Iyunim - Weekly insights on the Parasha with commentaries by Nehama Leibovitz, za"l

Table-Talk Of Patriarchs' Servants

Our previous study of this sidra was devoted to the significance of the character test to which Rebecca was submitted by Abraham’s servant. We noted the qualities of compassion and goodness to all human creatures, reflected in her act of offering to water the camels. This time we shall confine our attention to the activities and words of the servant, and note how admirably he fulfilled the mission with which he was charged.

The Torah relates, with a surprising wealth of detail, every action of the servant in chapter 24 till verse 26. His experiences are recapitulated (the conversation with Abraham, his prayer at the well, his meeting with Rebecca, her reaction, and the presentation of the bracelets) in the form of his report to Rebeca’s family in verse 35 to 48 of the same chapter. This lengthy and seemingly superfluous recapitulation has excited the comment of many of our expositors. In view of the Torah’s sparing use of words and avoidance of every unnecessary repetition, even the addition or subtraction of a letter, it is surprising, that we do not meet here with the brief note that the servant related to them all that had occirred, as is, indeed, the case when he returns home—

And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. (24, 26)

The Torah must have obviously had a very special reason for recording the servant’s recapitulation of his experiences. Our sages commented on his unusual repetitiveness in the Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 60,11) as follows;

Said R. Aha: The table-talk of the servants of the patriarchs’ households is more notable (literally: “beautiful”) than the scripture (Torah) of their descendants. Eliezer’s story is recorded and recapitulated, taking up to three pages, whereas one of the fundamental rulings of the Torah, to the effect that the blood of a creeping thing defiles in the same way as its flesh, is only known to us through the superfluity of one letter in the Scriptures (i.e. we deduce the principle that the blood of a creeping thing defiles from th superfluous word “the” in the verse literally translated as: “these also shall be into you the unclean among the creeping things” (Leviticus 11,29).


The Story The Recapitulation
1. And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. greatly; 35. And the Lord hath blessed ... and he is become great: and He hath given him flocks, and herds, and silver, and gold, and men -servants, and maidservants, and camels, and asses.
2. And I will make thee swear by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth 37. And my master made me swear, saying.
3. That thou shall not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell: Thou shall not take a wife to my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I dwell:
4. But thou shall go unto my country, and to my birthplace.And take a wife onto my son Isaac.
But thou shall go unto my father’s house. And take a wife unto my son.

5. Peradventure the woman will not be unto this land:

Must I needs bring thy son again unto the land from whence thou comest?

39. Peradventure the woman willing to follow me. ---------------------------
7. The Lord of heaven, which took me from my father’s house, and from the land of my birth, and which spake unto me...

40. The Lord before whom I walk,

7. He shall send His angel before thee, and thou shall take a wife unto my son from thence.
40. Will send His angels with thee, And thou shalt take a wife for my son of my kindred, and of my father’s house:
8. Only bring not my son thither again.

12. O Lord God of my master Abraham, send me good speed this day, and shew kindness unto my master Abraham.

42. O Lord God of my master Abraham, if now thou do prosper my way which I go:
14. And she shall say, Drink and I will give thy camels drink also: let the same be she that Thou hast appointed for thy servant Isaac: and thereby shall I know that thou hast shewed kindness unto my master. 44. Both drink thou, and I will also draw for thy camels; let the same be the Lord hath appointed out for my master’s son.

15. And it came to pass before he had done speaking.

45. And before I had done Speaking in mine heart,

17. And said, Let me, I pray thee,drink a little water of thy pitcher.

45. And I said unto her, Let me I pray thee. drink,

18. And she said, Drink, my Lord: and she hastened and let down her pitcher upon her and said, Drink,
46. And she made haste, and let down her pitcher from her hand, and shoulder, gave him drink.
19. And when she had done giving him drink, she said, I will draw for thy camels also, until they have done drinking. And she hasted, and emptied her pitcher into the trough, and ran again ...to draw water, and drew for all his camels.
And I will give thy camels drink also: So I drank, and she made the camels drink also.
22. And it came to pass, as the camels had done drinking, that the man took a golden ring...and two bracelets from her hands of ten shekels weight of gold.
47. And I asked her, and said: Whose daughter art thou? And she said the daughter of Bethuel...
23. And said, Whose daughter art thou? tell me, I pray thee: is there room in thy father’s house for us to lodge in?
And I put the ring upon her nose and the bracelets upon her hands.

26. And the man bowed down his head, and worshipped the Lord. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of my master Abraham, who hath not left destitute my master of his mercy and his truth: I being in the way, the Lord led me to the house of my master’s brethren.

