Within Isaac's seemingly simple request of Esau, the wayward son, lies a profound narrative full of contrasting character traits, pivotal decisions, and a family drama that shapes the course of an entire nation's destiny. * On Rambam's Laws of Ritual Slaughter (3:1,11).
Consider the curious request Isaac makes of his son, Esau: "Now therefore, please pick up your gear: your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt game for me" (Genesis 27:3).
At this point in the narrative, Isaac is an old man, and his eyesight is failing. He calls Esau, his firstborn, wayward son, and asks him to go out to the field and hunt game for him, after which he will give him his blessing before he dies.
Rashi, the classic medieval Jewish commentator, sheds light on this verse as follows:
1. "'Please pick up' - Sharpen your knife... Isaac said to Esau, '...slaughter an animal according to the regulations so that you may not give me to eat nevelah' (i.e., flesh of an animal not killed according to the ritual laws) (Genesis Rabbah 65:13)."
2. "'your gear' - This means thy sword which is usually hung (at the side)."
3. "'And hunt game for me' - And hunt game for me [venison] of animals that are ownerless..."
From these excerpts, it becomes clear that Isaac's directive to Esau involves not merely the preparation of a meal to his preference, but also the compliance with kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws.
WHY THE BOW AND ARROW THEN?
However, this leads us to an intriguing query: Why would Isaac, if he desired a meal prepared in adherence to the Jewish dietary laws, instruct Esau to take his bow and arrows (“take, I pray thee, thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow”)? Wouldn't the result of such hunting be an animal not slaughtered according to Jewish law, and therefore non-kosher?
This question becomes even more pertinent when we consider the halachic literature. Rambam (Maimonides), in his magnum opus, Mishneh Torah (Laws of Forbidden Foods, Chapter 5), specifies the factors that can disqualify a ritual slaughter and render the animal non-kosher.
In Law 1, he says: "There are five factors that disqualify ritual slaughter and the fundamentals of the laws of shechitah are to guard against each of these factors: They are:
1. Shehiyah: Pausing or delaying - This occurs when the person doing the slaughter (shochet) pauses during the process of cutting the animal's throat.
2. Dirasah: Pressing - This term refers to the forbidden act of pressing the knife into the animal's throat rather than using a smooth slicing motion.
3. Chaladah: Covering or burying - This happens when the knife becomes hidden from view during the process of slaughter (for example, by getting covered by feathers or fur, or by slipping into the animal's neck).
4. Hagramah: Slaughtering in the wrong location - The shochet must cut through specific parts of the animal's neck (the trachea and esophagus). If the cut is made in an incorrect location, it invalidates the slaughter.
5. Ikur: Tearing - This refers to the act of tearing rather than cutting the animal's throat.
If any of these five issues occur during the process of shechita, the slaughter is invalidated and the animal is considered non-kosher.
Furthermore, in Law 11, he explains dirasah (pressing) as such: "What is meant by dirasah? For example, one struck the neck with a knife as one strikes with a sword, cutting the signs at one time, without passing [the knife] back and forth or one placed the knife on the neck and pressed, cutting downward like one cuts radishes or squash until he cuts the signs, [the slaughter] is unacceptable."
These laws clearly indicate that an animal killed by a method other than the prescribed Jewish ritual slaughter (shechita) is considered non-kosher. This emphasizes the question: why would Isaac instruct his son to take his bow and arrow for hunting if he wished for a meal prepared according to the laws of kashrut?
To reconcile this seeming contradiction, we turn to the Malbim, a 19th-century Bible commentator. He provides a profound understanding of this verse and interaction between Isaac and Esau:
1. "Now therefore, please pick up your gear: your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt game for me."
The Malbim begins by setting the stage for the deeper understanding of the verse. The commandment of Isaac to Esau involves more than just the literal request to hunt game.
2. "The reason why he instructed him to prepare the delicacies was that since the blessing is that the one who blesses rises with his intent with clinging of soul to the Upper Source, where God commanded the blessing of life, and the blessing will flow from his container to the one being blessed..."
Here, the Malbim introduces the spiritual aspect of the blessing. The act of blessing, according to him, isn't merely a passive, one-way transfer of good will. Instead, it involves a spiritual elevation of the one giving the blessing, connecting their soul to the Divine Source. The blessing then flows from the blesser (the container) to the recipient.
3. "...and also he prepares the one being blessed to be ready to receive the flow of blessing."
According to Malbim, there is an active component for the recipient as well. They must be prepared, not just physically but spiritually, to be in a state receptive to the blessing.
4. "For this, three things are necessary. One: that he prepares the one being blessed so that he is ready for this flow. Two: that he prepares himself so that he rises on the ladder of clinging to the source of the blessing. Three: that there is a drawing near and a connection between the one blessing and the one being blessed..."
In this part, the Malbim lays out the three necessary components for the act of blessing. Firstly, the recipient must be prepared and ready to receive the blessing. Secondly, the blesser must also prepare himself to rise spiritually and connect to the Divine Source. Finally, there must be a closeness or connection established between the blesser and the blessed.
5. "...and all three of these he wanted to prepare now..."
Isaac, aware of these components, uses this situation as an opportunity to create these conditions, to prepare Esau, himself, and the relationship between them for the act of blessing.
The Malbim beautifully describes Isaac's desire to bring Esau closer, to elevate him spiritually, and to connect with him on a deeper level. He uses the process of hunting as a method to teach Esau, to engage him in an activity he enjoys and understands, to bond with him. In doing so, he also creates an opportunity for Esau to perform the mitzvah of honoring one's parents (kibbud av va’eim), which could bring him spiritual merit.
By providing an additional opportunity for Esau to perform a mitzvah, Isaac hoped to bring his son back to the path of righteousness. It’s a powerful lesson on relating to those who may have strayed or are struggling with their faith by engaging with them on their own terms. It is a practice of empathy, understanding, and wise parenting.
This interpretation recalls an earlier moment when God speaks to Abraham, commanding him, ""‘Thy son’ — Abraham said to God, ‘I have two sons’. ‘He answered him, “Thine only son”. Abraham said, “This one is the only son of his mother and the other is the only son of his mother”. God then said, “the one whom thou lovest”. Abraham replied, “I love both of them”. Whereupon God said “even Isaac”."
According to Rashi, God's gradual reveal was not to confuse Abraham, but rather to prepare him gradually for the weight of His command. Rashi explains that God chooses this method "so as not to confuse him suddenly lest his mind become distracted and bewildered and in his confused state he would involuntarily consent, when there would have been no merit in his sacrifice."
Rashi's interpretation here underscores that the initial withholding of information from Abraham served to ensure his consent was not reflexive or unthinking, but conscious and deliberate. This gradual reveal also magnified the value and magnitude of the sacrifice that Abraham was asked to make, emphasizing that "God might reward him for the increasing sacrifice demanded by obedience to each and every expression used here."
Similarly, through the lens of Malbim's explanation, Isaac’s request to Esau transforms from a simple act of hunting to a deep strategy of spiritual engagement and connection. It paints a picture of a father, fully cognizant of his son's struggles, trying to guide him back to the path of righteousness, not through admonition, but through understanding and connection. This narrative becomes not merely a story about obedience or sacrifice, but one of empathy, engagement, and the pursuit of spiritual elevation.