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by Mordecai Kornfeld
of Har Nof, Jerusalem
Founder of the Dafyomi Advancement Forum

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[Yakov said to Esav,], "Sell me as day ("Chayom") your birthright!" ...Yakov added, "Swear to me as day!" Esav swore to him, and sold his birthright to Yakov. (Bereishit 25:31,33)

What is the context of the phrase "as day" that Yakov emphasized when making his transaction with Esav? The Aramaic rendering of Targum Onkeles, "Dilhen" -- a word which has no parallel elsewhere in the Targum -- offers us little assistance. The commentaries offer various interpretations, ranging from "Sell it to me as *clear as* day" (Rashi) to "Sell it to me *at this moment*" or "Sell it to me upon *whichever day* our father passes away" (Ramban).

Others suggest that the phrase means, "As it stands today." A first born receives twice as much of his father's inheritance as his brothers (Devarim 21:17). Esav was not willing to set a price for his double portion since he could not know its ultimate value -- should their father become wealthy before he passed away, the birthright could be worth millions! Yakov abated his fears by agreeing to take a double portion only in what their father presently owned, "as it stands today." (Chizkuni; Maharil Diskin; Peh Kadosh).

Perhaps we may suggest a novel interpretation, based on Midrashic sources.


"Hashem created... the greater luminary [= the sun] to rule by day, and the lesser luminary [= the moon] to rule by night." (Bereishit 1:16)

It is appropriate for the greater [= older] brother to base his calendar on the greater luminary, and for the lesser [= younger] brother to base his calendar on the lesser luminary. This is why Esav's calendar is based on the sun, while Yakov's is based on the moon... . Esav counts his days by the sun, which is greater. The sun rules only by day and not by night, and so too, Esav has a portion only in this world, but not in the World to Come. Yakov counts his days by the moon, which is lesser. Just as the moon can be seen both by day and by night, so too, Yakov has a portion both in this world and in the World to Come. (Bereishit Raba 6:3)

According to the Midrash, Esav and Yakov are, respectively, compared to the sun and moon. The phases of the moon can be construed as representative of Yakov's fate. The moon shrinks, getting smaller and smaller until it reaches its smallest point. This alludes to Galut (= exile from the Promised Land), a punishment which necessarily involves the reduction and weakening of the Jewish People. Afterwards, however, the moon again waxes, increasing in size until it becomes full. This represents the other side of Galut -- the eventual strengthening and redemption of the Jewish People.

This is the reason for the joy experienced upon seeing the moon at the beginning of a new month, a time when the moon has just begun to return after its disappearance from sight. We are celebrating the return of Yakov and his children to their former glory. As we chant (based on Rosh Hashanah 25a) when we recite the blessing on the new moon, "David the king of Israel is alive and continues to be!"


The Gemara in Chulin would seem to support this interpretation:

First we are told that Hashem made "the two great luminaries," implying that the two were equally large. But later we are told of "the greater luminary... and the lesser luminary!" (Bereishit 1:16). The explanation of this discrepancy is that originally the two luminaries were indeed equal. However, the moon spoke before the Hashem saying, "Ruler of the World, is it possible for two kings to share the same crown?" Hashem replied, "Go and make yourself smaller!" The Moon retorted, "Because what I said was correct, I must reduce myself?" Hashem comforted her, saying, "Go and rule both by night and by day." (Chulin 60b)

The Gemara implies that because of the moon's unwarranted grievances Hashem punished her and shrank her. This made the moon both less luminous than the sun, and subject to phases during which it wanes for half a month (see Chizkuni Bereishit ad loc.). It would appear that the Gemara is detailing the punishment of the moon for speaking up arrogantly before its creator. How can that be -- the moon, lacking mind and free choice, has neither the ability to speak nor the capacity for sin!

