The Blindness of Isaac (Parshat Toldot)


The Torah records that Isaac went blind before he gave his blessing to Jacob (Genesis 27:1). The Talmud (Megillah 17a) establishes that Isaac was 123 years old at the time of the blessing. By contrast Abraham and Moses lived out their lives with all of their faculties (Genesis 25:8 and Deuteronomy 34:7, respectively). Even though Jacob’s eyesight weakened at the end of his life  many commentators explain that he could still see the forms of people (Genesis 48:10). Since Isaac lived 180 years (Genesis 35:28) why did Hashem take away his eyesight with 1/3 of his life remaining?  

Hashem’s decisions involve many factors some understandable by mortals while others remain within the divine realm. Unlike human justice, Hashem’s decisions take into account all concerned parties albeit allowing for a delay in implementation. In addition Hashem’s justice extends over past, present, and future events with respect to the judged, in this case Isaac. For example factor 1 occurred before the birth of Isaac. Factors 2-5 occurred during the life of Isaac. However the impact of factor 5 applies to the Jewish people throughout the ages. The following table lists the involved parties together with sources in the written and oral Torahs.

NumberPartyVerse (Genesis)SourceFactor
1Abimelech20:16Megillah 28aCurse
2Divine22Genesis Rabbah 65:10Predisposition
3Esau26:34-35Megillah 28aWickedness of Esau
4Isaac27Genesis Rabbah 65:9For his benefit
5Jacob27:6-13Midrash Tanchuma 8To receive blessing

It is interesting to note that Rashi on Genesis 27:1 lists factors 2, 3, and 5 while omitting 1 and 4. (Perhaps the omitted factors do not reflect the plain meaning of the text.)

Curse of Abimelech – Past

After the destruction of Sodom, Abraham moved to Gerar in the area of the Philistines (Genesis 20:1). For self-protection, Abraham claimed that Sarah was his sister (ibid. 20:2). Mislead by this claim, Abimelech, king of the Philistines, took Sarah to be his wife (ibid.). Hashem appeared to Abimelech in a dream and informed him that in fact Sarah was Abraham’s wife (ibid 20:3). Abimelech returned Sarah to her husband and appeased her with gifts (ibid 20:16). The Torah uses the expression כסות עינים, literally eye-covering, implying that the matter is now closed. However the Talmud (Megillah 28a) understands this term as a curse leading to blindness because Abilmech was upset by this deception. In effect he is saying, “You blinded me in this ruse so should your offspring be similarly blinded”. The reader may ask, “How does Hashem’s justice operate?” First, Isaac did not mislead Abimelech, in fact he was not even born at this point. In addition the curse did not take effect for at least 100 years. Obviously other factors are involved.

Divine Contact – Present

Genesis Rabbah 65:20 identifies the binding of Isaac (Akeida) as a contributing factor to his eventual blindness. It is interesting to note that the Akeida occurred when Isaac was 37 years old but his blindness developed over 60 years later. We see that in terms of divine judgement a factor may occur early in one’s life but come to affect the person only much later.  This is similar to a physical (or medical) predisposition that has minimal effect during a person’s youth but becomes more serious in old age. Specifically the midrash highlights the following factors at the Akeida which affected Isaac’s eyesight: 

  1. The tears of the angels entered Isaacs’s eyes, left an impression (predisposition to blindness), and led to a deterioration of his eyesight as he aged.
  2. Isaac gazed at the divine presence (שכינה) at the time of his binding on the altar.  As the verse states (Exodus 33:20), “… for no human can see My face and live”.

The commentators of this midrash are troubled by a literal reading of the text. How can angels which are spiritual have physical tears? In addition Isaac did not suffer from blindness until many years later and his eventual passing was more than a 140 years after the Akeida. The commentator ענף יוסף on this midrash explains that the tears of the angels are a figure of speech to express the link between the earthly and spiritual worlds when one performs Hashem’s commandments, especially when a commandment entails sacrificing one’s life. The commentator עץ יוסף explains the two factors as causative, along the lines of הא והא גרמא, literally this and that were causes, (i.e. multiple causes leading to a predisposition for blindness). The divine contact at the Akeida created a bond between Isaac and Hashemwhich would not allow for deviation from the divine path, even with Isaac’s offspring, without serious consequences.

