By Rabbi Avi Billet
How old was Rivka when she was discovered by Avraham’s servant and brought to Canaan to marry Yitzchak?
You are a graduate of a yeshiva education and you still say “three years old.” And you justify this by saying that “three-year-olds were more sophisticated in those days.”
Or you never really came across this question and you say, “Hmmm. I never thought about that. How old was she?”
We do not know the answer because the Torah doesn’t tell us. The Torah also doesn’t tell us how old Yitzchak was when he was bound on the top of a mountain by his father. Yet we seem to have that one clear as well. Unequivocally, he was 37 years old.
Right? Wrong! At least about it being “unequivocally” a certain number.
Based on the midrash, Rashi ties together the Akeidah (binding of Yitzchak) with Rivka’s birth and Sara’s death –– all because they take place in the same few verses in the Torah. Since we know Sara was 127 when she died, simple mathematics produce Yitzchak being 37 at her death, and Rivka’s birth at that time. Since Yitzchak marries at age 40, Rivka becomes three at her nuptials.
Please do not misunderstand: there are no hard feelings against Rashi. I believe there are many ways to look at things and Rashi does not always have to be the bottom line. There is a reason why we have other commentaries and approaches which are considered valid, and we cannot continue to be satisfied with only one approach. Especially if that approach, at its core, really bothers us. And if it doesn’t bother us, it should either bother us, or we really do not understand it.
We ignore the fact that years can pass between verses. For example, in one pasuk Avraham is 86 as Yishmael is born (16:16), and in the very next pasuk (17:1), Avraham is 99 and about to circumcise himself. That’s a 13 year jump, and no one questions the validity of the change in years. So why do we accept that there wasn’t a gap between the Akeidah and Sara’s death? Ibn Ezra, for example, believes Yitzchak was 13 at the time of his binding. This would make Sara 103 at that time, a good 24 years before her death.
Where were we? Rivka’s age at her wedding.
The Talmud (Yevamot 61b) mentions Rivka’s marriageable status, and Tosafot quote a Sifrei (Devarim 397:7) that indicates Rivka was 14 at the time of her marriage. The Midrash puts Rivka in the category of pairs of people that lived to the same age, and she is partnered with Kehat, who lived to be 133. Working backwards, the conclusion is that Rivka was 14 on her wedding day and 34 when she gave birth to her twin sons.
While in our times we do not approve of girls marrying at age 14, we know it was once a reality. We are certainly aware that 14-year-olds in our society (hopefully not in our community) do things of a marital nature –– including having babies –– even if they are not emotionally mature enough to understand or foresee the outcome of their decisions.
On the other hand, some 14-year-olds may look and act like very mature adults.
I have yet to meet a three-year-old who fits into this category, and I never want to meet a three-year-old who fits into this category. To think that Rivka is three years old and understands the idea of offering water to camels, can physically shlep water back and forth tens of times to feed 10 camels, is given respect to make her own decision whether she’ll go with Avraham’s servant, is viewed as a marriageable prospect, and is appreciated by Yitzchak, as his wife, to fill the void in his life left by his mother’s passing is, unequivocally, untenable to my line of thinking.
Put her at age 14, however, and it makes a whole lot of sense.
So why are we so fascinated with age three? Why do we also accept blindly that Avraham was three when he discovered G-d? These midrashim are fascinating and very deep and I would not presume to say I understand them, nor would I suggest taking them solely at face value.
Perhaps they are meant to teach us at what age our children ought to be when we begin teaching and inculcating in them important knowledge and lessons about life and the religion to which we commit ourselves.
Or perhaps we want to be inspired by the sophistication of our Avot and Imahot even at such a young age. I, for one, am happy to be inspired by a 14-year-old, as I prefer for the three-year-olds to remain just as they are: cute kids.
Avi Billet appreciates your comments and thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.