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Toldot / Eikev

Gen. 25:26 – After that, his brother emerged, his hand grasping on to the heel [בַּעֲקֵב] of Esau; so he called his name Jacob [יַעֲקֹב].

Gen. 26:4-5 – I will increase your offspring like the stars of the heavens … because [עֵקֶב] Abraham obeyed My voice.

Gen. 27:36 – Is it because his name is Jacob that he outwitted me [וַיַּעְקְבֵנִי] these two times. He took away my birthright and see, now he took away my blessing.

Nahmanides (Ramban) in Deut. 7:12 lists several possible meanings of the rootעקב:

a) because of, due to; b) bypassing/ circumventing, something twisted or serpentine; c) the back part of the foot [עקב], i.e. the heel. Ramban (based on Onkelos’ translation) 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 בגללis related to:“and they rolled [גללו] the stone from the well’s mouth” (Gen. 29:3). It is further my opinion that any usage of עקבinvolves 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 Jeshurun [root ישרdenoting straight], because the opposite of “twisted” העקובis the straight / level מישור. And the back part of the foot is called עקב: “his hand grasped Esau’s heel [עקב]” (Gen. 25:26), because it is rounded.

The Pentateuch also states that Jacob’s name is derived from the root עקב: Gen. 25:26 – And after that came forth his brother, and his hand had hold on Esau’s heel [עקב]; and his name was called Jacob[יעקב]. 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 tarrying1(and by extension deceit): Gen. 27:36 – Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has deceived me [ויעקבני] these two times.

One cannot deny that the root עקבbears the connotations Esau attributes to it as well, and these ideas dovetail with all the meanings Nahmanides noted. Nahmanides himself explained that the basic denotation of עקבis twistingand turning, and upon reflection, twisting and turning -unlike level or straight movement- represent a delay,tarryingand prevention. As for other denotations, in regard to the meaning a) “because” – the result of a particular act (such as its reward) is not automatic, but is usually postponeduntil the completion of the act; b) regarding the meaning of “bypassing and crookedness” – they are the opposite of both physical and intellectual straightness, and thus ipso facto represent a detour, a delayin progress; c) in respect to the meaning the heels of the feet – the heel brakesand preventsprogress [cf. English expression “to dig one’s heels in”]. Therefore, it would seem that Esau was correct in interpreting his brother’s name as meaning delayingandimpeding.

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

  1. עקב: a) borderline /end of the body2; b) end /closure of a process3; c) prevention of progress (ויעקבני).

  2. עקד:binding, turning andclosure.4

  3. עקה: as in מעקהbanister/ railing.5

  4. עיק:oppressive,enclosing,twisting,restricting.6

  5. עקל:twisted, crooked.7

  6. עקר:closed off or limited from birth.8

  7. עקש:“twisted and crooked” (Rashi on Deuteronomy 32:5).

This holds true for words that end with the lettersעק, with various prefixes:

  1. זעקה/צעקה:the calling for help as the result of a sense of constriction and distress.9

  2. עקם:twisted, perverted.

  3. עקץ:an appendix that exerts pressure and stings.10

  4. עקף:delay /sneakiness.11

Rashi, at the beginning of this week’s portion (in his second explanation), cites the Rabbinic interpretation of ויתרוצצו(and the children struggled together within her): Rashi Genesis 25:22 – ויתרוצצוthey struggled” – one is forced to explain this using a Midrashic approach: they struggled with one another, arguing about the inheritance of both worlds. [We cite here the Midrashic text:] 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, dealing in business, marrying a wife and fathering 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 that the conflict expressed in this Midrash relates to Esau’s later accusing Jacob of having deceived him twice – ויעקבני זה פעמיים. Esau claims that Jacob’s intent is to place obstacles before him and prevent him from progressing. 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 material world, which is transient, 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 fill up your life and drain you of all your strength. Instead, let us both tarry and devote some years to learning the ways of God at the study house of Shem and Ever, so that the two of us can acquire both worlds. That way, we will follow in the footsteps of our forebear Abraham, to whom the Blessed One promised reward as a consequence of his righteousness: Gen. 26:4-5: “…I…will give unto your seed all these lands…as reward [עקב] for Abraham having hearkened to My voice” [as Ibn Ezra interpreted the above promise]: Gen. 22:18because you have hearkened to My voice;Ibn Ezra:עקב– reward at the end.

Haketav Vehakabbala explains the reason that reward is called עקב: “…becausereward is what comes at the end of the act, just as the heel is found at the end of the body. Thus ‘reward’ at the end is called ekev.”12

In conclusion: Jacob proposes the positive aspect of delay [עיכוב] to his brother, i.e. the עקב/ reward that in 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 consistently [בעקביות] to His eternal Torah, and as a consequence [עקב], may we merit joy in this world and eternity in the next. Amen.

