The Yeshiva of Shem & Ever: A midrashic view of cultural legacies

“Avraham returned to his youths.” So ends the episode of the Akeda. After the repeated refrain of “the two of them went on together,” after the aborted sacrifice, Yitzhak simply disappears from the story. The text could lead us to believe that only Avraham came down from Mount Moria to his waiting servants. 

Nor is Yitzhak mentioned during the period of mourning for his mother, Sarah. A psychological reading of the text might take his absence to mean that his near sacrifice at the hands of his own father had led to estrangement. Indeed, he is later pictured as coming from Be’er Hai Roei, the place of his banished brother Yishmael. Could Yitzhak have concluded that he, like his brother, was no longer his father’s “beloved, only one”?

The text is silent on the matter. But misunderstandings between parents and sons occur often enough in the Torah to make this interpretation plausible. Yitzhak, after all, is not said to have heard the messenger’s command to Avraham not to harm him, nor the voice commanding Avraham to offer him as an Olah. He could be forgiven for thinking that the entire ordeal was devised by his father as some sort of test. Hence, his absence from the story right after the Akeda would be understandable.

Learning Torah with a son of Noah

But our sages, in the Talmud and midrashim, bring another explanation: Yitzhak was off studying in the yeshiva of Shem, the favored son of Noah!

“Avraham returned to his youths [after the Akeda].” Where was Yitzhak? R. Berechya in the name of the Rabbis explained that Avraham sent Yitzchak to Shem  in order to study Torah.  A parable: This is like a woman who became wealthy as a result of the skilled use of a spindle, and therefore said, ‘Since from this spindle I have been successful, I shall forever keep it with me.’ Similarly Avraham said, “All that I have is the result of my delving into Torah and Mitzvot.” Therefore he never wished that this learning depart from his offspring. (B’reishit Rabba 56:11)
 וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל נְעָרָיו, וְיִצְחָק הֵיכָן הוּא, רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה בְּשֵׁם רַבָּנָן דְּתַמָּן, שְׁלָחוֹ אֵצֶל שֵׁם לִלְמֹד מִמֶּנּוּ תּוֹרָה, מָשָׁל לְאִשָּׁה שֶׁנִּתְעַשְּׁרָה מִפִּלְכָּהּ, אָמְרָה הוֹאִיל וּמִן הַפֶּלֶךְ הַזֶּה הִתְעַשַּׁרְתִּי, עוֹד אֵינוֹ זָז מִתַּחַת יָדִי לְעוֹלָם. כָּךְ אָמַר אַבְרָהָם, כָּל שֶׁבָּא לְיָדִי אֵינוֹ אֶלָּא בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁעָסַקְתִּי בַּתּוֹרָה וּבַמִּצְווֹת, לְפִיכָךְ אֵינִי רוֹצֶה שֶׁתָּזוּז מִזַּרְעִי לְעוֹלָם.

Nor is Yitzhak the only Patriarch who gets to go to yeshiva. The sages of the Talmud made use of a similar midrash to explain a perceived gap of 14 years in Ya’akov’s life:

Rabba said that Rav Yitzḥak bar Shmuel bar Marta said: Studying Torah is greater and more important than honoring one’s father and mother, and a proof of this is that for all those years that our father Ya’akov spent in the house of Ever studying Torah he was not punished for having neglected to fulfill the mitzva of honoring one’s parents. (Megilla 16b-17a)
אמר רבה אמר רב יצחק בר שמואל בר מרתא גדול תלמוד תורה יותר מכבוד אב ואם שכל אותן שנים שהיה יעקב אבינו בבית עבר לא נענש.

What are we to make of this notion? Are we to conclude that Yitzhak put on a suit and sat down in a yeshiva classroom to study Torah, or that Ya’akov enrolled in a smichah program in Mesopatamia? Naturally, there will always be some who interpret midrashim in such a literal fashion. But, to my mind, such a simplistic understanding misses the point entirely. The less literal interpretation is both richer and more meaningful.

The teachings of Shem and Ever

Let us try to drill down and see what this midrash may be teaching us. Why it is specifically the Beit Midrash of Shem in which Yitzhak studies? And why specifically “the house of Ever” in which Yaakov is studying? What is special about Shem and Ever?

Ever was the grandson of Shem, the son of Noah. Shem was the dutiful son, who, together with his brother Yafet, spared his father’s shame after Ham’s indiscretion. We don’t know exactly what happened, only that Ham put his father to shame in some way related to his sexuality, and that he boasted of the fact to his brothers. Upon hearing of the indiscretion,  Shem took the lead in covering his father’s nakedness without himself committing the same violation.

Notably, when Noah sobers up and realizes what Ham has done, he doesn’t curse Ham, but rather, Ham’s son, Canaan. Is this a statement on how filial infidelity is passed down to ones’ children? We could see this as Noah’s saying, “Just as you, Ham, have failed in your filial duty to your father, so will your son, Canaan, inherit your disrespect. He, too, will fail to respect his father, and will pass this trait down to his descendants.

But just as Noah curses Canaan, he blesses his other two sons:

Blessed be the Eternal, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Yafet, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant. (Genesis 9:26-27)

Shem is singled out for filial faithfulness. He is the son who took the lead in saving his father’s dignity. It isn’t too great a stretch to imagine that he, too, will pass this trait down to his own children; they, too, will come to respect there father. Moreover, later on, Shem is identified as “the father of all the children of Ever”. This reminds me a bit of the statement that “you’re Jewish if your grandchildren are Jewish.” Shem managed to pass on his traditions not only to his children, but to his grandchildren and great grandchildren down through the generations.

Thus, the “beit midrash” where Yaakov studies, and which is not counted a failure in his filial duties to his father, is the school of Ever, the grandson of Shem, who has received from his father and grandfather a lesson in reverence for the tradition and person of ones’ forebears. To say that Yaakov “learned in the yeshiva of Ever” is to say that he learned the lessons that Ever had to teach.

And Yitzhak? I said above that Yitzhak’s going off to study at the Beit Midrash of Shem was an alternative to the psychological interpretation of Yitzhak’s absence. But perhaps the two interpretations aren’t so far off. Perhaps Yitzhak was indeed estranged from his father after the Akeda. Might the midrash be telling us that he needed the lessons of Shem, the dutiful son of Noah before he could return to Avraham at last?

The “Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever” can be read as alluding to the continuity of cultural memory over many generations: just as Shem was the physical ancestor of the Jewish Patriarchs and (at least most of) the Matriarchs, so was he the progenitor of their moral and spiritual identity.

In fact, the book of Genesis is all about the lessons taught to the fathers of the the nation of Israel. In the case of Avraham, the “Rosh Yeshiva” is God Himself, who undertakes the education of the founder of the nation. But in the case of Avraham’s descendants, the lessons are taught obliquely, through the circumstances in which these founding fathers find themselves and the tests they undergo. Sometimes, they—and we, the readers—learn through failing these tests, at least the first time around. Just as Shem and Ever were their teachers, so are they our teachers.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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