overcome his challenges, he would rise higher than anyone.15 Therefore, he loved and encouraged him, in an attempt to inspire him to better his ways. That is also why he wanted to give Esau the blessings.

Isaac knew exactly who Esau was and that his intricate halachic questions were just a front. Perhaps, however, the reason he played along was that he hoped that when Esau would see how much pleasure his “piety” gave his father, that would encourage him to mend his ways and truly become righteous.

Because Esau did not complete his mission, it would become necessary for Jacob to step in, buy the birthright, receive the blessings from Isaac, and take it over. Eventually, Jacob would take on both roles, and create a beautiful synthesis between the two: the fusion of abstract Torah learning with the refinement of the mundane world, a union of heaven and earth.

Perhaps that is why Jacob wanted to buy the birthright from Esau. When Jacob saw that Esau committed such terrible sins, he began to realize that the Esau was never going to fulfil his task. The task of refining the world was going to have to be accomplished by him and his descendants. Therefore he bought the birthright from Esau, taking command of destiny.

A depiction of the power struggle between Jacob and Esau. Art by Yoram Ranaan
A depiction of the power struggle between Jacob and Esau. Art by Yoram Ranaan

The Blessing Switcheroo

It came to pass when Isaac was old, and his eyes were too dim to see, that he called Esau his elder son, and he said to him, "My son," and he said to him, "Here I am." And he said, "Behold now, I have grown old; I do not know the day of my death. So, now, sharpen your implements, your sword [and take] your bow, and go forth to the field, and hunt game for me. And make for me tasty foods as I like, and bring them to me, and I will eat, in order that my soul will bless you before I die."16

Isaac was 123 years old and was concerned that he would soon pass away. This is because, as the Midrash states, a person has cause to worry about dying five years before and five years after the age that one’s parents were when they died. Therefore, since Sarah, Isaac’s mother, passed on at 127, Isaac was concerned that his time was nearing.17

Regarding Isaac’s blindness, there are different explanations given for the cause:

  1. The smoke from the incense that Esau’s wives burned to their idols blinded him.18 Obviously, the physical smoke did not blind him, for then Esau, his wives and Rebecca would also have been blinded. Rather it was because Isaac was so sensitive to anything unG‑dly that he could not bear the idolatrous incense and became blind as a result.19
  2. When Isaac was bound on the altar and his father was about to slaughter him, the heavens opened, and the ministering angels saw and wept, their tears falling into Isaac’s eyes. As a result, his eyes became dim.20
  3. G‑d blinded Isaac in his old age to enable Jacob to take the blessings.21

Rebecca overheard Isaac speaking to Esau. She knew that the blessings ought to go to Jacob, for he was the more righteous, worthy son. She called for Jacob and told him to bring her two choice baby goats so that she could make delicacies for Isaac. He was to bring them to his father, posing as Esau, and receive the blessings.

Jacob said to his mother, “My brother Esau is a hairy man, whereas I am smooth. Perhaps my father will touch me, and I will appear to him as a deceiver, and I will bring upon myself a curse and not a blessing.” Rebecca replied, "On me is your curse, my son. Only hearken to my voice and go take them for me."22

His mother prepared the food, dressed Jacob in his brother's clothes, and placed the skins of the goats on his hands and neck to give him the feel of a hairy person. Jacob entered his blind father’s chambers.

The Midrash tells us that Rebecca dressed Jacob in Esau’s special cloak, which he had stolen from King Nimrod after he murdered him. The cloak originally belonged to Adam and was passed down father to son, until Nimrod got hold of it. Esau kept the cloak in his parent’s home because he did not trust his wives.23

Jacob came to his father and said, "My father!" Isaac responded, "Here I am. Who are you, my son?" "I, Esau, your firstborn,” answered Jacob, wording his response so that it could also be understood as, “[It is] I. Esau [is] your firstborn,” which was not untrue. “I have done as you have asked. Please rise, sit down and eat of my game so that you may bless me." Isaac, cautious, responded to his son, "How is it that you have found [the game] so quickly, my son?" "Because the L‑rd your G‑d prepared it before me," Jacob replied.

Now, Isaac knew that Esau was not wont to mention G‑d’s name, nor to speak so politely. He became wary that perhaps the man in his presence was not Esau after all. “Come closer,” said Isaac, “that I may feel you, whether you really are my son Esau or not." Jacob approached his father, who felt his arms and neck. Then Isaac exclaimed, "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau."24

With these words Isaac hinted at the difference between the two. Whereas Esau and his descendants use their hands and swords to instigate conflict, Jacob’s way is with his mouth, through prayer.

