April 9, 2024
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What Is the Meaning of ‘Morat Ruach’?

In Toldot, at the end of Chapter 26, we are told that Eisav took two Hittite wives and these became “morat ruach” to Yitzchak and Rivkah. The question for this column is what precisely is “morat ruach”? (“Morat” is spelled mem-resh-tav.)

First let us briefly address the word “ruach.” Although it has concrete meanings like “air,” “wind” and “breath,” it can also mean “mood/spirit.” See, e.g., Exodus 6:9, which tells us that Bnei Yisrael did not listen to Moshe due in part to their “kotzer ruach” (impatience of mood/spirit).

“Ruach” in Tanach can also mean “ratzon” (will). See Moreh Nevuchim, part I, chap. 40, which gives some examples. Although Rambam does not cite our verse, R. Saadiah Gaon’s commentary gives “ruach” the meaning of “ratzon” in our verse. So now we have two possible meanings for “ruach” in our verse: mood/spirit, and ratzon (will).

As to “morat,” two main possibilities present themselves. One is the root M-R-R= bitter. (The dropping of the third root letter is not uncommon when the third root letter is identical to the second root letter.) The other possibility is the root M-R-H=“rebel.” We all know this root from the depiction in Devarim chap. 21 of the son who is “sorer u-moreh” (stubborn and rebellious).

(As to the distinction between M-R-D and M-R-H which both mean “rebel,” I have not figured that out yet and will leave that for another column!)

The “mood, spirit” translation of “ruach” fits nicely with the M-R-R explanation (bitterness of spirit), and the “will” translation of “ruach” fits nicely with the M-R-H explanation (rebelling against the will).

How have our commentaries dealt with the phrase “morat ruach”? Onkelos uses the words “mesarvan” and “margezan.” “Mesarvan” seems to be based on the “M-R-H”=rebel approach. Is “margezan” based on the “M-R-R”=bitter approach? “Anger” is not the same as “bitterness” but it is not far off.

Rashi cites to Devarim 9:24 “mamrim hayyitem,” where “mamrim” means “rebellious.” But then he adds that the deeds of the Hittite wives were an “itzavon” to Yitzchak and Rivkah. “Itzavon” is from the root ayin-tzade-bet, which means “grief. “ So like Onkelos, Rashi too was not satisfied with translating the phrase with only the meaning “rebel.” But he gave the second meaning a different spin than Onkelos did.

Rashbam cites to “yamreh et picha” of Joshua 1:18, where the meaning of “yamreh” is “will rebel” (from the root M-R-H). He also uses a French word that we all recognize: “contrarians.”

Ibn Ezra first cites to the meaning in the phrase “ben sorer u-moreh” (M-R-H=rebel), but then writes that, in his view, “morat” has the meaning of “bitter.” (Prior to Ibn Ezra, the “bitter” interpretation was adopted by the important 10th-century grammarian R. Judah ben Hayyuj.)

(For further reading, see also the commentary of Radak to our verse.)

One of the verses cited by the commentaries is Isaiah 63:10, which uses the word “maru.” Here, the Daat Mikra commentary suggested that the word could have both the “rebel” and “bitter” meanings, i.e., that a double meaning was intended in this verse in Isaiah. The Daat Mikra commentary on our verse suggests that “morat” has such a double meaning as well.

This got me thinking that perhaps we have a “double double” meaning in our verse. As I suggested above, “ruach” in our verse can mean both “mood/spirit” and “will.” Perhaps our verse is trying to express both the “bitter of spirit” meaning and the “rebelling against the will” meaning. That is why it is so hard to understand. It is purposely ambiguous to allow for these two different meanings of each of the two words!

There is one more interpretation of “morat ruach” that I need to mention. I purposefully saved this most creative one for last. It is the suggestion of Seforno. He is aware that “morah” means “razor” in Tanach in three verses: Judges 16:17, Judges 13:5 and I Sam 1:11. Based on this, he suggests that the meaning of “morat ruach” is that the spirit of Yitzchak and Rivkah was being “cut” by the Hittite wives.

How does “morah” end up with a meaning like “razor”? One view connects it with the rare biblical root mem-resh-chet, which means “rub.” (See Isa. 38:21.) Rashi (Judges 13:5) relates it to the root Y-R-H, which means “throw,” since the razor throws away the hair. A different approach is taken by Rav S.R. Hirsch. He notes that a razor has to run contrary to the hair. This enables him to suggest a derivation from M-R-H=rebel, act in opposition. See his comm. to Gen 26:35.

There is also a midrashic source (Numbers Rabbah 10:5) that interprets M-V-R-H=razor as if it is related to M-V-R-Aleph (fear), since hair is afraid of the razor!

But the most widely held view today postulates that the root of the word M-V-R-H=razor is ayin-resh-heh, which means “to lay bare, uncover.” (This is the root of the word “ervah”=naked). The explanation is that the razor was originally called M-A-R-H, but the ayin dropped over time, and the word evolved into M-V-R-H. Another word for “razor” in Tanach is “taar” (tav-ayin-resh). This word too probably derives from the root ayin-resh-heh.

Going back to our original verse, Gen. 26:35, one authority who discusses this verse is Maimon b. Yosef, the father of Rambam. (Maimonides means “son of Maimon.” “Maimon” means “fortunate” in Arabic. It is the Arabic version of “Asher.”)

We know that Maimon discusses our verse because the commentary to Genesis and Exodus of R. Abraham son of Rambam has survived and he quotes his grandfather on this verse! According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica (11:744), “Maimon wrote commentaries on the Talmud, from which his son quotes abundantly.” But I have never run into these quotes. This was the first time I ever saw the Rambam’s father quoted. (Abraham also quotes his grandfather other times in this Genesis-Exodus commentary.)

What exactly did Maimon explain about our verse? He asks the question how Yitzchak could possibly have thought to give the blessing to Eisav after this rebellion of marrying two Hittite women. His answer is that by giving Eisav the blessing, Yitzchak was hoping to lead him to do teshuvah from this sin. (He suggests that Yitzchak was not aware of other sins by Eisav.)

We do know much about Rambam’s father (unlike the practically nothing we know about Rashi’s father). One day I will write a column about him.

Acknowledgement: Much of my discussion of “morat ruach” comes from a book that collects the parshah thoughts of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, brother of Nechama. The book I have is called “Sheva Shanim shel Sichot al Parashat Ha-Shavua.”

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. Many times he takes views that are opposite of conventional views. If you want to hear his “contrarian” views, you can reach him at [email protected].

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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