“In Haran–A Kiss is Still a Kiss”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, Jacob, fleeing for his life from his brother Esau who has threatened to kill him, departs from Be’er Shevah to make his way to Haran, to dwell in the safety of his mother’s family.

When Jacob arrives in Haran, he meets his beautiful cousin, Rachel, at the well. Although weary from his long journey, Jacob is immediately energized at the sight of Rachel. He single-handedly rolls away the huge stone that covers the mouth of the well, and waters his Uncle Laban’s flocks. Scripture, describing Jacob’s subsequent actions, states (Genesis 29:11), “Va’yee’shahk Yaakov l’Rachel, va’yee’sah et koh’loh v’yayvk,” Jacob then kissed Rachel, and raised his voice and wept.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) states that Jacob cried because, through the Holy Spirit, he foresaw that Rachel would not be buried with him in the Machpelah cave, but would die in childbirth with Benjamin on the way to Canaan.

A second explanation, cited by Rashi, is that Jacob cried because he came empty-handed to Rachel’s family in Haran. Bemoaning the irony of his circumstances, Jacob recalls that when Abraham’s slave, Eliezer, came to Haran to find a wife for his father Isaac, he brought with him ten camels laden with gold, silver and jewelry.

Rashi cites the well-known Midrash that explains why Jacob arrived empty-handed. Apparently, Eliphaz, at the behest of his father Esau, had pursued Jacob when he left Be’er Shevah, in order to kill him. However, during his formative years, Eliphaz had a close relationship with his grandfather, Isaac, and was still under his influence. He therefore refused to kill his uncle. Instead, he allowed himself to be persuaded by Jacob to take all of Jacob’s possessions. Now totally impoverished, Jacob would be considered as if he were dead.

The obvious question that most religious students are reluctant to ask is, how does Jacob take the liberty of kissing his cousin Rachel? After all, the Code of Jewish Law, Even HaEzer, chapter 21, strictly forbids intimacy, even with members of one’s own family, unless they are very young children, with the exception of parents and their children.

Seeking to understand Jacob’s behavior, the commentators offer a host of reasons. The May’am Lo’ez (an extensive Ladino commentary on the entire Hebrew Bible, 17-18th century), explains that Jacob cries out loudly after publicly kissing Rachel because he realized what a terribly unseemly thing he had done. Citing rather ascetic traditions, the May’am Lo’ez insists that men are expected to distance themselves from women. They are not permitted to smell women’s perfumes or look at the flowers that adorn women’s hair. The May’am Lo’ez recalls that in ancient times, the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Israel, used to beat violators without compassion, and not release them until they vowed to keep away from women, and not raise their eyes to gaze at them. Again the May’am Lo’ez quotes a rabbinic tradition (which was rejected by most mainstream codifiers), that it is even forbidden for a man to kiss his sister, because this is the act of fools. Furthermore, even a father may not kiss his daughter or his granddaughter, nor may a mother kiss her male children, unless they are very young.

The May’am Lo’ez cites the Talmudic sage Ulah, who would kiss the hand of his older sisters out of respect when he would return from the yeshiva. Ulah, however, regretted what he did. So too, when Jacob realized his errant behavior, he cried.

There are those who contend that Jacob did not kiss Rachel on the lips, but rather on her head or her shoulder. Otherwise, Scripture would have specifically written that Jacob kissed Rachel on the face. The Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator), points out that when the Hebrew verb “to kiss” is followed by the “lamed” prefix–-“to Rachel,” as in the case of “Va’yee’shahk Yaakov l’Rachel, it means that Jacob did not kiss Rachel on her face, but rather on her head, shoulder or cheek, as was customary in those days in that region.

Most other commentators, including Rashi, agree that the Hebrew verb “nashek” to kiss, in Scripture, always means on the mouth.

The Haamek Davar (The Netziv, R’ Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, author of Haamek Davar, 1817-1893) states that we see from Jacob’s crying, that his kissing Rachel was not meant to be a frivolous sexual act, but rather an expression of closeness and fondness for a relative. And even if the kissing took place in public, he would not be scorned.

There is a view, cited in the Midrash, which maintains that Jacob wept in response to the reaction of the onlookers who started whispering to one another, accusing Jacob of introducing immorality by kissing a woman in public. His weeping was intended to emphasize that the kiss was not frivolous, but a sign of respect for a relative. Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer 7, derives from this that one must always take into consideration what others will think of their actions, as well as what is correct in G-d’s eyes. Others also learn from this, that a victim of unwarranted accusations is justified in being upset and moved to tears.

In a fascinating analysis of the narrative, the Daat Sofrim (an extensive compilation of Scriptural commentaries, edited by Rabbi Chaim D. Rabinowitz,  1911-2001), notes that the Torah records many instances in which the patriarchs often acted as if they barely cared for their relatives. Abraham sends out Hagar and Ishmael and binds Isaac, his son. Jacob “steals” the birthright from his brother, Esau, for a bowl of lentil soup. Rebecca assists in taking away the blessings from one son, in order to give it to a second child.

In stark contrast, notes the Daat Sofrim, in the encounter between Rachel and Jacob, we see a beautiful scene of abundant familial love in the time of the patriarchs.

There is a fascinating discussion cited in Rabbi Getsel Ellinson’s volume entitled “Ha’eesha V’ha’mitzvot” (Woman and the Mitzvot) volume 2, regarding what type of touching between sexes is prohibited. Is all touching between men and women prohibited, or is only hugging and kissing for the sake of lovemaking prohibited? Is kissing, as an acknowledgment of friendship, permitted?

Today, the debate regarding the propriety of male-female contact in Judaism is hardly resolved. It’s hard to believe that it all started with a kiss in Haran.

May you be blessed.