Lovable Numbers

Izim masayim u’seyashim esrim recheilim masayim v’eilim esrim (Bereishis 32:15)

Prior to his fateful encounter with his irate brother Esav, Yaakov made multiple efforts to appease him. Among the avenues that he pursued was sending a number of animals to Esav as gifts. The Torah records that Yaakov sent 200 female goats and 20 male goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams; 30 nursing camels with their young; 40 female cows and 10 bulls; and 20 female donkeys and 10 male donkeys. As there are no coincidences in the Torah, Yaakov must have had a calculated reason for the number of each type of animal that he sent.

Rav Nachshon Gaon, the ninth-century leader of the yeshivah in Sura, provides a brilliant explanation for the number of goats that Yaakov sent to Esav, which totaled 220. He points out that the proper factors of 220 (numbers less than 220 which evenly divide into it) are 1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 11, 20, 22, 44, 55 and 110. When they are summed, they add up to 284. Similarly, the proper factors of 284 are 1, 2, 4, 71, 142, which add up to 220. In other words, the numbers 220 and 284 are unique in that the sum of the proper factors of each number adds up to the other number.

A pair of numbers with this unusual property is known as amicable numbers, or as Rav Nachshon Gaon calls them, minyan ne’ehav — beloved numbers. He explains that there was an ancient custom that when a person wanted to curry favor with a prominent individual, he would give him a gift of items numbering one of a pair of amicable numbers, and keep the corresponding number for himself. Rav Nachshon Gaon suggests that this is what Yaakov did in order to placate Esav: He sent him 220 goats, while keeping 284 for himself. It is clear from the text that Yaakov sent to Esav 200 female goats and 20 male goats, for a total of 220 goats, but where is it alluded to that he kept 284 for himself?

When Yaakov gave instructions to his servants regarding the presentation of the gifts to Esav, he told them (32:21), “Achaprah fanav ba’machaneh ha’holeches l’fanai” — I will appease him [Esav] with the gifts that precede me.” Rav Nachshon Gaon explains that the word “achaprah” can be divided into two words — “ach parah.” The word “ach” is understood by Chazal to connote limiting or reducing (see Yerushalmi Brachos 67b). In this case, the numerical value of the word “parah” is 285, so diminishing it by 1 yields 284, which is the number of goats that Yaakov kept for himself as part of his attempt to pacify Esav.

Q: Rashi writes (32:23) that because Yaakov placed Dina in a box and withheld her from being a good influence on Esav, he was punished when she was abducted by Shechem. What was his sin when the Gemara in Pesachim (49b) teaches that allowing one’s daughter to marry an ignoramus is tantamount to tying her up and placing her before a lion to be devoured?

Q: Because the angel wounded Yaakov in his thigh, Jews may not eat the sciatic nerve (32:33). Will this prohibition always be in effect?

A: The Moshav Zekeinim suggests that at this time Esav may have been open to repenting, as evidenced by his offer (33:12) to travel alongside Yaakov, meaning equal to him in his religion. Rav Ovadia of Bartenura answers that Yaakov’s intentions were negative. He specifically wanted his brother to remain wicked so that he would not merit the fulfillment of his father’s blessings. The Alter of Kelm explains that although Yaakov’s actions were technically justified, Hashem also examined the subtle points of his motivation. He found that Yaakov closed and locked Dina’s box with more force than was necessary, thereby demonstrating a certain smugness. In the words of Harav Chaim Shmulevitz, Yaakov should have instead released a krechtz (groan, or deep sigh) as an expression of the feelings of sadness that he was forced to withhold his daughter from his brother. Harav Aharon Leib Steinman posits that even if Yaakov was correct, he was punished for deciding immediately to hide her without even stopping to consider the possibility that she could help Esav. Alternatively, Hashem recognized that even if Esav began to repent, Yaakov would still refuse to let Dina marry him to assist him with his growth. The M’rafsin Igri suggests that Dina was so lofty that Esav could not spiritually harm her, while she could at least possibly help him to some degree.

A: Harav Shlomo Hakohen of Vilna writes that in the Messianic era the consumption of the sciatic nerve will be permitted. He explains that there are 365 sinews in the human body, each of which is associated with one of the days of the solar calendar. The Zohar Hakadosh teaches that the sciatic nerve corresponds to Tishah B’Av. By dislodging it, Esav’s angel gave strength to his descendants to destroy the Beis Hamikdash twice on that day. In the times of Moshiach, this damage will be reversed as the Temple will be permanently rebuilt, and the sciatic nerve will become permitted. The Torah alludes to this concept in stating that as a result of the angel’s wounding Yaakov in that place, the Jewish people don’t eat it until the present day, implying that there will come a time after the present day when it will be eaten. However, the S’dei Chemed disagrees and brings several proofs that it will be forbidden even in the Messianic era.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.