Chayyei Sarah: A Peculiar Oath

April 12, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah | 2 Comments

(I first posted this essay on October 24, 2010, then added footnotes and illustrations in 2019.)

Which body part does Abraham’s steward place his hand under when he swears an oath to his master?

Abraham Making his Servant Eliezer Swear, by Dirck Volkertsz Coornheert

Now Abraham was an elder, coming on in days, and God had blessed Abraham in everything.  And Abraham said to his servant, an elder of his household, the one who governed all that was his: Please place your hand under my yareikh, and I will make you swear by God, god of the heavens and god of the earth, that you do not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites amidst whom I am dwelling.  For you must go to the land I came from and to my relatives, and you must take a wife for my son, for Isaac.  (Genesis/Bereishit 24:1-4)

yareikh (יָרֵךְ) = upper thigh, buttocks, genitals.

Only two times in the Torah does someone ask another person to place his hand under the yareikh and swear an oath: in this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (“Life of Sarah”), and in Genesis 47:29, when Jacob makes his son Joseph swear not to bury him in Egypt.

In both cases, the person requesting the oath believes he will soon die.  He will not be there to make sure his wishes are carried out, so he deputizes a man he trusts and asks him to swear a serious oath.

Abraham is 137 years old when he requests this oath.  Neither he nor his steward Eliezer1 expect him to live long enough to give further instructions if Eliezer cannot find a wife for Isaac in Abraham’s old home, the city of Charan in Aram.  (Ironically, it turns out that Abraham lives another 38 years.)

He asks his steward, who will be in charge after he dies, to swear an oath while his hand is placed—where, exactly?

19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argued that it was the patriarch’s thigh or buttock: the first place to touch the ground when one rests.  Therefore, he wrote, the man about to swear the oath shows the dying man that he can rest in peace, trusting to the power of the swearer’s hand.2

George Washington Swearing on a Bible

Yet in other parts of the Torah, the word yareikh is a euphemism for the genitals.   A rabbi in the Talmud declared that Abraham’s servant grasped his circumcised penis, since oaths administered by a court require one to hold a sacred item in the hand while swearing.3  Rashi4 confirmed this opinion, and his commentary is not known for flights of fancy.  Rabbi Elie Munk pointed out that the book of Genesis is set in a time before the giving of the Torah, so a circumcised penis was the only sacred object available.5

Other commentators have noted that the English words testify, testimony, and testicles all come from Latin words based on the root “testis”, and claim that this may reflect a Roman practice of taking an oath on the genitals.

If the male genitals are a symbol of creative power, they refer to God the Creator.  If they represent the covenant with God, they refer to holiness.  Either way, the oath-taker is asked to place his hand in a position underneath, below, subservient to, a symbol of the sacred.

Throughout the Torah, the hand is a metaphor for the power to act, to do things in the world.  So in this ancient ritual, the one swearing the oath places his own power to act underneath the sacred object of the other man.  In other words, he is promising he will do everything in his power to carry out the other man’s will as if it were the will of God.  A potent oath!

A vow made to a dying person is one-sided, obligating only the person swearing the oath.  If unforeseen circumstances arise after someone is dead, is the other party still obliged to carry out a mission that now looks like a bad idea?  Or should the survivor be free to change course to address the new circumstances?

In the book of Genesis, Abraham’s steward Eliezer has little trouble bringing back a bride for Isaac from Aram.  (In the other example of this oath, Joseph easily gets Pharaoh’s permission to bury his father in Hebron instead of Egypt.)  My impression is that Eliezer enjoys his matchmaking in this week’s Torah portion.

*

Not all deathbed requests are that easy, or that benign.  Yet human nature tends to put a high value on a deathbed promise; for example, people go to great lengths to carry out a deceased person’s wishes regarding burial.  There is also psychological pressure to reassure a dying person.  In that situation, is a promise really freely given?

Suppose you “knew” that a certain thing had to happen, and you doubted you would live long enough to make sure it did happen.  Is it right to ask someone else to swear to make it happen?  What if the person you are asking agrees to carry our your mission even though they do not share your belief in its necessity?  What if the circumstances change after your death?

Is it right for a living person to be bound by the desire of someone who is dead?

  1. See Genesis 15:2.
  2. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshit, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2000, p. 514.
  3. Talmud Bavli, Shevuot 38b.
  4. Rashi is the acronym of 11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  5. Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Bereishis, Mesorah Publications, 1994, p. 626.

2 Comments »

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  1. […] Abraham’s servant swears on his master’s yareich (which can also mean genitals; see my post Chayyei Sarah: A Peculiar Oath) to the Persian king who approves Esther’s interruption by lifting his sharvit (scepter). But God […]

  2. […] I reread an essay I wrote nine years ago on this week’s Torah portion: Chayyei Sarah: Chayyei Sarah: A Peculiar Oath.  (You can click on the title to read it yourself.)   Abraham asks his steward to swear an oath […]


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