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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Naming Baby After Relative Who Died Young

My uncle passed away from cancer at 59. A grandchild was just born in the family and the parents would very much like to name him after our dear uncle. He was a wonderful human being and we feel it is very appropriate to name the child after him. I am concerned, however, because of his premature death. Is that a legitimate concern or are we just being superstitious?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It is certainly appropriate to name a baby after a righteous relative. However, some have the custom not to give the baby the precise name of a person who died young, especially if he was killed rather than dying naturally.

Some consider passing away before 60 a premature death (based on Talmud Mo’ed Kattan 28a). Others disagree based on the Prophet Samuel and King Solomon, both of whom died at 52 and whose names are popular today (although again, some distinguish between dying naturally and unnaturally).

As an interesting aside, many are lenient to name after Holocaust victims even though they died young. Clearly, perishing in the Holocaust is no indication that a person’s name is not suited for long life.

In your nephew’s case, there is room to be strict not to give him your uncle’s exact name but to add a name – either before or after his name. If the parents prefer the exact name, it is appropriate to state, while speaking at the brit, that they are naming the child in memory of your uncle’s good qualities and values, rather than his tragically short life.

Otherwise, mazal tov! May you and your family be granted many blessings in life!

(Source: Igrot Moshe Y.D. II 122.)

Jacob Steals the Blessings

I have a coworker who can’t accept how Jacob could have stolen Esau’s blessings from his father Isaac. How could he have been so dishonest as to trick his father? And further, since the blessings were given under false premises, were they even binding? Since Isaac never intended to give Jacob the blessings, was Jacob truly “blessed” at all? What did his trick help?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for sharing your coworker’s very fundamental question. The episode of Jacob’s “stealing” the blessings is actually much deeper than people realize. What Rebecca and Jacob arranged it that Jacob receive the blessings, they were not simply tricking Isaac. They were trying to gently convey to him that Jacob was the one truly deserving of the blessings all along – at last laying to rest a long-standing debate between Isaac and Rebecca.

When Jacob impersonated Esau in front of Isaac, he appeared to make one fatal error. He spoke gently and respectfully to his father. Unlike the uncouth Esau, who later says to his father “My father should get up and eat” (27:31), Jacob said “Please get up” (v. 19). Likewise, when Isaac asked him how he caught an animal so quickly, he responded “For the Lord your God chanced it before me” (v. 20). As the Sages point out, Isaac immediately detected that he did not sound like Esau – who neither spoke gently nor would have made reference to God in his regular speech (Rashi to vv. 21-22). And as a result, Isaac cried out, “The voice is the voice of Jacob” (v. 22). It wasn’t the sound of his voice – which Jacob no doubt altered to imitate his brother. It was his manner of speaking.

Now, after making such an effort to disguise himself, why would Jacob be so stupid as to nearly give himself away by not speaking a little more gruffly? Why did he not impersonate this aspect of Esau’s personality too to make the subterfuge perfect?

The answer is that Jacob did not simply want to trick his father. What he really wanted to do was show Isaac that the person who stood before him now – whoever he was – had the qualities of the person Isaac wanted to bless. He had the physical abilities of Esau, yet he had the gentle personality of Jacob. This was the man Isaac truly wanted grant the dew of heaven, the produce of the land, and the leadership of the family. He had the good qualities of Esau and Jacob combined. And this was the risky path Rebecca and Jacob took to see to it that Isaac would at last recognize that Jacob rather than Esau deserved the blessings.

In fact, as the Sages point out, at the end of the story, after Jacob's trick is revealed, Isaac says to Esau, "I blessed him and so too will he be blessed" (27:33; see Rashi there). The implication is that Isaac at last admitted that Jacob was the one deserving of the blessings – and they would stay. Likewise, Isaac seems to harbor no ill-will against Jacob afterwards when he sends him away to find a wife in Haran (28:1-4). At last Isaac had made peace with reality.

We have a two-part series which gives a much fuller treatment of this important topic. See this link for part one.

The above is based upon an approach presented by Rabbi Yochanan Zweig.

End of Slavery in Egypt

I’m trying to figure out the timeline of the Exodus. I know that our ancestors left Egypt on the first day of Passover, but at what point did the slavery end? Did it last until the very last day, after the plagues had been going on for so long?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It’s actually interesting, the Talmud answers this directly – that the slavery ended on Rosh Hashanah of the year of the Exodus (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 11a). This would be the first of the month of Tishrei, 6½ months before the actual Exodus. What isn’t clear is at what point during the plagues this was.

There is a Mishna which states, “The judgment of the Egyptians endured for 12 months” (Ediot 2:10). This means the plagues lasted quite a long time. See likewise Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 9:12, brought in Rashi to Exodus 7:25) that each plague lasted one month. For an entire three weeks Moses warned Pharaoh about the imminent catastrophe, and for the final week of the month the plague struck.

Putting the sources together, it is clear that the slavery ended somewhere in the middle of the plagues – perhaps at the point in which they had wreaked too much havoc on the country for the economy to function. (Perhaps by that time as well many of the Egyptians realized it was not in their best interests to oppress God’s nation.)

It isn’t clear, however, exactly at what point during the plagues this occurred. One month per plague implies 9-10 months total (since the final plague – the death of the firstborn – occurred instantly). Yet one of the commentators suggests that the plagues actually lasted somewhat more than a month each in order to total 12 months (Tiferet Yisrael to Ediot 2:10). At the same time there is a Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 5:19) that after Moses first approached Pharaoh and he made the slavery even harsher, Moses had to flee back to Midian for either 3 or 6 months. Thus perhaps the plagues themselves lasted shorter (some might not have had warnings before them), and perhaps the slavery ended with the first plague.

One interesting thing to note is that according to all opinions, the Jews were not serving the Egyptians for several months before the actual Exodus. And this makes Pharaoh’s adamant refusal to let us go – even for an (alleged) mere 3 day excursion in the desert – all the more inexplicable. We weren’t working for him anyway! What did he gain by refusing to bend – while his country fell to utter ruin? It thus demonstrates for us how self-destructive arrogance is. Pharaoh absolutely refused to give in – although he gained absolutely nothing from it – beyond an imagined psychological victory. He was so obsessed with not giving in that destroying himself and his entire country in the process meant nothing to him. And the echoes of such manically obsessive behavior can be found in many of the most megalomanic dictators throughout the ages (R. Yochanan Zweig).