The Deeper Story

As touched on above, the reason Isaac wanted to give the blessings to Esau was to empower him. Isaac saw in Esau a worldly person, subject to lowly passions and temptations, but at the same time Isaac saw a lofty soul, gifted with extraordinary spiritual powers that would enable him to rise above those instincts. Isaac wanted to shower Esau with G‑dly light that would empower him to pull through in his struggles.

Rebecca, on the other hand, recognized that the blessings would be ineffective in empowering him. Esau had fallen too low, sinned too much, such that the blessings would not achieve their desired end. Esau would never succeed in his mission of elevating the world, even if Isaac would bless him. Instead, the spiritual energies would have been swallowed up by Esau’s evil, their light obscured by his terrible darkness. Therefore, she realized, Jacob had to be the one to receive the blessings. For only then would Esau ultimately become refined. Through Jacob receiving the blessings, through his Torah and mitzvahs, he would slowly but surely hack away at Esau’s evil, and that of the world at large, until it would be elevated25

For Jacob to take on the momentous task of refining Esau, he had to display self-sacrifice. He had to prove that he was committing himself to this cause and that, come what may, he and his descendants would never falter in their mission. Jacob also had to act in a way that contradicted his nature to display to his father that he was willing to do whatever it took to succeed with this mission, even it was uncomfortable for him. Even if the refinement of Esau required him to deal with a world of lies and deceit, he would remain unaffected. Moreover, he would outsmart the world and cheat it, so to speak, in order to refine it. That is also why he had to dress up with sheepskin and take the blessings in a tricky way, to demonstrate that he was willing to enter the world of falsehood yet remain true to G‑d and his mission.26

Perhaps this then is the inner meaning of the dialogue between father and son. Isaac asked him, “Who are you?” meaning, Are you really prepared to take on Esau’s mission? And Jacob responded that he was. So Isaac said, “Come close that I may feel you.” Let me see if you are properly prepared for this undertaking, the challenge of dealing with the world. When Isaac felt the sheepskin on Jacob’s arm, but still heard the voice of the righteous Jacob, Isaac saw that Jacob was capable of “donning the sheepskin,” capable of entering the world and encountering its obstacles while retaining his “voice,” his commitment and dedication to G‑d.

The Blessings

Afterwards, Isaac asked Jacob to kiss him and readied himself to bless him. Isaac blessed Jacob with 10 blessings.

And may the L‑rd give you (1) of the dew of the heavens and (2) of the fatness of the earth and (3) an abundance of grain and (4) wine. (5) Nations shall serve you and (6) kingdoms shall bow down to you; (7) you shall be a master over your brothers, (8) and your mother's sons shall bow down to you. (9) Those who curse you shall be cursed, and (10) those who bless you shall be blessed.27

Isaac opened his blessing with the word “And,” which signifies that G‑d will give and give, again and again.28 He blessed Jacob with abundant physical blessings and dominion over all, particularly his brother.

Additionally, beyond the literal, corporeal meaning of the blessings, they also contain a deeper significance: “Dew of the heavens” refers to the Scriptures, “the fatness of the earth” to Mishnah, “grain” to Talmud, and “wine” to Aggadah (the homiletic aspects of Torah). Isaac, in essence, blessed Jacob and his descendants with Torah, that his descendants should receive the Torah in its entirety and excel in its study.29

And in the context of the chassidic take on the story, Isaac blessed Jacob to succeed in his mission of refining and elevating the world. Isaac empowered Jacob with the strength needed to affect but not be affected, to elevate but not be dragged down. That is why he began with a blessing of “dew,” because in Kabbalah “dew” refers to the transcendental level of G‑dliness called “Atik,” from which comes the ability to transform the world.

Esau’s Reaction

Jacob took leave of his father just as his brother was returning from his hunt. The Midrash says that Esau was delayed because every time he trapped an animal, an angel would release it.30 Finally, Esau hunted a deer, slaughtered it and prepared it for his father. He entered his father’s room, and in his usual gruff tone called out, "Let my father arise and eat of the game of his son so that your soul will bless me." Isaac, confused asked Esau, "Who are you?" "I am your son, your firstborn, Esau," he replied.

Isaac began to shudder, afraid that he had done wrong by blessing Jacob. Also, he saw the fires of purgatory enter the room with Esau.31 “Your brother came with cunning and took your blessing. He, too, shall be blessed,” Isaac exclaimed. When Esau heard his father's words, he let out a terrible cry. "Bless me too, O my father! It is for this reason that he was named Jacob [which is related to the word for “trickery”], for he has deceived me twice. He took my birthright, and behold, now he has taken my blessing."32

When Isaac heard Esau say that Jacob deceived him twice, the first time by the sale of the birthright and the second time by the blessings, he calmed down. He said to Esau, “If it is true that you sold him your birthright, then he is the one who deserves the blessings.

