Bent, Barren, Essential and Abundant

Two bending words appear at the start of the Torah portion, Toldot (Gen 25:19-28:9): [וַיֶּעְתַּר / וַיֵּעָתֶר] ya-ye’etar /va-yeit’ater and [עֲקָרָה] akarah. The former is usually translated first as “entreated” or “pleaded” (second appearance, the passive “was entreated” or “was appeased”) and the latter as “barren.”

וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַיהוָה לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ, כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא; וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ יְהוָה, וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ

Isaac pleaded with [YHVH] on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and [YHVH] responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived.

Gen 25:21, new JPS via Sefari with “YHVH” in place of “the LORD”

Sarah is introduced as akarah in Gen 11:30 (back in parashat Noach, Gen 6:9-11:32), and we are told Rachel is akarah in Gen 29:31 (parashat Vayetze, Gen 28:10-32:3, read 11/13/21). The pleading [ya-ye’etar ] scene is unique to Isaac and Rebekah, though: When Sarah and Abraham fail to conceive, Sarah tells Abraham to conceive with Hagar (Gen 16); when Rachel tells Jacob she will die without children, he responds, “Can I take the place of God…?” (Gen 30:1-3). Isaac and Rebekah are also alone among these couples in having twins, which relates to another possible meaning of ya-ye’etar (see below).

Although the same word, akarah, is used for all three women, commentary introduces a powerful difference.

Barren and Essential

Jastrow’s Dictionary defines ikar [עִקָּר] as 1) root, and 2) essence, reality, main object, chief. A big chunk of the explanation surrounds midrash calling Rachel “Jacob’s chief wife” or “chief person of the household.” That midrash is based on a verse from the Book of Ruth.

Near the close of the story, the entire town gathers at the gate as Boaz declares his intention to marry Ruth. They say:

May [YHVH] make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the House of Israel! Prosper in Ephrathah and perpetuate your name in Bethlehem! “

Ruth 4:11

Why is Rachel named first here?

R’ Yitzchak says: Rachel was the main part of the household, as it says, “And Rachel was barren (akarah)” – It’s main part (ikrah) was Rachel.

Breishit Rabbah 71:2 (Ruth Rabbah attributes R’ Abba son of Kahana)

Overall, appearances of words with the root ayin-kuf-reish in the Bible seem to fall into three main categories:

  • 1a) uproot — as in Ecclesiastes 3:2, “a time to plant and a time to uproot…,” previously discussed (see “All purposes…” and “Planting Trees…“);
  • 1b) uproot in context of horses and/or chariots in battle — often “hamstring” or, from King James and Old JPS: “hough” [new one on me; pronounced something like “hoak,” it seems]; see, e.g., 2 Sam 8:4;
  • 2a) (tree) stump — appears a few times in the Book of Daniel, e.g., 4:23, where the context is a tree being cut down in such a way that its roots are protected to re-grow;
  • 2b) offshoot — lost the citation, but pretty sure I read discussion somewhere of “ikar” as an offshoot or branch (maybe back to Abraham’s “blessing” was about incorporating Ammonite and Moabite branches –but not sure; if anyone knows, speak up!);
  • 3) barren — which is sometimes read as “had been made sterile,” i.e., was “caused to be uprooted” (appears in the three Genesis verses cited above and elsewhere to refer to infertility).

I found no Bible verse where “ikar [עִקָּר]” is used directly to mean “essence” or “chief,” although grammatical root of ayin-kuf-reish is listed in Jastrow as “curved, bent, root” and the idea of “root” runs throughout the various conjugations and meanings. The point being, I think, that our ancestor rabbis didn’t believe the Bible verse was originally (whatever that might mean; topic for another day) intended to say: “Rachel was chief in her household.” They went a fair bit out of the way to extrapolate that meaning, while considering a household with more than one wife and four women bearing children.

Using the same method, can we also read that Sarah and Rebekah were “chief” in their households in some way? Can we read that the matriachs were essential, whether or not they were bearing children? How different would our views of the entire narrative be if we were to focus more on “essence” and less on seeing humans as tools of procreation?

Abundance and Pitchfork

I say that wherever this root עתר occurs it has the meaning of heaping up and increasing. E.g., (Ezekiel 8:11) “And a thick (עתר) cloud of incense” which means an abundance of ascending smoke; (Ezekiel 35:13)

Jastrow adds, under a related listing (the noun atirah), that the abundance is to be found in God’s response, rather than the amount of prayer: twins following Gen 25:21 and “double fertility” in God’s response, va-yei’ater, in 2 Sam 21: 14. This listing also includes a note explaining that the meaning “entreat, beseech” is “transferred” from “to dig, stir.” Thus….

(2) Other commentary focuses on the noun, eiter [עֵתֶר], which Jastrow says is a pitchfork or shovel. For example:

Rabbi Elazar said: Why are the prayers of the righteous likened to a pitchfork [eter]? It is written: “And Isaac entreated [vayetar] the Lord for his wife, because she was barren” (Genesis 25:21), to say to you: Just as this pitchfork overturns the grain on the threshing floor from place to place, so too, the prayers of the righteous overturn the mind of the Holy One, Blessed be He, from the attribute of cruelty to the attribute of mercy.

— B. Sukkah 14a (re: proper sukkah roofing, particularly grain stalks turned by a pitchfork)

The same related listing for the noun atirah, cited above, says that the meaning “entreat, beseech, is transferred from “to dig, stir.”

It is not clear to me if/how the digging and the abundance are related. Digging might amass a pile, create an abundance; but I don’t see that line of thought laid out in the dictionary or any commentaries I’ve found (yet). The the root ayin-tav-reish [עֲתַר], atar, is linked in Jastrow to ayin-shin-reish [עָשַׁר], ashar, “to be strong, substantial, wealthy.” The word atirah shows the same root letters, ayin-tav-reish, but a link to chet-tav-reish [חתר], “to dig, break in, make an opening.”

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