How Old was Rebecca When She Married the Patriarch Isaac?

I. The question: how to read bYebamot 57b

II. The Rational objection

III. There is no such thing as “the” Midrash

IV. What is at stake in the conversation: the Gnostic challenge to Judaism


I. The question: how to read bYebamot 57b

A Midrash taught that Rebecca was three years old when she married Isaac, who at the time just turned forty years. Our children are taught:

  • we have to believe the rabbis of the Midrash

  • they are wise and pious and would not, could not and did not lie to us

  • to question the rabbis of the Midrash denies the oral Torah

  • therefore, by entertaining doubts about rabbis tell you is the moral equivalent of denying the oral Torah.

  • The oral law teaches on the basis of the Talmud that a marriage may be contracted at the age of three.

The test of faith is to believe even if it sounds absurd; cold logic is dead, deadly and deadening. And logic with false axioms is a lie. So believe the learned and pious rabbis blindly, because your eyes cannot see and they give insight with their intuition.

II. The Rational objection

There are many human objections to this line of reasoning, first of which is that it is unreasonable. Forty year old men do not marry three-year-olds. Rebecca’s reported speech, answering Eliezer’s questions in consecutive order, is a listening skill that very few adults have mastered, much less a precocious toddler. How many three year old females have the strength to water camels?

III. There is no such thing as “the” Midrash

The rabbis told us to not challenge Midrash—the Midrashim are private opinions. They are suggested claims for discussion, possibilities, plausible scenarios, or arguments presented for discussion. The Midrashim actually contradict each other.

Belief that is deeply held is not necessarily belief that is correctly held. How do we know that the Midrashim must be taken as historical fact? The rabbis of yore never made this claim. So if we make this claim, we must be prepared to defend the claim based upon a cogent reading of the religious canon. Now, if we must believe that Rebecca was three years old when Isaac married her, as affirmed by Rashi and the non-canonical Seder Olam , we are confronted by the more plausible reconstruction of Tosafot to Yevamot 61b, that Rebecca was fourteen years old when she watered the camels and married Isaac.

My beloved teacher, Hacham Yosef Faur, wrote in Dine Israel (1975) that the Tosafot took the laws figuratively ( davqa and lav davqa , that a law only applies in one case and not as a general rule, or the law of the Talmud is not necessarily the law today). In an oral communication, Hacham Faur observed that Tosafot does, with very limited exceptions, take the lore of the Talmud literally. On the other hand, neither Nahmanides nor Maimonides took the lore literally; the latter actually equates the heretics and fundamentalists as taking the lore literally land understanding the lore wrongly. The fanatics read the lore absurdly and the heretics dismiss the lore because they believe the lore to be lunacy.

The written Torah gives no dates regarding the Rebecca/ Isaac marriage. There is a tradition that the binding of Isaac report cased Sara to die and this occurred on that very same day. This view is poetic; generations come and go but life goes on. It was never intended to be understood literally and absurdly.

If Rashi, who believed that Rebecca was married at the age of three, then Tosafot is heretical for arguing she was fourteen. If Tosafot may disagree with Rashi, so may we; and if we may not disagree with Rashi, then the Tosafot , who disagreed with their zeide, R ashi, are out of order.

From the above we conclude:

  • we must accept rabbinic law; rabbinic lore is suggestive, not sacred and is subject to review

  • The narrative that says that Rebecca was three reminds us that she was an exceptional woman, like the mother-in-law she never met, Sarah.

  • We have conversations and discourses regarding how to read the canon as religious Jews; the claim that the literal read is right must be defended, not proclaimed. Unless one demonstrates that a clear religious norm—and not mere taste or sensibility—is violated, the claim that one reading, the literal one, must be adopted, is an illegitimate opinion.

IV. What is at stake in the conversation: the Gnostic challenge to Judaism

There are some Orthodox Jews who follow Seder Olam and believe that dinosaurs do not exist and never did exist. Midrash is real and science is not. They wrongly assume that what they read into the Scripture is the divine voice and not their own voice. It is suggested that the dinosaur bones are swollen dog bones from the Noah flood. We ask “how do you know that?” Claims of “I do not know are kosher; of “I guess at truth” are not. Perhaps this pious opinion is unaware of Hagigah 13b, which claims that there almost 1,000 generations preceding Adam.

Shulhan Arukh O.H. 4:2-3 says that we wash hands in the morning to wash away the “evil spirits.” Some say, if the great code says so that is the word of God. This is the negel vasser of Ashkenazi Judaism. Others wash before they pray as one washes before a sacrifice. Which rendering is more reasonable?

Shulhan Aruch, influenced by the Zohar, says we wash three times. Maimonides knows nothing of this, nor does the Talmud. And the blessing for washing, netilat, and not netillot , lifting, taking or washingthe hands, would argue against the Shulhan Aruch.

People telling people what to do and think are not doing religion. They are using religion as a secular tool. They believe that you should believe simply so they can control you and tell you what to think. Torah teaches us howto think. These people do not tell of all the facts; they only tell you what they want you to hear. In order to defer to them, “we cannot handle the truth.”

Prof. Elaine Pagels taught that people who make dogmas hoard power for themselves, claiming superior knowledge. Gnosis. God’s Torah is

  • public, for all to read

  • on stone, not to be changed

  • readable, so all are accountable,

  • doable, so it cannot be dismissed,

  • compelling, for it needs no compulsion

  • and reasonable, to expose the phonies who fool others by theological ventriloquism, by foolishly faking God’s voice.

About Rabbi Alan Yuter

Rabbi Yuter is Adjunct Prof. of Hebrew Lit., Baltimore Hebrew University, and Adjunct Faculty, Fairleigh Dickenson University/Institute for Traditional Judaism. S'micha from Chief Rabbinate of Israel, Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu. See bio for more.