Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 12 November 2012

How Old Was Rivkah?

One of the less talked about parts of Chumash is child marriage.  For example, an unmarried Kohen Gadol must take a young virgin in marriage.  Imagine the optics - a 60 something year old man in full priestly regalia under the chuppah with a 10 year old.  Not something I'd want to see on CNN.
Another one comes up in this parsha.  At the beginning of Toldos we are told that Yitchak Avinu, a"h, was 40 years old when he married Rivkah Imeinu, a"h.  Rashi, based on Seder Olam, does the math for us.  Yitchak Avinu was 37 at the time of the Akeidah, based on the assumption that Sarah Imeinu died right after from the shock of hearing about it.  At that point, Avraham Avinu, a"h, learns that his cousin Rivkah has been born.  Therefore, concludes Rashi, Rivkah is three when she marries Yitzchak.  The Torah then tells us that Yitzchak Avinu was 60 when the twins were born which means he and Rivkah tried for 20 years.  Rashi, in order to remain consistent with the halacha that a man should divorce his wife if she hasn't gotten pregnant after 10 years of trying, tells us that from age 3-13 we wouldn't have expected Rivkah to get pregnant and therefore it was only 10 years of real infertility that counted until Eisav HaRasha and Yaakov Avinu, a"h, were born.
Bottom line: 40 year old Yitzchak Avinu married 3 year old Rivkah Imeinu.  It sounds creepy until you factor in that this 3 year old could draw water for camels and ride them all by herself.
Although there is no debating Rashi's central importance in understanding Chumash, it is sometimes forgotten that while he is the first voice, there are many others to be heard after his.  This is an example of where that's important. 
There are, in fact, many commentators who don't accept Rashi's version of the chronology.  Amongst the reasons brought are (1) there's no reason to believe that Avraham Avinu received the news of Rivkah's birth immediately.  She could have been much older by the time the family telegram reached him. (2) Yes, people matured faster back in the days before permanent adolescence meant not growing up until you turned 35 but three year olds have always been three years olds.  They can't go out and draw water by themselves, they're not strong enough to fill a trough for camels and there certainly can't ride them by themselves.  Rivkah Imeinu could not have been 3 years old for this story to have happened the way the Torah tells us.
Rav Michael Hattin, formerly of Yeshivat Har Etzion, notes his and brings a great explanation of what led Rashi to comment on the story and I would like to share it with you.
He starts by noting that Rashi was no fool.  He knew that taking Seder Olam literally meant insisting that a three year old could perform all sorts of tasks that were clearly beyond her.  He goes a step further and asks about Yitzchak Avinu's age at the Akeidah.  Although again Rashi uses traditional sources to determine that he was 37, Rav Hattin again shows that this was not likely.  After all, if Yitzchak Avinu was an adult at the height of his strength, then the Akeidah wasn't just a test for Avraham Avinu but for him as well.  The Torah, however, never portrays the Akeidah as a big test for Yitzchak Avinu, just his father.  In all likelihood he was much younger, probably still just a child.
If that's the case, why does Rashi insist that Yitzchak Avinu was 37 and Rivkah Imeinu was only 3?  This can be tied into Rashi's comment from the Midrash about the wording around Sarah Imeinu's age at the time of her death. Famously, Rashi notes the importance of each appearance of the word "year" in that verse.  This concept gets extended further.  Yitchak Avinu, despite being a young boy, acted with the maturity of a 37 year old when it came time to lie on the altar for his father and submit to being sacrified.  A normal boy would have run screaming into the woods or called the Canaan Child Protection Services on his cell phone.  Not Yitzchak Avinu.  Despite his age, he understood the importance of what was going on and acted appropriately.
Similarly for Rivkah Imeinu, one needs to note that the marriages of our forebears were not simple shidduchim but a joining of mammoth spiritual personalities.  A normal girl of marriageable age might have been influenced to marry Yitzchak Avinu for the promise of the wealth he possessed.  Instead, Rivkah Imeinu looked at the situation with a level of honesty found only in young children.  For her, it was Yitzchak Avinu's godlus that sealed the deal, not a sense of personal interest. 
Thus Rashi, by bringing these midrashim and making statements that superficially seem untenable was actually giving us a deep insight into the greatness of both Yitchak Avinu and Rivkah Imeinu.


Mike S. said...

Also the text at the Akedah calls Yitzchak a na'ar, which is normally used for an adolescent, and it calls Rivkah a na'arah which is similar.

Princess Lea said...

For a cohen to be single at 60 would certainly have been an anomaly. However, am I incorrect in that widows are also cohen-eligible? Merely the divorcees are banned.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

The marriage rules are different for the Kohen Gadol from those of regular kohanim. A KG must marry a young virgin if he's unmarried at the time of his appointment.

Shira Salamone said...

In my opinion, a little seichel (common sense) would be useful in considering the question of Rivkah's age upon marriage. Not to put too fine a, um, point on it, but what on earth would be, um, in it for any guy to marry a three-year-old? No normal guy would, um, get anything out of such a marriage. Why bother marrying someone for whom you'd have to wait for probably over a decade?

Shira Salamone said...

"For her, it was Yitzchak Avinu's godlus that sealed the deal, not a sense of personal interest." As I mentioned here, “ . . . Avraham's servant lauded--and demonstrated--his master's wealth to the nth degree, but never said a word about Yitzchak/Isaac himself . . . “, so how could Rivkah possibly have known anything whatsover about Yitzchak’s gadlut/greatness?

Princess Lea said...

The only besulahs around were 10? Me thinketh not. I'm sure there were spinsters of 30 available . . .

Shades of Grey said...

Great post! I was wondering this myself and cringing a bit when recalling this Rashi. I recall proudly pronouncing this age difference as "fact," when I was in middle/high school, having learned it in lower/middle school as such.

It makes much more sense to understand Rivkah's age as being more older and thus adult rather than the age of a young child.

Another point related to this that I thought of - even if she wasn't 3, perhaps there was a somewhat significant age gap between her and Yitzchak, say 20 years. I think this is what led Avimelech to snoop around and question Yitzchak's statement that Rivkah was his sister. He had 3 reasons for doing so:

1) Avraham pulled this trick before, and regardless if this was the same Avimelech or not, I imagine that kidnapping incident and the resulting story was enough to make it memorable and passed down - and it wasn't THAT long ago that it would be forgotten.

2) Avraham and Sarah were much closer in age, and could be seen visually as siblings. In multi-child homes, an age difference of 10 years is quite possible, but one of 20+ usually isn't unless the parents have had a ton of kids, or a younger, 2nd wife is involved.

3) Avraham and Sarah, being uncle and niece, also probably looked a lot more alike and could pass for siblings.