1In the Rabbinic vernacular: עיכוב, interchanging the letter קfor a כ.

2 אֹחֶזֶת בַּעֲקֵב (ברכה:כו).

3 עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע (שםכו:ה).

4כפי שפירש רדק(ערךעקד):וַיַּעֲקֹד אֶת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ (בראשית כב:ט)ויקשור.עֲקֻדִּים נְקֻדִּים(שםל:לט),פירוש שהכתמים שלהן במקום שקושרין אותו היד והרגל,שכופפין היד על הרגל וקושרין ובאותו מקום היו כתמיהם לכך קראן עקודים.

5דברים כב:חוְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ;רשימעקהגדר סביב לגג.

6רדק(ערךעיק‘)אָנֹכִי מֵעִיק(עמוס ב:יג),שַׂמְתָּ מוּעָקָה (תהסו:יא),עָקַת רָשָׁע(תהנה:ד)תרגום צרה עקה.וכן פרשי את כולם:רשי עמוס ב:יגמעיקתרגום של מציק. רשי תהסו:יאמועקהלמסגר וכל המעיק והמציק כמוהו. רשי תהנה:דעקתלמצוק.

7אֳרָחוֹת עֲקַלְקַלּוֹת(שופטים ה:ו);מצצ שופטים ה:ועקלקלותמלשון מעוקל ומעוקם.וְהַמַּטִּים עֲקַלְקַלּוֹתָם(תהלים קכה:ה),ופירש רדק(ערךעקל‘)כלם ענין עוות.חבקוק א:דעַל כֵּן יֵצֵא מִשְׁפָּט מְעֻקָּל;מצצמעוקלענין עקום.ישעיהו כז:אוְעַל לִוְיָתָן נָחָשׁ עֲקַלָּתוֹן;מצצעקלתוןענין עקום ועוות כמו ארחות עקלקלות (שופטים ה).ובגמרא מצינו עקלתוןעלקוים נטוים צמודים(זיגזג):בב קב:-קג:מתני‘.האומר לחבירו בית כור עפר אני מוכר לך,היו שםסלעים גבוהין יטפחיםאינן נמדדין עמהבעי רבי ירמיה:כשיר[סלעים המפוזרים בצורת צמיד],מהו?כשורה[סלעים המפוזרים בשורה אחת ישרה]מהו?איצטדינין[סלעים המפוזבצורת קרני השור],מהו?דרך עקלתוןסלעים המפוזבצורת זיגזג,מהו?תיקו.רשבם ותוסישנים שירטטו את העקלתוןכעין האות הלועזית W,ובמאירת עינים (חומ ריח:ג)צייר גם Z,שכולם מתארים קווים אלכסוניות הפונים לכאן או לכאן. וזל הערוך (ערךאיצטדינן‘):באיצטדינין מהו דרך עקלתון מהו פירוש איצטדינין אלכסון.קצת משמע שהבין ששתיהן שאלה אחת,היינו שהמאפיין המיוחד של האיצטדי(ו)ן הוא סידור מושבי הצופים בצורה אלכסונית,והיינו ל‘ “עקלתוןהמורה על צורה זו (ויהיהאלכסון” = לעקלתוןבחילוף אותיות המבטא וחילוף מיקום אותיות).וראה פרבנו גרשום שפבצורה קצת שונה.

8דבלב:הדור עקש ופתלתול;ספרי האזינו שח:הדור עקשאמר להם משה לישראל עקמנים.רשיעקשעקום ומעוקל,כמו:ואת כל הישרה יעקשו(מיכה ג:ט),ובלשון משנה חולדה ששיניה עקומות ועקושות.

9תהלים קז:ווַיִּצְעֲקוּ אֶל הבַּצַּר לָהֶם מִמְּצוּקוֹתֵיהֶם יַצִּילֵם.שופטים ד:גוַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל הוְהוּא לָחַץ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּחָזְקָה.שםו:ווַיִּדַּל יִשְׂרָאֵל מְאֹד מִפְּנֵי מִדְיָן וַיִּזְעֲקוּ.שמות ב:כגוַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן הָעֲבֹדָה וַיִּזְעָקוּ.ירמיהו מח:דנִשְׁבְּרָה מוֹאָב הִשְׁמִיעוּ זְּעָקָה.

10מגילה כד:משנהכהן שיש בידיו מומין לא ישא את כפיו...גמראעקומות,עקושותלא ישא את כפיו;רשיעקומותכפופות.עקושותלצידיהן.

11סוכהלא:-לב.לולב כפוף,קווץפסול;רשיקווץשיוצאין בשדרה שלו עוקצין כמין קוצין.

12ראה ראבע הנל,והשוה גם רשי תהיט: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