Why Did Yaakov Bow?

Vayaratz Esav likraso vaye’chabkeihu vayipol al tzavarav vayishakeihu vayivku (Bereishis 33:4)

Parashas Vayishlach begins with Yaakov preparing to meet Esav for the first time in 34 years. Yaakov assumed that Esav’s feelings of anger for “stealing” Yitzchak’s blessings from him were still unabated, as evidenced by the fact that he was approaching him with a daunting army of 400 men. Yaakov prepared for this fateful reunion by sending his brother a lavish gift of many animals in an attempt to placate Esav’s wrath.

Just prior to the climactic encounter, when Yaakov saw Esav approaching with his 400 men, Yaakov bowed down on the ground toward Esav seven times. Seeing this, Esav ran toward Yaakov and hugged him and kissed him. Commenting on this, Rashi quotes the opinion of Rav Shimon bar Yochai, who maintains that although Esav’s hatred of Yaakov was a constant and intrinsic part of him, in this situation genuine feelings of compassion welled up within Esav and he kissed Yaakov with a full heart. What was unique about this interaction between them, and how was Yaakov able to overcome Esav’s innate feelings of enmity toward him?

The Gemara in Kiddushin (29b) records that there was a spiritual demon residing in the study hall of Abaye, and it harmed anybody who tried to enter. When Abaye heard that Rav Acha bar Yaakov was coming to study in his yeshivah, he issued instructions that nobody should provide Rav Acha with a place to sleep. This would leave him with no choice but to sleep in the study hall, where he would hopefully destroy the demon in the merit of his Torah study and piety.

As Abaye had hoped, Rav Acha found himself with nowhere to sleep and entered the study hall, at which point the demon appeared to him in the form of a seven-headed serpent. Rav Acha began to pray to Hashem, and each time he bowed down and prostrated himself, one of the serpent’s heads fell off. After seven bows, the serpent was destroyed. What was this demon, and in what way did Rav Acha defeat it by bowing down and prostrating himself?

Commenting on this Gemara, the Maharsha writes that the serpent’s seven heads correspond to the seven forces of spiritual impurity that were introduced to the world by the original serpent when it enticed Chavah to eat from the forbidden fruit by arguing that instead of adhering to Hashem’s command not to eat from the forbidden tree, she should instead act according to her own desires. The rectification of the serpent’s heretical outlook is to completely subjugate oneself to Hashem, and the ultimate demonstration of this obedience is bowing down in acknowledgement of one’s complete and total submissiveness to Hashem, which is precisely how Rav Acha bar Yaakov was able to neutralize the demon’s spiritual powers that emanated from the original serpent.

Similarly, the Panim Yafos suggests that Yaakov’s bowing was the key to his ability to defuse Esav’s wrath toward him. He explains that Yitzchak possessed eight measures of holiness, which is hinted to by the fact that the gematria of his name (208) is eight times 26, which is the numerical value of Hashem’s Ineffable Name. Of those eight measures, Yitzchak gave seven to Yaakov, whose name has a numerical value (182) equal to seven times 26. Yitzchak’s remaining measure of holiness was given to Esav, who also possessed the seven forces of impurity that were introduced by the original serpent. This is alluded to by the fact that the gematria of Esav (376) is equal to seven times 50 (the numerical value of tamei) plus 26, for the one measure of holiness that he received from his father.

With this introduction, the Panim Yafos explains that when Yaakov saw Esav and bowed down on the ground seven times, he wasn’t prostrating himself to Esav but rather to Hashem, as he acknowledged his complete subservience and prayed for Divine assistance to help him overpower Esav’s impurity. Just as each of Rav Acha bar Yaakov’s bows removed one of the demon’s heads, so too did each of Yaakov’s bows have the effect of negating one of Esav’s measures of spiritual impurity. After Yaakov had prostrated himself seven times, Esav’s impurity was neutralized and all that remained was one measure of holiness, which moved him to overcome his natural hatred of Yaakov and hug and kiss his brother with a full heart.

 Q: After listing the 12 sons of Yaakov, the Torah concludes (Bereishis 35:26) by stating that these are Yaakov’s sons who were born to him in Paddan-Aram. How can the Torah say that they were all born in Paddan-Aram when Binyamin was born in Canaan (Rashi, 35:18)?

 A: The Rema MiPano explains that when Rochel gave birth to her first child, she named him Yosef, saying (Bereishis 30:24), “Hashem should add for me another son.” Because of the principle that retzon yerei’av ya’aseh — Hashem does the will of those who fear Him — Rochel’s request for another son made it as if he was already born, and the Torah therefore views all of Yaakov’s sons as having been “born” in Padan Aram.


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.