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D'var Torah: Vayishlach

There’s not a lot of love shown in Genesis. In the readings up to now we are told that Isaac loved Rivkah and Jacob loved Rachel. Also Shechem loved Dinah but that didn’t work out. That’s it between couples. There’s parent-child love too and we’ll come to that later. One way that people show love for each other is with a kiss, so let’s talk about the kiss in today’s parashah.

There are some fifteen words and phrases in the Tanakh, ten in the Torah,1 which are naqud, “dotted.” One likely explanation is that the dots were inserted to call attention to some important teaching in connection with the words. Many researchers believe that the source of these dots comes from the practice of ancient scribes of marking words or letters that should be deleted when making copies. However, because of the holiness of the Torah scroll, copyists never left out anything—they even kept the dots.

Another possibility, according to Avot d’Rabbi Natan,2 is that the marks were inserted by Ezra, traditionally the final editor of the Torah, to mark doubtful words or letters. According to this midrash, those words and letters are to be deleted when Elijah comes and resolves the myriad scribal problems that exist with the text. The midrash goes on to tell us that by using the dots, Ezra is hedging his bets, saying in effect, “If Elijah comes and says to me, ‘Why did you write the text in this fashion?’ I shall say to him, ‘That is why I dotted these passages.’ And if he says to me, ‘You have written it well,’ only then I shall remove the dots.”

These dots are found even on the oldest synagogue documents which have only the bare consonants and vowel letters, so their presence is quite old. Only the dots found in the Torah and Psalms are mentioned in the Talmud or midrashim, and only a single instance is noted in the Mishnah (written before the end of the second century CE).3 No explanation of the dots is given; apparently by that time the meaning of the dots had been lost. Thus the latest limit for their origin is during the first century CE while the earliest time for their origin is unclear; but there seems to be an early limit since the Septuagint (mid-third century BCE) shows no sign of their use. Most likely they became incorporated into the writing sometime between the first century BCE and the first century CE.

In the middle of parashat Vayishlach we see perhaps the most famous instance of the dotted letters; this comes in the story of the meeting between Jacob and Esau. After many years apart, the two brothers meet and the Torah describes this meeting:

And Esau ran to him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him and they cried (Gen. 33:4).

If one examines the Torah carefully one will notice that there is a dot above every letter of the word, va-yish-a-kehu, “and he kissed [him].”

In his midrash R. Nathan explains that the word is “dotted to teach that he did not kiss him sincerely.” The key here is sincerity. In the two other cases of dotted words in Genesis (there are also two additional instances where a single letter has a dot over it), those dotted words seem to imply hidden intentions: first, in the story where the three men who visited Abraham4 asked him where Sarah was, the word the men used that means “to him” is dotted, implying that they knew very well where she was and thus their question wasn’t an honest one.

Second, in the Joseph story, where the travel of the brothers to Shechem to graze the flocks5 is mentioned, one word is dotted and commentators claim that this shows that the brothers’ trip was for their own benefit—they went to seek their own pleasure—and not to benefit their father’s herds, because the root of the ancient name for Shechem (belah) meant “to enjoy life.” So our talmudic commentators interpret these cases of dotted words as indications of duplicity. But naturally, other interpretations exist too, and today’s dotted word has a really unique interpretation.

In their commentary on the dotted word in today’s portion, some talmudic and medieval rabbis maintain that the dots show that Esau did not kiss his brother Jacob, rather he bit or at least intended to bite him.6 Why bite? For the answer, let’s look at the wordplay.

neshi’kah — a kiss, nun-shin-yud-koof-heh
neshi’khah — a bite, nun-shin-yud-khaf-heh

It’s almost the same Hebrew word, they even sound almost alike, and Esau’s attempted biting of Jacob shows that Esau remained insincere in his reconciliation with Jacob and the dots indicate in some sense that the word is not to be taken at its true meaning—that instead, Esau’s intention contradicted his action.

I guess this is a biblical example of “tough love,” no?

Shabbat shalom.

Discussion: Kissing isn’t the only way people show love for each other. What are some of the other ways people demonstrate their love—not only between husband and wife—and what are some examples from the Torah?

December 2014


1. Gen. 16:5; 18:9; 19:33; 33:4; 37:12. Num. 3:39; 9:10; 21:30; 29:15. Deut. 29:28.
2. Avot d’Rabbi Natan, v. 2, ch. 37, s.v. Esrah Nakudot (30b)
3. Pesachim 9:2 on Num. 9:10
4. Gen. 18:9
5. Gen 37:12
6. Genesis Rabbah 78:9; Jacob b. Asher in Ba’al Haturim

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