Thursday, October 10, 2013

Five things you probably didn't know about Avraham

In honor of Lech Lecha, where we really start to get to know Avraham... here are five things you probably didn't know about Avraham.

1) The story about him breaking idols does not appear in the Torah.

I know people who honestly thought it appears in Chumash, and only discovered it was not there when their teacher gave them an assignment to find those pesukim.

It is a midrash, appearing in Bereishit Rabba 38:13. Details here.

This midrash is likely homiletic in nature, having the first monotheist expose the vanity of idols and eliciting a dismissal of the power of idols from the idol maker.

2) He had a sister-in-law named Jessica, the namesake of Shylock's daughter.
The pasuk states (leading in to Lech Lecha, end of Noach):

כט  וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם וְנָחוֹר לָהֶם, נָשִׁים:  שֵׁם אֵשֶׁת-אַבְרָם, שָׂרָי, וְשֵׁם אֵשֶׁת-נָחוֹר מִלְכָּה, בַּת-הָרָן אֲבִי-מִלְכָּה וַאֲבִי יִסְכָּה. 29 And Abram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Abram's wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor's wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Iscah.

Further, according to Wikipedia:
The oldest written record of the name with its current spelling is found as the name of a character in Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice, where it belongs to the daughter of Shylock. The name may have been an Anglicisation of the Biblical Iskah (from the Hebrew: יִסְכָּה : yiskāh), the name of a daughter of Haran briefly mentioned in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Iskah was rendered "Jeska" in English Bibles available in Shakespeare's day.[2]
So anyone named Jessica is named for Yiskah, a name popularized by Shakespeare. [Further, we know Yiskah was another name for Sarah...]

3) He was a practical kabbalist.

There is a mystical tradition that Avraham was the author of sefer Yetzirah. And the "nefesh" that Avraham "made" in Charan? As Rabbi Menachem Tziuni writes or implies, these were literally created by Avraham Avinu.

Indeed, on this basis (see linked post), I suggest that the calf that Avraham serves the malachim, וּבֶן הַבָּקָר אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, was one that he fashioned. And such would also explain how he could serve it with dairy -- the cow wasn't fleishig.

4) He minted his own currency, long before currency was invented.

Thus, Bava Kamma 97b:

Our Rabbis taught: What was the coin of Jerusalem?18  [The names] David and Solomon [were inscribed] on one side and [the name of] Jerusalem on the other. What was the coin of Abraham our Patriarch? — An old man and an old woman19  on the one side, and a young man and a young woman20  on the other.
This is understood by Rashi as a reference to Avraham and Sarah, and Yitzchak and Rivkah, respectively. Though I would side with Maharsha that it is meant as a reference to renewal of youth of Avraham and Sarah.

Two difficulties: (1) It is assur to make an image on a coin! Tosafot handily resolve this by kvetching the gemara to mean that merely the words were on the coin. (2) Coins were not invented yet! Thus:
All western histories of coins begin with their invention at some time slightly before or after 700 BC. in Aegina Island,[1] or according to others in Ephesus, Lydia, 650 BC.[2]
This is then proof of sod Hashem liyreav, that Avraham knew about such coins back then, and thus was able to make his own. (Related complications -- the kesef that he paid for the Cave of the Patriarchs, over lasocher -- were actually bars of silver; redeeming of maaser sheni is interpreted by Chazal as kesef tzura, which didn't exist when the Torah was written. We may resolve it as what is equivalent in circulating currency, which by the time of Chazal were minted coins.)

5) Avraham might have consumed stam yeinam and pas akum! After all, that is what Malkitzedek brought out to him!

A resolution (also here) might be that Malkitzedek was actually a kohen to Kel Elyon, so no worries. Or maybe Avraham didn't really keep the entire Torah, even Rabbinic decrees.


thanbo said...

I wasn't given an assignment to find the pesukim, but boy was I confused in 3rd grade when I couldn't find the iconoclasm story in the Torah. My family being pretty non-religious, didn't really know about midrashim

thanbo said...

Coins were invented in 700 BC? So what was the medium of exchange before then? Unminted, but possibly molded, ingots? Weights of silver? E.g., Avraham paid so many shekels of silver for Machpelah and its cave.

Moshe Laymore said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe in Australia said...

A shekel was a weight before it was a coin. This is why the Bible often refers to so many shekels of silver, not just "shekels".

בשם אומרו said...

you were מכוין with your suggestion on ובן הבקר אשר עשה to the מלבי"ם

joshwaxman said...

Moshe, thanks, you commented on a prev version of the post. I had decided initially to call her a sister because, after all, achosi at re Sarah, however one decides to work it out. But when someone (on fb) commented about this, I decided to make it clearer and go the sister in law route, which is more straightforward.

Beshem, thank. Baruch shekivanta, Malbim! :)

Moshe Laymore said...

Good. I see I didn't misread your post!

Pilgrim5 said...

More things:

1. He let his wife call him "lord"

2. Abraham was imputed righteousness many years before his circumcision.

3. Abraham paid tithes to Melchisedec - a 10th of all.

4. God's promises to Abraham were unconditional whereas his promises to Moses were conditional.

5. Isaiah wrote, "Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O LORD, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting."

Qoheleth said...


You missed the best one, Avraham was a Goy (Ben Noaḥ ) not Yehudi (Ben Yisra'el). Since time is liner and the Torah was given after he died.
I've blown countless minds with that one.


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