Ya’akov, ‘ish tam yosheiv ohelim,’ is our guide


Ya’akov Avinu is described in our parasha, Toldot, as “ish tam yosheiv ohelim” (“a complete individual who dwelt in tents.” Rashi helps us understand this phrase by contrasting Ya’akov to Eisav. In his view, Eisav was a hunter who “captured wild animals and birds with his bow” and ensnared people with duplicitous words. In contrast, Ya’akov, who spoke directly and forthrightly, was inexpert in the art of treachery.

The Abarbanel explains “ish tam” in a similar vein: “But Ya’akov was an ish tam who was not very sharp in the sense that he was neither a master of deceit nor a man of the field.” 

The Midrash Tanna de-Vei Eliyahu bases its analysis of our phrase upon a creative interpretation of a pasuk found in the last paragraph of the Shema:

“V’asu l’hem tzitzit al kanfei vigdehihem l’dorotom” (“and the Jewish people will make fringes for themselves on the corners of their garments throughout their generations” (Sefer Bamidbar 15:38).  It suggests that “l’dorotom” can be read without vowels as “l’dor tam.” In addition, it maintains that “there can be no other referent for the word tam other than Ya’akov, since the verse states that ‘Ya’akov was complete.’ This means that he never participated in acts of violent stealing, illicit physical relations, and murder.”

It is important to note that this interpretation constitutes an indirect comparison to Eisav who, as Talmud Bavli, Baba Batra indicates, engaged in these exact actions prior to meeting Ya’akov and selling his birthright to him. (16b)

The portrait of Ya’akov that emerges from these sources is one of a nearly flawless individual who personified honesty, spoke with total integrity and abhorred his brother’s pernicious behaviors. This image is underscored when we examine the final two words of our phrase, “yosheiv ohelim.” What exactly were these tents? What was the Torah communicating to us by adding this to Ya’akov’s description? The answers to these questions are both diverse and fascinating and reveal as much about the commentator as they do about Ya’akov. 

The Netziv, in his work, Ha’emek Davar, opines that these ohelim were “tents” of Torah and Tefilah, that Ya’akov was a young talmid chacham who was steeped in Torah study and the art of heartfelt prayer. As such, he was surely fitting to become the founder of the Jewish people. This interpretation clearly reflects the Netziv’s Lithuanian intellectual heritage.

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The Sforno, a true Jewish Renaissance man who mastered Torah analysis, philosophy, mathematics, philology and medical science, interprets “yosheiv ohelim” in two very different ways. The first perhaps represents his grasp of the animal husbandry of his time, positing that these ohelim are to be taken at face value as the tents and other structures used by sheepherders of his day. The second reveals the Sforno’s spiritual orientation, viewing ohelim as centers for intellectual and spiritual speculation to enable the apprehension of Hashem’s glory and thereby become sanctified.

Rashi’s understanding of the term, ohelim, demonstrates his creative use of midrashic texts. In his view, these ohelim were none other than the study halls of Shem and Aver. By mastering the unique massorot of these scholars, Ya’akov was able to become a true talmid chacham. With his worldview based entirely upon thorough knowledge of the principles and axioms of our holy Torah, Ya’akov was transformed into an ish tam. 

In my estimation, ish tam is directly modified by the expression “yosheiv ohelim.” Even though the latter is a noun, rather than an adjective, when taken together, ish tam yosheiv ohelim becomes a complete description of the young Ya’akov Avinu. This perspective enables us to understand how Ya’akov was able to maintain his spiritual greatness, even in the midst of Lavan’s hostile and corrupt household.

As the embodiment of Torah and honesty, nothing could dissuade him from the truth of his convictions and the rectitude of his actions.

Chazal teach us that Ya’akov’s face appeared to Yosef during his great trial with the wife of Potiphar. Just as Yosef was guided by the vision of his father, may Ya’akov Avinu’s image ever appear before us, and serve as our guide when we confront the many challenges of our lives. V’chane yihi ratzon.