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Parashat Va-Yishlach: R. Ephraim Luntshitz (Keli Yaqar)’s Striking View of Jacob’s Behavior

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Dec 8, 2008

      In 1954, Hayyim Hillel Ben-Sasson published a Hebrew article titled “Wealth and Poverty in the Teaching of the Admonitor, R. Ephraim of Luntshitz,” Zion 19 (1954), pp. 142-66. He returned to the thought of the Keli Yaqar in his Hebrew work Hagut ve-Hanhagah (Learning and Leadership: the Social Outlook of Polish Jewry in the Late Middle Ages [Jerusalem, 1959]). In his writings on the topic, Ben-Sasson spent time discussing the remarkable career of R. Ephraim (1550-1619), a member of the Ashkenazi rabbinic elite of his day, the foremost preacher of his time, and author of numerous works, most notably his biblical commentary called Keli Yaqar. R. Ephraim was not afraid to castigate the rich elite of his age for caring too much about money. His approach also affected the orientation of his comments upon numerous biblical verses. One of them can be found in this week’s parashah, in the text that details Jacob’s preparation for an encounter with his brother Esau. The biblical text goes as follows: 

    That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children. He crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (Genesis 32:23-25, JPS translation).

Numerous questions arise from a glance at this verse. Why was Jacob “alone” (le-vado)? Hazal [Massekhet Hullin (91a)], quoted by Rashi to Genesis 32:25, advance a remarkable interpretation: He had left small vessels (pakhim qetanim) on the other side of the river and went by himself to retrieve them. Was this behavior appropriate? According to Hazal (ad loc.), it indeed was! Numerous authorities (up until our own day!) who cite this passage also implicitly assume that Jacob’s behavior was correct.

 Keli Yaqar, on the other hand, composes a lengthy critique of Jacob. Some of his remarks go as follows:

    Because of something worth very little he stayed (alone) in a dangerous place. Samael (Satan) responded in kind... Because Jacob began to cause himself to become blind (for who is more blind than a lover of money?), Samael said that it is now time to embrace him. I will now add impurity [Stan said], and fill his eyes with dust, in order that he will become truly blind, bereft of any intellectual sight…

(Ben Sasson’s comment regarding this particular explanation of Keli Yaqar can be found on p. 161, and n. 67 ad loc. in his Zion article, and on p. 119, and n. 29 ad loc., in Hagut ve-Hanhagah).

      It is striking how Keli Yaqar uses the imagery of blindness and intellectual sight. Elsewhere, in his work Ollelot Ephraim (The Gleanings of Ephraim) he devotes a sermon to the importance of spiritual seeing as an additional and distinct imperative above and beyond physical

    …Physical seeing is when a man sees the things as they are written and the practices as they are performed visibly through the sense of sight. But inner vision is the seeing of the heart and intellect, as Kohelet says, “My heart saw much wisdom and learning (Ecclesiastes 1:16). Similarly, there is also sensory hearing but also inner hearing, as [Solomon asked God], “Grant, then, Your servant a hearing heart,” referring to the faculty of understanding. Similarly, there is also physical walking, such as when we run on our legs to perform a mitzvah. But there is also inner intellectual going, as the Midrash points out [of Elisha who perceived Gehazi from afar], “Did not my spirit go along…?” (II Kings 5:26) this refers also to walking in the ways of wisdom, as in “You shall walk after the L-RD” (Deuteronomy 13:5) and “I run in the way of Your commandments.” (Psalms 119:32) For all the Torah is called a way, as the prophet says, “For the ways of the L-RD are straight (Hosea 14:10).” Thus, whoever is not complete in both kinds of seeing- the physical and the intellectual- is called blind in one eye, to wit the intellectual. Similarly, with hearing and walking, whoever is bereft of the spiritual part is called deaf in one ear or lame in one leg. (See Leonard S. Levin, Seeing With Both Eyes: Ephraim Luntshitz and the Polish-Jewish Renaissance [Leiden and Boston, 2008], p. 369, from which this translation is taken.)

Hayyim Hillel Ben Sasson sums up Keli Yaqar’s understanding of Ya’aqov as follows: although R. Ephraim feels one should not follow the behavior manifested in this aberration in Jacob’s career, one should indeed learn from and try to emulate the Jacob encapsulated in another, more famous verse that more appropriately sums up what Jacob the patriarch was really all about: “And Jacob was a pure man (Ish Tam) (Genesis 25:27):” that is, one who did not run after money but who strove to be close to God.


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