Rashbam: Lions and Birthrights and Bears, Oh My! (Toldot)

The story begins abruptly. Jacob is making a lentil stew, when in bursts Esau, famished from hunting (apparently unsuccessfully). Esau requests urgently some stew to eat. And Jacob, his brother, says: “Sell me your birthright first.” At this point, Esau, no doubt hangry beyond the point of rational negotiation, bursts out: “Behold, I am going to die! What use is there for me the birthright?” And so he gives it over to Jacob. (Genesis 25:29-34).

Rashbam is interested in what Esau means when he says he is going to die. The most obvious explanation seems to be that Esau is exaggerating his hunger. But Rashbam goes a different direction.

Rashbam to Gen. 25:32Hinneh I GO TO DIE. “Every day I go to hunt animals in the forest where one finds bears and lions and other vicious animals and I am in danger of dying. WHAT USE IS THERE FOR ME to await a first-born’s share after our father’s death?” My father, his eminence, R. Meir, offered the above explanation. [This speech of Esau] constitutes [the text’s elaboration of how] “Esau spurned the birthright” (v. 34). (Translation from Martin Lockshin)

This is a rare comment where Rashbam mentions his father, Rabbi Meir. Apparently, Rashbam bases his comment on the teaching from his father, which assumes that Esau means he is going to die, but not immediately. In other words, he isn’t exaggerating his extreme hunger, he is saying that because of his dangerous occupation, he will probably not survive his father. Therefore the birthright, which gives the eldest a double inheritance upon the father’s death, is mostly irrelevant.

In this portion called Toldot, or “generations”, I find it touching that Rashbam finds a way to honor his father. But of course, in the process, he actually opposes his grandfather’s (on his mother’s side) commentary. Rashi has a very different understanding of what’s going on in Esau’s mind.

Rashi to Gen. 25:32: The birthright is something unstable, for not always will the sacrificial duties be performed by the first-born, for the tribe of Levi will assume this. Further Esau said: What is the nature of this Service? Jacob replied, “Many prohibitions and punishments and many acts involving even the punishment of death are associated with it — just as we read in the Mishna, (Sanhedrin 22b): The following priests are liable to death: those who carry out their duties after having drunk too much wine and those who officiate long-haired. He said: If I am going to die through it, why should I desire it. (Translation from Sefaria)

Rashi notes that the birthright is not simply monetary inheritance. It is also the obligation of the eldest to serve as priests, a function which will be transferred from the first-born to the entire tribe of Levi during the Exodus narrative. Rashi’s commentary highlights Esau’s ignorance; he has to ask Jacob what the birthright / priestly service means before rejecting it because of the risk of death that comes with the job.

Rashi’s commentary is fascinating, but belongs more in the realm of drash than pshat. Rashbam sees no need to discuss priestly duties. Rather, he points out that hunting comes with its own mortal risks, and plausibly Esau was more of a short-term thinker as a result, valuing food that he can enjoy now rather than wealth and privilege later, when he may be dead.

In this portion of “generations”, Rashi, his son-in-law Rabbi Meir, and his grandson Rashbam demonstrate the ongoing chain of tradition and creativity that constitutes the truest birthright of those who center their lives around Torah.