Author Archives: Rabbi Dan Judson

Rabbi Dan Judson

About Rabbi Dan Judson

Rabbi Dan Judson is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth David in Canton, MA. He is the co-author of two books, The Rituals and Practices of a Jewish Life:  A Handbook for Personal Spiritual Renewal (Jewish Lights Press, 2002) and Meeting at the Well:  A Jewish Spiritual Guide to Being Engaged (UAHC Press, 2002). 

My Wife, My Sister

It is just weird, really.  Passing off your wife as your sister just doesn’t seem like the type of thing that the patriarchs of Judaism should be doing. And not only does it happen once in the Torah, it happens three times. Twice Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister [Genesis 12:10-20; 20:1-18] and once Isaac passes off Rebekah as his sister [Genesis 26:1-16].

The motivation for this rather odd act is fear. As Abram says to Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live.  Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you” [Genesis 12:12-13].

Why are the patriarchs passing off their wives as their sisters? The explicit reason given in the text is fear for their own lives, but the deeper question remains of why the Torah includes such an unflattering portrayal of our patriarchs. A second and perhaps more challenging question is why the motif repeats itself three times.

The location of the stories in the Torah makes the question of motivation even more problematic. Each wife-as-sister scene occurs directly after God has made some pledge of prosperity to the patriarch. Right after receiving God’s pledge of safety, the patriarchs commit this rather scandalous act of weakness.

Traditional Commentators

Wenceslas_Hollar_-_Abimelech_rebuking_Abraham_(State_2)-1The traditional commentators differ (not surprisingly) as to the motives of the patriarchs. A famous midrash depicts how Abraham puts Sarah in a box and tries to smuggle her into Egypt.  He then offers to pay any levy on the box until the customs officer became suspicious and opens the box discovering her. This midrash suggests that Abraham at least tried alternative plans before suggesting that she was his sister. Some commentators, such as Seforno, suggest that Abraham would be able to bide his time during the famine, make some money in the markets, and then leave Egypt with Sarah when the time was right.

What Counts as a Jewish Text?

What counts as a Jewish text changes through time. Texts that earlier generations have excluded are affirmed later. As the Psalmist says, “The stone which the builders despised has become the cornerstone.” Conversely, texts that are perfectly acceptable or mildly challenging to earlier generations can create theological problems that prompt modern people to exclude them. In the past, publishers had a role in determining which Jewish texts would survive; if the publisher thought enough people would buy a book, it would be published and survive. Now, practically anything can be published either in print or electronically. If, as Rabbi Judson asserts, communities validate texts as Jewish, which community will assess and affirm or disaffirm the Jewish texts of the internet?

In determining what “counts” as a Jewish text I would begin with a historical debate the Rabbis of the Mishnah (a primary document of Jewish law from the early third century) had about this very question. They grappled with the following:

what is a  jewish text“That day you seemed to me a tall palm tree and your breasts the clusters of its fruit. I said in my heart, let me climb into that palm tree and take hold of its branches. And oh, may your breasts be like clusters of grapes on a vine, the scent of your breath like apricots, your mouth good wine. That pleases my lover, rousing him even from sleep. I am my lover’s he longs for me only for me.”

The preceding quotation may seem like it comes from an erotic romance novel. But of course it is from Song of Songs (7:8-11, translation by Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch), one of the books that comprises the Ketuvim (Writings), the last section of the Hebrew Bible. Ostensibly the Song is a poem about the sexual awakening of a young woman and her lover–not the kind of material one would presume to find in the Hebrew Bible.

The Rabbis puzzled over whether this poem should be considered part of Holy Scripture. The Mishna (Yadayim 3:5) records a debate about the sanctity of the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. Rabbi Yose says there is a dispute about whether Song of Songs qualifies as sacred scripture. He does not articulate what the debate was about, but we can guess it was the sexual nature of the story. Rabbi Akiva, though, ends the debate by saying that there has never been a debate about the sanctity of the Song of Songs, it has always been clear. In fact he says, “The entire universe is unworthy of the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. All the Ketuvim are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holiest of all.”