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A Sleight of Hands: Multiple Artistic Midrashim on Jacob’s Blessing his Grandsons

How do artists interpret Jacob’s hand movement that gives the younger son the better blessing? From Rembrandt to the medieval “Golden Haggadah,” artists have created interpretations. Dr. Ronit Steinberg takes us into the pictures, offering art as midrash.

One of the most famous scenes from Parshat Vayechi shows Jacob blessing his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. The scene is a well-known dramatic event.

Jacob changes his hand-position and with his right hand blessing the younger son Ephraim who is on the left. The right hand is considered as the more important hand. Therefore, Joseph concludes that Jacob, who was already old with poor vision, got confused and thought that Ephraim was the eldest son.

When Joseph tries to remove his father’s hand, Jacob says to him, “I know, my son, I know. He too shall become a people, and he too shall be great. Yet his younger brother shall be greater than he…” (Genesis 48:19)

Jacob explains he understands what is happening around him and his action is done with full awareness and intention.

Midrash Bereshit Rabbah refers to the repetition of the word “I knew” twice, and explains, “What you have not discovered – I have discovered. Things that have been revealed to you – even more so to me.”

One explanation for the meaning of the Midrash, is that Jacob agrees with Josef, that there is a great difficulty in discriminating between brothers. This happened to Josef himself in his youth, it happened also to Jacob himself who for many years ran away from Esau, his brother.

In Genesis, the theme also recurs in the stories of Cain and Abel as well as Isaac and Ishmael. Jacob knows this, and therefore says to Joseph: I knew what you know. But he also knows things of which Joseph is unaware – that sometimes the eldest is not necessarily suitable for his position and it is appropriate to choose another brother to bear the responsibility, as in the case of Jacob’s two sons, Reuben and Yehuda.

This is not a simple dilemma, and the position of the hands may emphasize this. In the end, Jacob makes the choice and does not let Josef change his mind.

Visually, it is a very graphic scene, and indeed many painters over the generations have emphasized the placement of the hands, as can be seen in the two manuscripts in front of us. In one of them, the “Golden Haggadah,” the crosswise placement of the hands is even separated from the boys’ heads.

Rembrandt also painted the scene, but in his work, the hand crosswise placement disappears. The artificial and theatrical movement of the changed hand was less suitable to his style. Instead, he chose to show the gentle movement of Joseph’s hand under his father’s arm, trying to deflect it to the side. Joseph’s reverence for his father, a much more delicate and complex emotion, was more in line with Rembrandt’s artistic style than the dramatic movement of Jacob’s hands.

In the context of the Midrash I mentioned, while the crosswise hands placement does express this complexity, in Rembrandt’s painting, Jacob’s determination is much more emphasized. The reason for the determination can stem from the Christian context, in which Jacob clearly chooses Christianity over Judaism, or Protestantism over Catholicism. This claim is based, among other things, on the difference in the appearance between the brothers. Menashe, looking short, chubby and dark, while Ephraim is tall, thin and pale.

Another claim rests upon the wealth and splendor of the scene, which although taking place in a tent, there is a large bed with a red cover, a sign of royalty, with the characters dressed in fancy clothing with jewels. This wealth raises another explanation. The scene was depicted this way, because the rich customer of the piece, experienced a similar case in his family, and Rembrandt painted the piece in order to encourage him and support him in his inheritance struggle.



Dr. Ronit Steinberg is a Lecturer in Art History, Modern and Jewish Art. She is the department head and academic advisor for the Jewish Art History and the Gender and Feminism tracks. Dr. Steinberg completed her PhD in the art history department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her joint book with Prof. Katrin Kogman-Appel, The Visual Arts in Jewish Society, a publication of The Open University of Israel, will soon be published.

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