In the Zohar (I:147b), R’ Elazar declares a relationship between the toponym Beer Sheva and the jubilee year, implying a mystical connection between the two and suggesting that when Jacob left Beer Sheva to go to Haran via Bet El, it was a sabbatical year at the time. In the 18th century, R’ Yonasan Eybeschütz relied upon its having been a sabbatical year when Jacob arrived in Bet El, in order to respond to a question on the midrash (Divrei Yehonatan, Parshat Vayyetze; Bereishit Rabbah 68:11). What basis do these assertions have?
While I’ve no problem with the Zohar’s relying on the homophonous relationship between Beer Sheva and the Hebrew word for “seven”, nor with Rav Eybeschütz’s sole source on this matter being the Zohar, I cannot help but wonder whether or not information such as this can also be inferred directly from the biblical text.
In order for us to know whether or not it was a sabbatical year at the time of Jacob’s departure from Beer Sheva, or at the time of his arrival in Bet El, we first need to work out the years at which those events must have occurred. I refer, of course, to what can be determined from the Torah’s own internal chronology and make no claims as regards the veracity of the events that it describes. From a strictly literary perspective, the book of Genesis requests of us that we read it in a diegetic fashion. With very few exceptions, the text is narrative, and those few parts that are non-narrative (such as the blessings that appear in chapter 49) are to be understood, within context, as being uttered by one of the characters in the story. As such, whatever pre-history the text may or may not have had, it is reasonable to treat it as a single, sustained narrative and to look for chronological clues in the reconstruction of relative timing.
The story commences in the first year of creation. I’ll refer to this as 1 AM, where AM stands for Anno Mundi. This is when Adam was born, and we are told that he fathered Seth when he was 130 years old (Genesis 5:3). Seth was 105 years old when he fathered Enosh (5:6); Enosh was 90 years old when he fathered Kenan (5:9); Kenan was 70 years old when he fathered Mahalalel (5:12); Mahalalel was 65 years old when he fathered Jared (5:15); Jared was 62 years old when he fathered Enoch (5:18); Enoch was 65 years old when he fathered Methuselah (5:21); Methuselah was 87 years old when he fathered Lamech (5:25); and Lamech was 82 years old when he fathered Noah (5:28-29). Adding up the figures conveys to us that Noah was born in the year 1056 AM.
Interestingly, most of his ancestors were still alive at this time, as the following chart shows:
930 – Adam died
987 – Enoch died
1042 – Seth died
1056 – Noah was born
1140 – Enosh died
1235 – Kenan died
1290 – Mahalalel died
1424 – Jared died
1651 – Lamech died
1656 – Methuselah died
After Noah, things get a little more tricky. We are told that at the age of five hundred (= 1556 AM), Noah sired three sons. Unfortunately, we are neither told whether he started siring sons at this age, whether he stopped siring sons at this age, nor even the order of their births. As such, this information alone is insufficient to tell us the year in which Shem (Jacob’s distant ancestor) was born.
In Genesis 10:21b, Shem is described as אחי יפת הגדול. Translating this passage literally gives us something like, “the brother of Japheth (the older one)”. To whom is “the older one” referring?
According to the Artscroll translation (which is conducted in line with various rabbinic commentaries), the verse asserts that Shem was “the brother of the elder Japheth”. According to the NJPS translation, he is “the older brother” of the same. Is one of these translations wrong? Regrettably, no. The Hebrew word for brother (אח) is a singular masculine noun. As is the name Japheth, since it too refers to a singular masculine entity. The adjective, הגדול (“the older one”) is a singular masculine adjective, since it refers to one of those two things only, though it could be either one: the word “brother” (which is a reference to Shem), or the name Japheth.
As such, stating that Shem is “the brother of Japheth (the older one)” leaves us in the dark as regards whether the adjective refers to Shem or to Japheth, and therefore as to which of them is the older of the two. Interestingly, Ham is entirely absent from these considerations. It would appear that he is widely assumed to have been the youngest of the three, leaving only the relative relationship of Shem and Japheth in question. It may be that the reason for this is the assumption that הגדול means “the eldest one”. Such was the opinion of Rav Saadiah Gaon (c.885-942 CE), for example, and it is a function of the adjective with some precedent.
