Troublesome numbers

The most fascinating, intriguing and philosophically engaging book of the Tanakh (if we are allowed to indulge in ratings) is undoubtedly the first one — Bereshit, or Genesis. It tackles questions of creation and destiny, society and government, as well as the different facets of human behavior, sibling rivalry, envy and miscommunication.

Vast literature has been written on and around Genesis, and its narrative influenced many novels and poems. But as fascinating as it is, Bereshit cannot be read as a novel. As Erich Auerbach explains in his best-known book “Mimesis,” whereas Greek, and later on Western literature, sought to create the background for each scene, both physically and historically, by providing detailed description of the protagonists’ lives and surroundings, the Bible –and especially Genesis — is extremely laconic and taciturn, never revealing more than necessary.

This disparity led readers and commentators throughout the ages to try and fill in the gaps in the biblical narrative, which can be done in 70 different ways. In some cases, unfortunately, this interpretive endeavor yielded strange and even inedible fruits. Many readers, who cannot distinguish between the original, biblical text and the later interpretation, find themselves alienated from Torah study, a lamentable situation that requires remedy.

Case in point is Rivka’s age when she married.

A while ago I heard a speaker describing the generosity of Rivka by saying, “We know that she was only 3 years old, which made it much more difficult for her to give water to all the camels!”

We know? How? Most people will say: Rashi says so! Very good, but where did Rashi take it from?

The calculation setting Rivka’s age at 3 was done by the author of a Midrash called Seder Olam, or World’s Chronology, whose working assumption was that events juxtaposed in the Torah happened immediately one after the other. He assumed that if Sarah’s death at 127 years old is mentioned in the Torah immediately following the akedah (binding of Yizchak), then it happened right after the akedah; since Sarah was 90 when he was born, Yitzhak would therefore be 37 at the time of the akedah. Furthermore, since the news about Rivka’s birth is inserted between the akedah and Sarah’s death, and since Yitzhak married at 40, his wife was 3 years old.

This Midrash, quoted in Rashi, is taught without hesitation to kindergardeners through 12th-graders. Would we tell our children that story if it did not refer to biblical characters?

How would we feel cheering on a cute flower girl (or better yet, toddler) marching down the aisle at a wedding, only to find out that she is actually the bride? Can you imagine casually telling your kids that their 40-year-old cousin is marrying their 3-year-old next-door neighbor, with whom they don’t play because she’s too young and often breaks their toys?

Of course not, we would be disgusted and appalled. We would label the man a pedophile and a pervert. We would notify the authorities and warn our children to keep away from him.

Why then are we willing to accept that scenario when it comes to the patriarchs of our nation?

This question entails one of the greatest dilemmas of teaching and understanding Tanach, particularly Torah, and especially in Orthodox schools. To what extent are we obligated to accept the Midrash that has become so inextricably intertwined with the biblical text that even learned, well-versed scholars have a hard time telling them apart?

The answer to that question is that the rule has been long established by the early sages, mostly from the Sephardic school of thought, that rabbinical interpretation of the non-halachic parts of the Torah should be approached cautiously.

The first to voice this opinion was Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942), followed by Rav Shmuel ben Hofni Gaon (950-1013) in his introduction to the Talmud. Later, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi and Maimonides in their respective philosophical works, HaKuzari and Guide of the Perplexed, both explained that there are different types of midrash on the non-halachic parts of Torah and that they can be understood as allegories, metaphors or stories meant to convey a message.

There is no evidence to suggest that Rivka was 3 years old. To the contrary, her role as a shepherdess; the way she interacted with Abraham’s servant, with her family and with Yitzhak; and the statement at the end of the parsha — that Yitzhak’s love for her comforted him after his mother’s death — all point to a mature girl, whose youngest age was probably 17 or 18. Not only that, but Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) writes that Yitzhak’s age during the akedah was around 13, which given Yitzhak’s age of 40 at the time of their marriage would make Rivka a 27-year-old bride. At Yitzhak’s wedding, the bride might have been weeping, but it was definitely not over a lost pacifier.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at