Chayyei Sarah: A Peculiar Oath

April 12, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah | 1 Comment

(This blog was first posted on October 24, 2010.)

Now Abraham was an elder, who had come through the 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 yareich, 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)

yareich = upper thigh, loins, genitals

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

In both cases, the person requesting the oath believes he will soon die.  He won’t 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.  (Obviously Jacob won’t be around to bury himself.  Abraham is 137 years old when he requests the oath, and his 127-year-old wife Sarah has recently died.  Neither he nor his steward Eliezer expect him to live long enough to give further instructions if Eliezer can’t find a wife for Isaac in Abraham’s old home, Aram.  It turns out that Abraham lives another 38 years, but they aren’t expecting that.)

Both patriarchs, Abraham and Jacob, speak to the man who will be in charge after they die, and ask him to swear an oath while his hand is placed under—where, exactly?

S.R. Hirsch, a 19th-century rabbi, argued that it really was the patriarch’s thigh.  The thigh or buttock is the first place to touch the ground when one rests, he wrote.  Therefore 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.

Yet in other parts of the Torah, the word yareich is a euphemism for the genitals.  It would be bizarre in our modern culture to swear an oath with one’s hand under someone’s testicles, but other ancient peoples besides the Hebrews may have used this ritual.  In 1987 Professor Meir Malul cited a reference to a similar oath ceremony in an Akkadian letter. Others have noted that the English words testify, testimony, and testicles all come from Latin words based on the roottestis, and claim that this may reflect a Roman practice of taking an oath on the genitals.

Whether this ritual was unique or common among ancient cultures, most commentators agree that each patriarch in Genesis/Bereishit is really asking his deputy to place his hand under the patriarch’s genitals, not his thigh.  Why are the genitals the important spot?  Because that’s the site of procreation, some commentators write.  Others, including medieval rabbis Rashi and Abarbanel, write that it’s because for Jewish men the genitals are the site of circumcision, the first mutual covenant with God, and the closest thing to a sacred object at that time.  (In later millennia, Jews swore by putting a hand on a Torah scroll, or on a set of leather tefillin containing tiny scrolls with passages from the Torah.)

If the male genitals are a symbol of creative power, they refer to God the Creator.  If they are a symbol of the first 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 the symbol of his own power to act in a position below the symbol divine power and sanctity.  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!

Today, one of our most important oaths is the marriage vow, which is backed up not just by physical symbols and a wedding ritual, but also (in states where the particular marriage is legal) by civil law.  We take this mutual oath seriously, but sometimes unforeseen circumstances (such as abuse or infidelity) make it important to annul the vow and get a legal divorce.  The divorce applies to both parties.

A vow made to a dying person, however, is one-sided.  If unforeseen circumstances arise after one party is dead, is the other party still obligated 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; and Joseph easily gets Pharaoh’s permission to bury his father in Hebron instead of Egypt.  My impression is that Eliezer enjoys his matchmaking, and Joseph is glad to honor his father with a funeral procession that goes on for days.  But deathbed requests are not always that easy, or that benign.  Yet human nature tends to put a high value on that kind of promise; for example, people go to great lengths to carry out a deceased person’s wishes regarding burial.  Considering the psychological pressure, when someone makes a promise to a dying person, is that 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 is willing to agree to carry our your mission, but does not share your belief in its necessity?  And 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?

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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 […]


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