Monday, February 6, 2017

Why were the Matriarchs barren? Bereishis Rabbah (45:4)

update - added Bereishis Rabbah (45:5) and Yevamos (64a)

Bereishis Rabbah (45:4): Why were the Matriarchs barren?... Because G-d has a strong desire for their prayers and their requests.... R’ Chanina answered, So that they would be dependent and attached to their husband in spite of their beauty. Rav Chiya bar Abba answered, So that they would spend most of their lives without being burdened (i.e., Exile should be delayed). Rav Meir said so that their husbands should get pleasure from them because when a woman becomes pregnant she becomes ugly and lacks grace. 

For the 90 years that Sara did not have children she was like a bride in her canopy. When aristocratic women came to ask how she was she would say, “Go ask about the welfare of that unfortunate woman [Hagar]. And Hagar would say to them, Sarai my mistress in a hypocrite. She appears as a righteous woman but how could she be righteous. Look at how many years she has been married and hasn't gotten pregnant. In contrast I got pregnant the first time.” [Rashi 16:4 cites this medrash to explain what Hagar did to belittle Sarah]. Sarah replied, “Should I argue with this woman? I will complain to the master.

Bereishis Rabbah (45:5):  AND SARAI SAID UNTO ABRAM: MY WRONG (HAMASI) BE UPON THEE (XVI, 5). R. Judan explained this in R. Judah's name: Thou wrongest me with words, since thou hearest me insulted yet art silent.4 R. Berekiah explained it in R. Abba's name: I have a grievance against thee. For imagine two men incarcerated in prison, and as the king passes one of them cries out, ‘Execute justice for me!’ The king orders him to be released, whereupon his fellow-prisoner says to him, ' I have a grievance against you, for had you said, " Execute justice for us," he would have released me just as he has released you; but now that you said, "Execute justice for me," he released you but not me.’

Similarly, hadst thou said, ' We go childless,’ then as He gave thee a child so would He have given me; since, however, thou saidest, And I go childless (Gen. XV, 2), He gave thee a child but not me. This may [also] be compared to two people who went to borrow seed from the king. One of them asked, ' Lend me seed,’ and he ordered, ‘Give it to him.’ Said his companion to him, ‘I have a grievance against you. Had you asked, "Lend us seed," he would have given me just as he gave you; now however that you said, " Lend me seed," he has given you but not me.’ Similarly, hadst thou said, ‘Behold, to us Thou hast given no seed,’ then as He gave thee so had He given me. Now however that thou didst say, ’Behold, to me Thou hast given no seed ' (ib. 3), He gave to thee but not to me.

R. Menahema [Nehemiah] said in R. Abin's name: She scratched his face.1 The Rabbis said: Women are said to possess four traits: they are greedy, eavesdroppers, slothful, and envious. Greedy, as it says, And she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat (ib. III, 6); eavesdroppers: And Sarah heard in the tent door (ib. XVIII, 10); slothful: Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal (ib. 6); envious: Rachel envied her sister (ib. XXX, 1). R. Joshua b. Nehemiah said: She is also a scratcher and talkative. A scratcher:  AND SARAI SAID UNTO ABRAM: MY SCRATCH BE UPON THEE. Talkative: And Miriam spoke against Moses (Num. XII, 1). R. Levi said: She is also prone to steal and a gadabout. Prone to steal: And Rachel stole the teraphim (Gen. XXXI, I9). A gadabout: And Dinah went out (ib. XXXIV, 1).

THE LORD JUDGE BETWEEN ME AND THEE (UBENEKA). R. Tanhuma said in the name of R. Hiyya the Elder, and R. Berekiah said in R. Eleazar's name: Whoever plunges eagerly into litigation does not escape from it unscathed. Sarah should have reached Abraham's years, but because she said, THE LORD JUDGE BETWEEN ME AND THEE, her life was reduced by forty-eight years. R. Hoshaya said: Binka (thy son) is written.1 Seeing that it is already written, And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived, why is it further stated, Behold, thou wilt conceive (ib. 11)?2 This, however, teaches that an evil eye took possession of her and she miscarried.3 R. Hanina observed: Had the prophet Elisha told her that by the Holy Spirit, it would have sufficed her.’