"Have you not reserved even some type of blessing for me? Has my brother really taken everything?!" cried Esau. Isaac answered, "Behold, I made him a master over you, and I gave him all his brothers as servants, and I have sustained him with corn and wine; so for you then, what shall I do, my son? Whatever a servant acquires belongs to his master,” said Isaac, “so even if I do bless you, what good will it be for you? The blessing will just benefit Jacob.”33 Esau, weeping, begged his father, "Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me too." Isaac acquiesced:

Behold, your dwelling place shall be the fat places of the earth and of the dew of the heaven from above. And you shall live by your sword, and you shall serve your brother, and it will be, when you grieve, that you will break his yoke off your neck.34

Isaac told Esau that he would be a slave to his brother. However, when Jacob’s descendants would rebel against G‑d and his Torah, Esau’s descendants would be able to throw off their yoke and rise up against their masters. Only then would Esau have any power over Jacob.35 Ultimately, though, Jacob would triumph and would have mastery over Esau and all his descendants.

The Aftermath

Esau left his father’s room furious and vowed to take revenge on his brother. Rebecca called her son Jacob and told him to flee. He was to go to her brother Laban in Haran, marry and establish a family. Jacob went to his father, who once again blessed him, this time with the blessing of Abraham his father. Jacob then took leave of his parents and set out for Haran.

Out of respect for his father, Esau decided to wait until his father died before attempting to kill his brother,36 although some commentaries do say that Esau attempted, unsuccessfully, to kill Jacob as he fled.37


Jacob spent close to 35 years away from home, 14 years in the yeshivah of Shem and Eber, and 21 years in the house of Laban. In Haran, he married Laban’s two daughters, first Leah and then Rachel, and also Bilhah and Zilpah. He had 12 sons from his four wives and many daughters. Then, after 21 years in Haran, G‑d appeared to him and told him to return to his father who was still alive. Jacob’s family gathered their belongings and began travelling.

When Esau got wind that Jacob was returning, he prepared to finally repay Jacob for his treachery. Jacob sent many gifts to his bother, trying to win his favor. However, he also prepared himself for battle and even wrestled with Esau’s angel, a fight that he won. When the day finally arrived, and the brothers caught sight of each other, Esau was standing with 400 men, seemingly unmoved by Jacob’s gestures of reconciliation. Jacob feared the worst. However, momentarily overcome with emotion, Esau approached his brother and embraced him. Although he still hated his brother, at that moment he was overcome with mercy and felt only warmth for his brother. They parted peacefully, with Esau even offering to travel with Jacob.

Some commentaries teach that when Esau kissed Jacob, he, in fact, tried to bite him, but Jacob’s neck tuned miraculously to marble, and Esau was unable to harm him.38


When Rebecca instructed Jacob to flee Esau’s wrath she said, “Go to Haran … until your brother’s wrath cools off, for why should I lose both of you in one day?” She meant that if Esau were to attempt to murder Jacob, and Jacob would kill him in self-defence, Esau’s children would avenge their father and kill Jacob, and she would lose both her sons in one day. Unwittingly, Rebecca uttered these words prophetically, for that is exactly what happened; Jacob and Esau died on the same day.

The story goes as follows: Jacob and his family spent the last 17 years of his life in Egypt, under the care and protection of his son Joseph, the viceroy of Egypt. Jacob requested that when he died he should not be buried in Egypt, but be taken to Hebron in the Holy Land, to Me’arat Hamachpelah, which was also the resting place of his father. When Jacob died, the family brought him to the Holy Land from Egypt. When the procession arrived at Me’arat Hamachpelah, Esau showed up, claiming that the burial spot was rightfully his, and Jacob could not be buried there. There were two remaining spots left in the cave, and Jacob had already used his when he buried Leah, therefore the remaining spot was rightfully Esau’s. An argument ensued, creating a lot of confusion and commotion.

One of Jacob’s grandchildren who was attending the funeral was Chushim, son of Dan. Chushim was deaf and did not understand what the delay was all about. All he knew was that that Esau was disrespecting his grandfather by ruining the funeral, and he grew indignant. Taking matters into his own hands, he grabbed a sword, and sliced Esau’s head clean off. His head rolled to the feet of his brother, which was taken as a sign. And so Esau’s head was buried with his brother. 39, 40