Wickedness of Esau – Present

The same Talmudic source states that gazing at the face of an evil person, as Isaac frequently looked at Esau caused his blindness. The Talmud then questions, “Did not the curse of Abilmelch cause the blindness?” The Talmud answers, “הא והא גרמא” meaning that divine justice takes in to account multiple factors.

The principle of juxtaposition, verses before and after a seminal verse, (סמוכים) is an important technique in decoding the Torah’s somewhat hidden messages. In our case the critical verse is Genesis 27:1 describing Isaac’s blindness. Midrash Tanchuma 8 on parsha Toldot examines the verses before and after this verse to explain Isaac’s blindness. The verses immediately before 27:1 (ibid 26:34-35) state that Esau married Canaanite women (ibid. 26:34-35), when Isaac was 100 years old, to the disappointment of his parents, Isaac and Rivka. In particular the midrash states that Isaac saw the smoke of their idolatrous offerings and was upset. Hashem decided that it was better to blind Isaac so that he would not continue to see the desecration of Hashem in his household. In addition with Isaac confined at home he would neither see nor hear of Esau’s additional failings. Rivka was not as affected because she was used to idolatry having been raised in such an environment.

The midrash then links verses Genesis 27:3-4, which follow 27:1, relating to the meat that Esau would hunt and feed his father as an additional reason for his blindness. Isaac was pleased that Esau fulfilled the commandment of honouring parents. However Isaac actually enjoyed the meat and to a certain extent overlooked Esau’s failings. This midrash considers this meat as a bribe and quotes the verse in Deuteronomy 17:19, “… the bribe will blind the eyes of the wise”. In a similar vein Genesis Rabbah 65:7 quotes Exodus 23:7, “…the bribe will blind the clever”. This midrash adds that a parent who raises a wicked son will suffer blindness. In summary Isaac’s tolerance of Esau’s failings, in the language of the midrash (ibid.) justification of his behaviour, was a factor in his blindness. One can say in the vernacular,” By turning a blind eye to Esau’s fallings, Hashem turned Isaac’s eyes to blindness”.

Isaac’s Request – Present

Genesis Rabbah 65:9 states that Isaac requested suffering from Hashem’s hand (יסורים) to purify him in this world to enter the world to come with his sins forgiven. Hashem agreed to his request and assigned an affliction. Based upon the above reasons, Hashem chose blindness especially because Isaac turned a blind eye to Esau’s failings. By contrast Jacob chose sickness before death to allow one to finalize his affairs before leaving this world.

Jacob’s Blessing – Present and Future

Midrash Tanchuma 8 explains that Hashem blinded Isaac so that Jacob would receive the primary blessing by appearing to be Esau. If Isaac had his vision he would have easily seen through this disguise and given the primary blessing to Esau. Even though Isaac also blessed Esau his blessing applied outside of Israel. Hashem foresaw that the Jews would suffer greatly under the dominion of Rome. Isaac’s prophetic statement (Genesis 27:22), “The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau” is interpreted by the Talmud (Gittin 57b) as referring to the destruction of the second temple and the long exile of Edom. One could shudder if Hashem had allowed Isaac to bless Esau with mastery over Israel. Therefore Hashem had to thwart Isaac’s plan however the choice of blindness was influenced by the above factors.    


There are many reasons for Hashem’s decisions, some understandable by man and others in the divine realm. Through multiple sources in the oral law, Talmud and midrash, we obtain a glimpse of the divine mind and relate to his judgement through the principle of הא והא גרמא. In addition one may examine Hashem’s judgement though the lens of time (i.e. past, present, and future). Hence the reasons for divine judgement may not be apparent until years in the future. However we know that Hashem’s judgement is correct as the verse says (Deuteronomy 32:4),”… perfect is his work, for all his paths are justice”.

1 thought on “The Blindness of Isaac (Parshat Toldot)”

  1. Interesting point of view. Im curious to think what type of impact this would have globally?

    Comment: This article focused on the biblical text but could be extended to a global view. The author in the future will present articles with a more universal view and in terms of current events in the section of Zionism. YG

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