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.