48. And I bowed down my head, and worshipped the Lord, and blessed the Lord God by my master Abraham. which had led me in the right way to take my master’s brother’s daughter unto his son.

Our classic commentators from Talmudic times onwards, incliding such great medieval exegetes as Rashi and Ramban, right down to Malbim and the “Netziv” in Haamek Davar in the last century made a point of explaining the significance of the variations, both great and small between these two accounts. We have the servant’s longer elaboration at the beginning of his report to Rebecca’s family in order to emphasise Abraham’s wealth , the glossing over of the differences in faith between Abraham and his family in Haran reflected in the omission of phrase “the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the God of the earth” which would not be appreciated in Laban’s circles (verse 3 and verse 37). We may note the emphasis given to Abraham’s command to find a wife for his son from among his “father’s house,” a sentiment which was not at all uttered by Abraham, (cf. verses 39 and 5), and finally the change in order on regard to the asking of the girl’s name and the giving of the presents. This latter change is noted in Rashi on verse 47:

“And I asked and I put”—he changed the order, for in reality, he first gave the presents and afterwards asked, but he did so, so that they should not catch him out and say: How did you give her before you knew who she was?

Isaac Arama in his Akedat Yitzhak goes into more detail:

Previously the servant had emphasised that he came on a special mission to Abraham’s family, preferring them above all other people for his son. If he would have said that presented the ring to Rebecca before he even knew to which family she belonged, this would have contradicted his previous assertion, since a man will not just give his valuables away to no purpose. Presumably, since he gave them to just any woman, they must have been given as marriage gifts. This is what Rashi referred to when he stated that Eliezer was afraid they would catch him out.

The variations referred to above and many others reveal the wonderful judgement, discretion and devotion of Abraham’s servant in carrying out his mission, until he brought it to a successful conclusion. No better evidence of his success can be cited than the very words of his listeners after hearing his persuasive eloquence:

The matter stems from the Lord: we cannot speak unto thee bad or good Behold Rebecca is before thee,  take her, and go, and let her be thy master’s son’s wife, -as the Lord hath spoken.  (24, 50, 51)

Had the Torah rested content with a brief phrase to the effect that the servant related to Rebecca’s family all that had befallen him, we would not have been apprised of the measure of his devotion and abilities in carrying out his master’s commands. To this our sages referrde when they stated “the table-talk” of the servants of the Patriarch’s households is more notable...”

Questions for Further Study

1. In actual fact he (Eliezer) reported the events as they had happened. But we cannot explain the reason for all the additions and omissions in his account; for they are legion. He old them all that had gone between himself and his master, his transactions with Rebacca and that God had providently arranged matters just as Abraham had promised. His emphasis on this point was to impress on them that they had no alternative. They could not stop the girl from accepting the marriage offer since the matter was from God. The recapitulation involves merely a variation in wording but the sense is thae same. This unavoidable in reported speech—it preserves the sense but not the exact wording. (The latter sentence is a quotation from Ibn Ezra who repeats it insisently). (Radak on 24, 39)

(a) In what way does the approach of Radak and Ibn Ezra differ from the commentators we have fo

(b) List the pros and cons of the two approaches.
2. The Lord God of Heaven who took me from my father’s house

But he did not say “the God of the earth.” Yet above he said: “I adjured thee by the Lord God of heaven and the God of the earth”. What Abraham meant was: Now he is the God of the heavens and the God of the earth, since I have accustomed people to speak of Him; but when He took me from my father’s house He was the God of Heaven, and not the God of earth, since the peoples of the world did not acknowledge Him, and His name was not familiar on earth. (Rashi)

“The God of heaven and the God of earth.” The fact that the text does not say afterwards “the God of heaven” only—presents no difficulty; for as I have already pointed out to you—explanation is an act of grace, and avoidance of it is no crime. (Ibn Kaspi: Mishneh Kesef)

(a) What does Ibn Kaspi mean by “explanation is an act of grace and avoidance of it is no crime"?
(b) What difference in principle exists between the methods of interpretation represented here by the two commentators.
(c) Cf. The words of Malchizedek and those of Abraham v. 19-22 chap.14. Which of the two commentators can find support for his approach?

“Then the servant related to Bethuel and Laban all the things he had done” as he find at the end of the chapter when he returns to Isaac.

3. Why is the text brief in verse 66: “Then the servant told Isaac all the things he had done” instead of reporting the whole story verbatim here and not previously in v. 35-48?





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05 Sep 2005 / 1 Elul 5765 0