February 27, 2024
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The Meaning of ‘Va-Yitrotzetzu’

In that famous verse in Toledot (25:22), we are told: “va-yitrotzetzu (ויתרצצו) ha-banim be-kirbah.” What does that first word mean?

ArtScroll’s Stone Chumash translates this verse as the children “agitated within her.” The 1917 JPS translation has: “struggled together within her.” Rashi gives two interpretations. The first is that the word derives from the root רץ (=run) and the meaning is essentially that Yaakov wanted to run to places of Torah study while Esav wanted to run to places of idolatry. Rashi’s second interpretation interprets our word as “arguing.” Rashi writes that they were “merivim be-nachalat shenei olamot, arguing about inheriting olam hazeh and olam haba.” (I will explain this below.)

What is going on here? How are we to understand ויתרצצו? It turns out that the issues are very clear. The first issue is whether the word is from the root רוץ, which means “run,” or from the root רצץ which means “crush, push, struggle with, oppress.”

The second issue is the import of the word being in the hitpael. As further background, about half the time the use of hitpael means doing something to yourself. But when two people are involved it often means doing something with or to the other. (An example of this is Gen.42:1, “lamah titrau, why do you look at one another?”) Also, sometimes the hitpael has an entirely different meaning: to do something continuously, as in the word “hithalech, to walk continuously.”

Rashbam writes that at 25:22 the meaning is רץ (which I am calling רוץ). He writes that they were “ratzim u-mitnaanim, running and moving,” inside her body, as babies in the womb normally do. He rejects the רצץ meaning, giving a grammatical objection. Ibn Ezra also believes our word at 25:22 has a “run” meaning. He points out that we sometimes have a right to overlook the double letter and cites Nachum 2:5 where we have ירוצצו but from the context it is evident that the word has a meaning related to “run.” Radak, in his Torah commentary, writes that the babies in her womb were moving so much that it seemed to Rivkah that they were running “zeh le-umat zeh.”

In modern times, Daat Mikra agrees that the root is רוץ. It writes that רצצ can be an intensive form of רוצ and cites Nachum 2:5, where this is the case. But Daat Mikra makes no attempt to explain the use of the hitpael.

Now let us compare S.D. Luzzatto. He writes that the root is רצץ and that it means “beating” or “crushing.” He cites Judges 10:8 where we have וירצצו (va-yerotzetzu) with a “crush/beat” meaning. Since our word has that extra ת indicating that it is in the hitpael, his translation at 25:22 is “beat each other.” See D. Klein’s edition. Similarly the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon has “the children crushed one another.” (This explanation is also mentioned in a note in Daat Mikra. See similarly earlier: R. Yosef Kara, Bechor Shor, Avraham ben Ha-Rambam, and R. Bachya.)

But perhaps we don’t have to be so dramatic and we can interpret our word as “pushed one another.”

(Note also that Onkelos has במעהא ודחקין, pushed within her. The Drazin-Wagner edition comments: “Onkelos softens the biblical description of the twins unnaturally ‘struggling with one another.’” For a different interpretation of Onkelos, derived from רץ, see Daat Mikra.)

The approach of Luzzatto and Brown-Driver-Briggs (and the many others who suggested it earlier) is much more reasonable than the “run” approach. The “run” approach does not fit with the hitpael, unless one suggests “running strongly and continuously,” or “running strongly against one another.” Both are a bit farfetched for an activity inside a crowded womb. Also, the Luzzatto-BDB approach is strongly supported by Judges 10:8. Finally and most importantly, the Luzzatto-BDB approach fits with the interpretive message stated by God at 22:23: “one people shall be stronger than the other people.” The battle in the womb foreshadowed a future context of “strength.”

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A few miscellaneous comments:—An interesting interpretation is offered by R. Hirsch. He writes that the root is רוץ. He observes that the word is in the hitpael and suggests: “to urge each other to hasten; each would not allow the other to rest.” (See also his unusual translation at the top.)

It is very interesting that the Even-Shoshan concordance includes our word in both its רוץ entry and רצץ entry! But even in the former, he gives it a meaning related to “push.” See p. 1068, item ג.

Aside from our word, there are no other רוץ or רצץ entries in the hitpael in Tanach.

Perhaps the midrash cited by Rashi in his first interpretation is based a bit on the hitpael. Each wanted to run to his own location.

Our word ויתרצצו reminds us that determining a root is not merely a matter of counting consonant letters. I mentioned above that at Nachum 2:5 we have ירוצצו, two tzade letters, but from the context it is evident that the word has a meaning related to “run.” On the other hand, Even-Shoshan has 19 entries in his listing for רצץ and in seven of them there is only one tzade. Usually there will be a dagesh on the one tzade to indicate that it counts twice, but when the one tzade is at the end of the word, there is no such dagesh. There are five such instances and we have to tell from the context whether it is a “run-related” meaning or a “crush, push, struggle with, oppress” meaning. Of course this is often easy. See, e.g., Judges 9:53: “va-taritz et gulgaleto, she broke his skull.” But there are other occasions, like ours, where the choice between the roots could theoretically go either way. But the Luzzatto-BDB approach still fits better for the reasons I stated above.

We all know the midrash that Yaakov wanted to run to places of Torah and Esav to places of idolatry. Rashi cites it and it is from Genesis Rabbah 63:6.But there are other midrashic interpretations there. One other is: Each ran to kill the other (“zeh ratz la-harog et zeh” and vice versa). Although this is not stated, probably this interpretation is based on utilizing both the רוץ and רצץ meanings. (For a midrashic interpretation based on רצץ alone, see Midrash Tehillim, chap. 58.)

Another interpretation at 63:6 is a very fanciful one. It views our word, ויתרצצו, as a combination of “matir tzivuyo.” Each annulled the commandments of the other!

Rashi’s second interpretation is not in the standard Genesis Rabbah. But it is found in a midrashic text published by S. Buber. Here is what it is stated there: “Esav said to Yaakov: ‘Come and let us divide the world. Yaakov responded: You take olam ha-zeh and I will take olam ha-ba.” The source continues that Esav agreed.

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There is a slight disagreement in biblical texts as to the vocalization of our word. I have chosen to use “va-yitrotzetzu.” This is the reading in the ArtScroll Stone Chumash and in the Daat Mikra. There is another reading “va-yitrotzatzu.” (See, e.g., Even-Shoshan. Also, Mandelkern mentions both readings.) I do not think this dispute is related to our issue of רוץ versus רצץ.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He tries to live up to his name, always running to be the earliest.

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