Fortunately for us, we can resolve this problem from a literary perspective, and do so without bringing Ham into the equation at all.
In Genesis 11:10, we are informed that Shem sired Arpachshad at the age of 100, and that this was two years after the flood. Since we are told in Genesis 7:6 that the flood occurred when Noah was 600 years old (= 1656 AM: the year of Methusaleh’s death), we can work out that Shem was not the oldest of his brothers. If Noah had starting fathering children at the age of 500 (as per Genesis 5:32), his firstborn would have been 100 years old when the flood occurred. Since Shem was 100 years old two years after the flood, Arpachshad must have been born when his grandfather was either 602 or 603 (= 1658/9 AM), depending on precisely when the flood ended.
Determining the length of the flood is a tricky business, and for some time discussion has been dominated by those who would see in this evidence of the Torah’s multi-sourced composition. I have no problem with those opinions, but am generally disinterested in the attempted delineation of hypothetical texts. Rather, I have an interest in the actual text of the Torah (however it came to be this way), which served as the Torah to those who composed the rabbinic literature, Zohar included. From this finished literary composition, it is evident that the flood lasted, more or less, exactly one year.
The description runs from Genesis 7:11-8:14 and indicates a staged process, which commences and ends with a precise date: in the 600th year of Noah’s life, on the 17th day of the second month, the flood began; in the 601st year of Noah’s life, on the 27th day of the second month, the earth was completely dry. If we were to suppose that “two years after the flood” means “two years after the flood ended“, Noah would have been 603 when Arphachshad was born; if it means “two years after the year in which the flood began“, which was 1656 AM, then Noah would have been 602. Which of these is more logical?
It is my understanding of the text that the latter makes more sense, and for two reasons:
Firstly, Genesis 9:28-29 informs us that “Noah lived for 350 years after the flood, and that all the days of Noah were 950 years”. If “after the flood” means “after the flood ended” (ie: the 601st year of Noah’s life), then living an additional 305 years would mean that his overall lifespan was 951 years, not 950. The only way to get 950 is by assuming that “after the flood” means “after the year in which the flood began”.
Secondly, there is the fact that the word for flood (מבול) occurs several times within this narrative, but always and only in reference to the first 40 days of the deluge. So, for example, Genesis 7:6 tells us that “Noah was 600 years old when the flood occurred: water all over the earth”. The following verse tells us that it was “because of the water of the flood”, which continued for seven days (7:10), that Noah and his family entered the box that he had built. Finally, verse 17 informs us that the flood was on the earth for 40 days altogether, and constitutes the final use of that noun throughout the so-called “flood narrative”. For the remainder of the text, the water is simply referred to as water; it has ceased raining.
One way or another, this gives us the year of 1658 AM for the birth of Arphachshad: two years after the flood, when Noah was 602 years old.
Fortunately for us, for the next eight generations, things get a little simpler again. Genesis 11:10-26 gives us another detailed account of the births and deaths of Jacob’s ancestors, starting with Shem and continuing until Abraham’s father, Terah – a total of nine generations, Shem included. Now that we know that Shem’s son, Arpachshad, was born in the year 1658 AM, we can determine the years in which each of his descendants were born as well:
Arpachshad – 1658
Shelah – 1693
Eber – 1723
Peleg – 1757
Reu – 1787
Serug – 1819
Nahor – 1849
Terah – 1878
Thus, the year in which Abraham’s father Terah was born was the year 1878 AM. But how old was he when he sired Abraham?
The Torah tells us (Genesis 11:26) that he was seventy years old when he fathered Abraham and two other sons, that year being 1948 AM. Regrettably, however, it does not give us the order of their births, so we are once more at a loss to date the birth of any one of them in particular. Was Abraham the eldest? This time, there are no inner-biblical clues that might tell us whether or not he was.
For the authors of the rabbinic literature, all information can either be gleaned directly from the Torah or derived explicitly from the same. Were the text to furnish us with clues concerning the relative ages of Abraham and his two brothers, we could rely upon that in order to determine the year of his birth – as the Torah did for Shem. Since it does not, we must assume that the date given to us (1948 AM) applies to the primary character within the narrative, and not to somebody else.