We may explain this strange Agadah in light of the comparison drawn above between the moon and Galut. The moon represents the Jewish People. It is the Jewish People who complain to Hashem that Hashem created Esav as the twin of Yakov, thereby granting them equal power. If Esav, who is conspiring to do evil instead of the will of his creator, is granted strength equal to Yakov ("two kings sharing the same crown"), there is no guarantee that Yakov will prevail. Rather, Esav and the forces of evil may prevail over Yakov and the legions of good.

Hashem responds by saying to the Jewish People "Make yourself smaller!"-- hinting, as we have suggested, that the Jewish People, due to their eventual sin, will be punished with exile. The moon then counters that her complaint was valid -- it is Esav who should be minimized, to prevent the triumph of evil! What good will be accomplished by shrinking the Moon? Reducing the power of the children of Yakov will only make matters worse! Now, not only is it possible for evil to prevail over good, evil has been granted the upper hand in the battle! Hashem replies, "Rule by day and by night!" Hashem assures the Jewish People that instead of making the situation more difficult for them by sending them into Galut, He is ensuring their survival and their eventual victory. The expiatory effects of exile will atone for their sins, allowing them to rule both "by day and by night" -- in this world, and in the World to Come, as we have seen in the previous Midrash. (See also Maharsha Chulin ad loc., Zohar Chadash 15b.)

In the context of our verses, the purchase of the birthright symbolized Yakov's ability to "rule even by day" (= in the present world), even though the day was meant to be Esav, the "greater brother's" domain. Perhaps this is the meaning of Yakov's cryptic statement, "sell it to me 'as day.'" What he meant was, "Sell me your birthright which metaphorically grants you the status of 'ruling by day.'" Sell it to me as though you are granting me a portion in the daytime, as well as the nighttime!


One of the most original commentators, Harav Meir Yechiel of Austrawtz (in "Or Torah" on Bereishit, mostly a collection of mathematical calculations relating to verses in the Torah) suggests a mathematical approach to the meaning of the phrase "as day."

The verse tells us (Tehilim 90:4), "For a thousand years is in Your eyes, Hashem, as a passing day and a segment of the night." Rashi (ibid.) explains that in G-dly terminology, "one day" refers to a bit less than 1000 years -- 930 to be exact -- such that 1000 years is equivalent to a day and a bit of the night. Yakov intended to purchase from Esav one divine "day," or 930 years, of empowerment.

In II Melachim 8:22 we find that "Edom (= the descendants of Esav) rebelled against the Kingdom of Judea, and they remain rebellious until today." This occurred during the rule of Yehoram, son of King Yehoshaphat. Before that time the people of Edom did not have their own king; they appointed their first king when Yehoram took the throne (I Melachim 22:48, and Rashi Bereishit 36:31). This, explains the Austrawtzer Rebbe, occurred exactly 930 years after Yakov bought the birthright from Esav!

(It is true that Esav's descendants appointed 8 kings before the first Jewish king came to power, Bereishit 36:31. However, these kings were granted power only as a punishment for Yakov calling Esav "my Lord" 8 times; otherwise they would not have reigned at all -- Ba'al ha'Turim ibid.)

Here is his calculation:

117 years - from the time of the purchase of the birthright until Yakov moved to Egypt. (Yakov was 13 years old at the time of the purchase, Rashi Bereishit 25:27, and he was 130 when he arrived in Egypt, Bereishit 47:9)
210 years - from the time Yakov arrived in Egypt until the Exodus, Rashi Shmot 12:40.
480 years - from the time of the Exodus until the building of the Holy Temple (I Melachim 61:1).
37 years - left to King Solomon's reign after he built the Temple in the beginning of his fourth year of reign (ibid.; I Melachim 11:42)
17 years - reign of Solomon's son, Rechavam (I Melachim 14:21)
3 years - reign of his son, Aviam (I Melachim 15:2)
41 years - reign of his son, Asa (I Melachim 15:10)
25 years - reign of Yehoshapat, son of Asa (I Melachim 22:42)
930 years - total until the reign of Yehoram, during which the Edomites appointed their own king!

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