May 30, 2024
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Esau’s Request: ‘Min Ha-Adom Ha-Adom Ha-Zeh’

Many see a coarse request here by Esau. Is this really the case? The entire phrase is: “Hal’iteni na min ha-adom ha-adom ha-zeh.” Let us analyze it piece by piece.

1. נא: This word is commonly translated as “please” or “now.” If the meaning is “please,” this is certainly good manners. If the meaning is “now,” this is a satisfactory statement as well.

There is one place in Tanach (Ex. 12:9) where נא means “raw.” There is a view that gives it this meaning here. But since this is a unique meaning of the root in Tanach, we should presume this is not its meaning here.

2. מן: This word indicates that Esau is only asking for a portion of the item. There is nothing wrong with that. He is being considerate and leaving for others.

3. “Ha-adom ha-adom ha-zeh.”

OK, Esau did not specify what the food item was. This can be evidence of coarseness and inarticulateness. But perhaps (as Ramban states) he did not know what the precise food item was.

What about the duplication of the color? This is the only time in Tanach where we have such a duplication. What does it symbolize?

(Elsewhere in Tanach we do have words like אדמדם and ירקרק, and there is a disagreement as to whether such forms indicates a lightening or an intensification. But that is not relevant here.)

Rashbam suggests that when people are in a hurry, they often double their words. So there is a criticism here of Esau for asking for his food in a hurry. (Another example of duplication as indicating “hurry” may be the angel’s intervention to Avraham at Gen. 22: 11: “Avraham, Avraham.” The angel was hurrying to try and spare Isaac from being sacrificed.)

But let us look at some other views of the duplication:

Radak suggests that the duplication merely indicates Esau’s intense desire for the item. This is not necessarily a bad quality.

S. D. Luzzatto writes that duplication is used for items that remain separate and do not mix together into a single mass. He cites Ex. 8:10 “chamarim chamarim” (=piles of frogs). He believes that lentils fit into this category.

Hizzekuni suggests that the duplication indicates that the color was deep red. (See similarly N. Sarna in The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis.) One scholar suggests that this may be “a thoughtful description of the soup’s aesthetic and culinary appeal. Esau is offering his compliments to the chef.” This same scholar points out that there is a type of wine called “blanc de blanc.” He writes: “Had Esau been dining on lentil stew in a fine restaurant, he might have ordered an accompanying glass of fine white wine—blanc de blanc—with no fear that his repetitive language would be construed as inelegant, crude, coarse or impatient. The attentive garcon would understand that the request was for ‘light, white wine,’ not ‘white, white stuff.’”

Note also the duplication at Num. 14:7: “tovah ha-aretz me’od me’od” (=an exceedingly good land”).

So the duplication does not have to indicate impatience, inability to articulate, or coarseness.

***

So far we have seen that it is very easy to conclude that Esau has done nothing wrong. Now let us address that first word.

4. הלעיטני: The root לעט appears nowhere else in Tanach. Onkelos translates it as אטעמני (=let me have a taste). R. Saadiah and Ibn Ezra suggest האכילני.

But the truth is that in Akkadian (another ancient Semitic language) the cognate to לעט means “swallow.” See H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion For Biblical Hebrew. In the Mishnah, it also means “swallow.” In rabbinic literature it is often (but not exclusively) used in connection with the eating of animals. See, e.g., Mishnah Shabbat 24:3, where it is used in connection with feeding camels and calves, although it is the gentlest of the several methods mentioned. (See also Gen. Rabbah 63:12.) The root is sometimes used in connection with humans. See the entry in Jastrow, p. 714.

S.D. Luzzatto explains that the sound לע indicates swallowing. This is an obvious onomatopoeia. לעט and probably כלע as well both derive from this bilateral לע root. It cannot be coincidence that they both have a “swallow” meaning. Another related word for swallowing in Biblical Hebrew is לעו. See Obadiah 16. (Obadiah only has one chapter!)

In our verse, לעט, with that initial ה, is in the hiphil: “cause me to swallow.” This does sound like coarse speech. So perhaps we should translate all the other terms in a coarse light as well. Here, for example, is the translation in The Living Torah: “Give me a swallow of that red stuff!” The ArtScroll Bereishis commentary includes the following: “The Hebrew which is in the transitive has a very forceful connotation, much like the colloquial ‘stuff me.’ ” (This was a great work that was never continued, except for the Vayikra volume. It was substituted by ArtScroll’s Stone Chumash with a much reduced commentary.)

One scholar wants to argue that Esau’s request for a mere swallow might be considered “admirably restrained, especially given his hunger and fatigue.” But I am not convinced. As the Anchor Bible writes: “Esau is depicted as an uncouth glutton; he speaks of ‘swallowing, gulping down’ instead of eating or the like.” Robert Alter remarks: “It is safe to assume [לעט] was always a cruder term for eating than the standard Biblical one.”

Rav S.R. Hirsch’s translation of “ha-adom ha-adom” also deserves mention. He writes that it is not the food itself but the color that attracts Esau. “It reminds him of the blood of a gasping, dying animal that delights his eye when his arrow has found its mark.” He paraphrases Esau’s statement as: “Quickly give me some of that lovely red stuff!”

***

On the word נא, an interesting verse is Num. 12:13, where Moses prays for Miriam to be healed: “God, na refa na lah.” Here is the 1917 JPS translation (at the top in the Chumash of Rabbi Dr. Hertz): “Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee.” The first נא is translated as “ now” and the second as “I beseech thee” (=please).

In contrast, the ArtScroll Stone has: “Please, God, heal her now.” (Admittedly, even though the English words “now” and “please” look different, there is not that much difference in meaning between them.)

Then there is The Living Torah, which seems to drop one of the נא words: “O God, please heal her!” Perhaps the exclamation point at the end is there to reflect the second נא, as the two occurrences serve to emphasize the “please.” (Or perhaps the initial נא generated the initial “O.”)

***

Acknowledgement: The idea for the main part of this article and many of the thoughts came from an article by Rabbi Joseph Prouser. (But Rabbi Prouser came to the opposite conclusion. He suggests that the optimal translation is: “Please may I have just a taste of that lovely red soup.”)


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. As his wife will vouch, he is always careful to ask for his food with proper etiquette (not exactly!).

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