In contrast see Yevamos(64a):
The other replied: Isaac was barren.If so,Abraham also was barren!— That text is required For a deduction in accordance with the statement of R. Hiyya b. Abba. For R. Hiyya b. Abba stated in the name of R. Johanan: Why were the years of Ishmael counted? In order to determine thereby the years of Jacob. 
R. Isaac stated: Our father Isaac was barren; for it is said, And Isaac entreated the Lord opposite his wife.It does not say ‘for his wife’ but opposite. This teaches that both were barren.If so, And the Lord let Himself be entreated of him should have read, And the Lord let Himself be entreated of them!— Because the prayer of a righteous man the son of a righteous man is not like the prayer of a righteous man the son of a wicked man. 
R. Isaac stated: Why were our ancestors barren? — Because the Holy One, blessed be He, longs to hear the prayer of the righteous. 
R. Isaac further stated: Why is the prayer of the righteous compared to a pitchfork? As a pitchfork turns the sheaves of grain from one position to another, so does the prayer of the righteous turn the dispensations of the Holy One, blessed be He, from the attribute of anger to the attribute of mercy. 
R. Ammi stated: Abraham and Sarah were originally of doubtful sex for it is said, Look unto to the rock whence you were hewn and to the hole of the pit whence you were digged, and this is followed by the text, Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bore you.
R. Nahman stated in the name of Rabbah b. Abbuha: Our mother Sarah was incapable of procreation; for it is said, And Sarai was barren; she had no child,she had not even a womb.


  1. R Meirs pshat seems interesting to me because I've been brought up on the Rashi that Avraham never even looked at Sarah and only knew she was beautiful because he by mistake saw her reflection in the water

  2. Why were they barren? In the past 50 years, I've heard the first answer a thousand times, but NEVER the subsequent answers. More evidence of the harsh slant that pervades the manner in which Torah is learned and taught it our community. Thanks for sharing the medrash in its entirety and prompting me to study it at its source.

    Secondly, unlike your translation, I believe that the more authoritative text of R' Chanina's words is similar to R' Meir's view.

  3. Correct, we have been "brought up" to focus on medrashic interpretations, rather than the pshat. In the same place where he cites the medrash that "Avraham never even looked at Sarah," Rashi acknowledges that the pshat is otherwise.

  4. ברכות כח:
    תנו רבנן: כשחלה רבי אליעזר, נכנסו תלמידיו לבקרו. אמרו לו: רבינו, למדנו אורחות חיים ונזכה בהן לחיי העולם הבא. אמר להם: הזהרו בכבוד חבריכם, ומנעו בניכם מן ההגיון, .

    Berachos (28a): Our Rabbis taught: When R. Eliezer fell ill, his disciples went in to visit him. They said to him: Master, teach us the paths of life so that we may through them win the life of the future world. He said to them: Be solicitous for the honour of your colleagues, and keep your children from meditation,7 and set them between the knees of scholars, and when you pray know before whom you are standing and in this way you will win the future world.

    רש"י מסכת ברכות דף כח עמוד ב
    מההגיון - לא תרגילום במקרא יותר מדאי, משום דמשכא

  5. How does this relate to my words? Are you agreeing or disagreeing with me?

  6. just providing the basis for your observation

  7. Sorry, I don't get it. Please spell out the connection for me.

  8. Rashi is saying that the warning is not to present straight Chumash. Rather the context as provided by medrashim is needed

  9. I understand the Rashi as follows: Do not accustom your children to learn Tanach excessively (whether presented straight or in a medrashic context), because it draws them away from that which is more important. I do not see how your reading of Rashi is supported by his words.

    Even if Rashi exhorts that Tanach be presented in a context of midrashim, that certainly is not to the exclusion of pshat. My complaints are that Torah is taught in our community in a distorted way: A) Pious midrashim are taught to the exclusion of those that teach authentic, healthy living (R’ Meir’s view above) and B) medrashic interpretations are taught to the exclusion of pshat.

  10. Our having only heard of the first pshat isn't as far fetched as you make it sound because the gemara Yevamos only brings down that pshat


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