Since we know that Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5), and since we know that Isaac was 60 years old when Jacob was born (Genesis 25:26), then so long as we suppose that Abraham was born in 1948, we can now confidently date the birth of Jacob to the year 2108 AM. All that remains is to determine how old he was when he left Beer Sheva, and how old he might have been when he arrived in Bet El. Is that possible?
Surprisingly, this is actually something that can be worked out fairly easily.
When Jacob meets Pharaoh in Genesis 47:9, he tells him that he is 130 years old. This is nine years after his son, Joseph, had become ruler over Egypt: the first seven of those years being years of plentiful grain, and the subsequent two being years of famine (Genesis 45:6). When Joseph became ruler we are told that he was 30 years of age (Genesis 41:46), which would mean that his father, Jacob, was 91 at the time of Joseph’s birth. Prior to Joseph’s being born, Jacob served his uncle Laban for a period of fourteen years. The Torah tells us that Jacob’s period of indentured servitude transpired at the time of Joseph’s birth (Genesis 30:25), which means that Jacob was 77 years old when he met Laban.
Seeing as Jacob travelled to his uncle directly from Bet El, we can assume that he was also 77 years old when he spent a night there. If he was born in the year 2108, that would give us the year 2185 AM for his arrival in Bet El. Is this also the year in which he left Beer Sheva?
Ishmael was fourteen years older than Isaac, Jacob’s father, as can be seen from the fact that Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael was born (Genesis 16:16) and 100 years old when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5). Ishmael died at the age of 137 (Genesis 25:17), which would have been when Isaac was 123. Since Isaac was 60 when Jacob was born (Genesis 25:26), Jacob must have been 63 when Ishmael died, which would have been in the year 2171 AM, fourteen years before he reached Bet El. And yet, Esau (Jacob’s brother) is said to have approached Ishmael with the intention of marrying his daughter, when Jacob left Beer Sheva (Genesis 28:9). Is it possible that it took fourteen years or longer for Jacob to travel from Beer Sheva to Bet El?
The midrashic tradition has Jacob leaving Beer Sheva in 2171 AM, around the time of Esau’s marrying Ishmael’s daughter and Ishmael’s death, studying for fourteen years in the yeshiva established by his ancestors Shem and Eber (the second of whom wasn’t to die for another sixteen years), and then continuing on to Bet El in 2185 AM and, thence, to his uncle’s house (Megillah 17a; Rashi, Genesis 28:9, s.v. אחות נביות). We can safely assume that this midrashic tradition underscores the assertions made in the Zohar, and in the commentary of Rav Eybeschütz.
There are fifty years in the jubilee cycle. Dividing both of those dates by 50 gives us 43.42 for the first one, and 43.7 for the second. That means that the first date (2171 AM) was 21 years into the new jubilee cycle (21 = 0.42 x 50), and that the second date (2185 AM) was 35 years into the new jubilee cycle (35 = 0.7 x 50). Since the sabbatical cycle denotes a period of seven years, both of these dates would give us a sabbatical year – the first being the third of the jubilee cycle, and the second one being the fifth.
In actuality, of course, we need adopt neither of those dates if we do not wish to, assume that they have any significance beyond being incidental features of a narrative, nor even look for too much in the way of internal consistency. Asking questions like these may be a little like wondering what Prince Hamlet was doing when he received news of his father’s death; that which is not explicitly inferrable from the story is simply not part of the story.
But since the early rabbinic literature and the later midrashic tradition (including the Zohar) operates on the principle that anything not stated directly by the Torah can be inferred somehow from the same, the supposition that those dates have significance in the life of Jacob, that they’re not “merely” historical details, and that they can be used in order to determine a broader chronology that stretches beyond Genesis and into the realm of real history has genuine import.
As such, the Zohar’s assertion that Jacob left Beer Sheva in a sabbatical year, and Rav Eybeschütz’s assertion that it was a sabbatical year when he arrived in Bet El, is neither simple wordplay, based around the homonyn sheva, nor a fanciful addition to the text. Whether we share in their presuppositions or not, it is evident that these traditions reflect a solid basis in biblical exegesis.