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דברים ז:יב – וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה.

And it shall come to pass, because ye hearken to these ordinances… (Deut. 7:12).

Nahmanides (Ramban) lists several meanings of the root ‘עקב’:

  1. a) Because of, due to.
  2. b) Bypassing[1]/circumventing, something twisted or serpentine.
  3. c) The back part of the foot [עקב], i.e. the heel. Ramban (based on Targum Onkelos) suggests a common theme to all meanings: circuitousness].

Ramban on Deut. 7:12 – Onkelos… translated it to mean something twisted, derived from “And the crooked path [העקוב] shall be made level” (Is. 40:4) – the twisted road going this way and that. In this vein also: “polluted [עקוב] with blood” (Hosea 6:8) – encircled, surrounded. It therefore means to say: the reason for your obeying these laws and keeping them would be so that God may preserve his covenant with you. [Onkelos] interpreted this well. Similar is “Because of [בגלל] this thing” (Deut.15:10) – for this reason; the word בגלל  is related to: “and they rolled [גללו] the stone from the well’s mouth” (Gen. 29:3) – an indirect, circuitous result. It is further my opinion that any usage of   ‘עקב’  involves a turning or rolling, as in “The heart is deceitful [עקוב] above all things” (Jer. 17:9), “he has deceived me [ויעקבני] these two times” (Gen. 27:36), “But Jehu did it in cunning [בעקבה]” (II Kings 10:19) – all of these indicate something twisted and roundabout. That is why Jacob [יעקב] is called Yeshurun [root ‘ישר’ denoting straight], because the opposite of “twisted” העקוב  is the straight/level מישור. And the back part of the foot is called עקב: “his hand grasped Esau’s heel [עקב]” (Gen. 25:26), so- called because it is rounded.

The Torah also states that Jacob’s name is derived from the root ‘עקב’ – “And after that came forth his brother, and his hand had hold on Esau’s heel [עקב]; and his name was called Jacob [יעקב]” (Gen. 25:26). That is to say, the Torah attributes the name Jacob directly to the back part of the foot that Jacob was holding. However, Esau associates the name with delay and tarrying[2] (and by extension deceit) – “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has deceived me [ויעקבני] these two times” (Gen. 27:36).

To be sure, it cannot be denied that the root ‘עקב’ bears the connotations Esau attributes to it as well. Indeed, all the apparently disparate meanings Nahmanides noted above may be understood as being related to delay and tarrying as well. Nahmanides himself explained that the basic denotation of ‘עקב’ is twisting and turning. But upon reflection, actions such as twisting and turning – when contrasted with level or straight progression – represent a delay, tarrying, and prevention. Therefore, on the face of it, it would seem that Esau was correct in interpreting his brother’s name as meaning delay. As mentioned, Nahmanides’ list of the meanings of ‘עקב’ all relate to elements of delay and prevention, as follows:

  1. a) Regarding the meaning “because” – the results of a particular act (such as reward, punishment or other consequences) are often not immediate, rather they may be delayed pending e.g. verification or mitigating factors.
  2. b) Regarding “bypassing and crookedness” – they are the opposite of both physical and intellectual straightness, and thus ipso facto represent a detour, a delay in progress.
  3. c) Regaring “the heels of the feet” – the heel brakes and prevents progress [cf. English expression “to dig one’s heels in”].

Moreover, it seems that further support for this is provided by comparisons with other Hebrew roots containing the letters עק, all of which have in common distress, enclosure, twistedness, prevention, and end state/border, as in the following:

  1. Akev עקב: a) borderline/end of the body; b) end/closure of a process; c) prevention of progress (ויעקבני).
  2. Akad עקד: binding, turning and closure.
  3. Aka עקה: as in מעקה-banister/railing and מעיק-oppressive: enclosing, twisting, restricting.
  4. Akal עקל: twisted, crooked.
  5. Akar עקר: closed off or limited birth.
  6. Akash עקש: “twisted and crooked” (Rashi on Deuteronomy 32:5).

 

This also holds true for words containing the lettersעק  with some sort of prefix:

  1. Zeaka/tzeaka זעקה/צעקה: the calling for help as the result of a sense of constriction and distress.

 

And in the Rabbinic vernacular:

  1. Akam עקם: twisted, perverted.
  2. Akatz עקץ: an appendix that exerts pressure and stings.
  3. Akaf עקף: delay/sneakiness.

 

Rashi, at the beginning of the Torah portion Toldot (in his second explanation), cites the Rabbinic interpretation of ויתרוצצו  (“and the children struggled together within her”)] – Rashi Genesis 25:22 – ויתרוצצו  “they struggled” – one is forced to explain this using a Midrashic approach: they struggled with one another, arguing about the inheritance of both worlds. [We here cite the midrashic text as it appears in the original] – Tanna Devei Eliyahu Zuta (Ish Shalom edition) Section 19 – Jacob said to Esau… “We have two worlds before us: this world, and the world to come. This world contains eating and drinking, negotiating for a wife and becoming father of sons and daughters, but the world to come is not like that…” Right away, Esau denied the resurrection: “The living, who breathe and possess a spirit die; how is it possible that the dead can come back to life?”

It would seem correct to include the conflict expressed therein of Esau accusing Jacob of having deceived him twice – ויעקבני זה פעמיים. Esau claims that Jacob’s entire method consists of putting obstacles before him to prevent him from making progress. Jacob answers that he doesn’t deny the charge, because his objective is indeed to delay him, but not as Esau thinks. Jacob describes to Esau the two worlds before them: the concrete world, which is temporary and fleeting, and the true world, which is eternal. By holding onto his heel, Jacob is hinting to Esau: “Take a good look before you decide to enter the ‘rat race’ of this world, which will full up your life and drain you of all your strength. Instead, let us both tarry and devote some years to learning the ways of G-d at the study house of Shem and Ever, after which both of us will have acquired both worlds. That way, we will follow in the footsteps of our forebear Abraham, to whom the Blessed One promised consequence and reward for his righteousness]: “…I…will give unto thy seed all these lands… because [עקב] Abraham hearkened to My voice” (Genesis 26:4-5). [As Ibn Ezra interpreted the above promise in Genesis] – Gen. 22:18 – “because thou hast hearkened to My voice”; Ibn Ezra – עקב – reward at the end. The author of Haketav Vehakabbala, R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, explains the reason that recompense is called עקב: Haketav Vehakabbala – עקב: The exegetes[3] wrote that the reason for using the word ekev to mean reward was that is comes at the end of the act, just like the heel comes at the end of the body. Thus reward at the end is called ekev, as in: “For surely there is a future” (Prov. 23:18).

In conclusion: Jacob proposes the positive aspect of delay [עיכוב] to his brother, i.e. the עקב/reward that, at the end, awaits those who do not waste their lives impulsively on fleeting this-worldly satisfactions. May God grant us the opportunity to devote our lives to His eternal Torah consistently [בעקביות], because of  [עקב] which we will merit joy in this world and eternity in the next. Amen.

 

[1]  [שרש ‘עקף’ (הקרוב ל’עקב’) נמצא רק בספרות חז”ל, כמו]: ב”ק קיג. – ר”ע אומר אין באין עליו בעקיפין מפני קידוש השם.

[2] In the Rabbinic vernacular: עיכוב, the letter ק interchanging with a כ.

[3]  ע’ רש”י תה’ יט:יב.

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Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg

Founding Director, Editor-In-Chief at Veromemanu
Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg is the Founding Director and Editor-in-chief of Veromemanu and it' website BiblicalHebrewEtymology.com.

Yehoshua is a retired U.S. Army Chaplain and currently lives in Israel with his wife and children.

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Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg